On W-120301 – Sarah Oppenheimer’s radical architectural intervention into space and time

Sarah Oppenheimer. W‑120301. 2012. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Nathan L. and Suzanne F. Cohen Contemporary Art Endowment; and gift of the Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art, BMA 2012.1. © Sarah Oppenheimer. Photo by James Ewing

Sarah Oppenheimer. W‑120301. 2012. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Nathan L. and Suzanne F. Cohen Contemporary Art Endowment; and gift of the Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art, BMA 2012.1. © Sarah Oppenheimer. Photo by James Ewing

The BMA’s Big Table Connections program brings together experts —from neuroscientists and engineers to choreographers and product designers— to explore ideas related to works of art in the Contemporary Wing. On June 7, Goucher College philosophy professor John Rose joined Baltimore-based artist Leah Cooper to discuss Sarah Oppenheimer’s W-120301, a radical architectural intervention that uses mirrors to provoke new experiences of space and time. Here are some of his thoughts:

Sarah Oppenheimer, Architectural Intervention W-120301 beckons to us from the open region of the timing of time and the spacing of space, from the open region of possibility.  This open region is the site of interaction of our conscious intentions and the resonances of the worlding objects around us.  The openness of the world is space/time where our consciousness and the world intertwine and meaning arises. Meanings have already arisen in that opening, and those meanings are our tradition and our history.  That tradition and history is often taken for the “truth” of the world.  The questions then arise, “How can we both engage and disrupt that tradition? How can we see the meaning arising in an opening of space and time, yet also step into other possibilities in that opening?”  Oppenheimer’s intervention achieves a rare opportunity to experience that opening by playing and subverting the ways in which we usually step into the meaningful space of a museum.

We know from Husserl’s Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness that perception is always perspectival and temporal. We have to walk around an object to see it from various perspectives. We have to retain the previous perspectives and anticipate future perspectives as we weave together those perspectives in time into a meaningful object.  Opening the space between two floors and the stairwell, W-120301 plays with our spatial intentions towards objects by unfolding multiple perspectives.

When we first see it upon entering the third floor gallery, it appears as another two dimensional painting in a room of paintings of abstract, yet colored, geometrical space.  We see a black parallelogram on a wall; its four sides with opposite equal acute angles, opposite equal obtuse angles are an already familiar shape.  “Might it be a rhombus?” we might ask ourselves, if we were to bother.  We might not even bother to have a look at it right away, as we glance around the room.  Without fore-knowledge of the intervention, we might not wander closer.  But when we do, we realize that we can see into its space.

We get a question!  “What is there in here?”  But the “in here” of its space takes us elsewhere.  We are not sure where we are looking.  Usually, we move around an object to pick up further perspectives that we weave into the story we tell ourselves about that object.  Paintings on the wall don’t allow us to do that so much, but this is no longer a painting on a wall.  It is an inviting space, a hole in the wall, a rabbit hole to jump down?  The guard keeps us back from leaning over into and looking down.  But we see something: more geometric shapes, glimpses into other rooms.  But where are we looking?  The questions grow.

Oppenheimer’s wormhole reminds us it is impossible to take in an object all at once.  But here, to have an intention towards this space, you have to be two or more people.  We send our friend out to find the other ways into this space.  Is it above?  We are on the top floor.  Below?  How far?  It cannot be viewed all in one “space” or in one “time,” which perhaps reminds us that no object can be viewed in an exhaustive way from all perspectives all in one time and space.   As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Truth can surely stand on one leg, but with two it will be able to walk and get around.”

We find ourselves doing what we never do in a museum: playing, engaging the space/time of the exhibit.  To a degree, we become ek-static; we are outside ourselves.  Both the object itself as space/time whose properties elude us and the gestural movement through it to the larger space/time it reveals in this musing space it makes manifest, takes us away from our usual modes of gathering of intentional experiences and make sense of objects.  It gives us the opportunity to do what we rarely get to do afresh: participate with the opening of the world in letting meaning arise.

John M. Rose, Professor of Philosophy, Goucher College
13 June 2014

What do you think? Have you seen Oppenheimer’s work at the BMA or other institutions? How did you react to it? Are there other works of art that you’ve encountered that have left you thinking about time and space in new ways? Tell us about them below.

The Big Table Connections takes place on the first Saturday of every month at 2 p.m. Meet experts in related fields as they share their insights in the galleries, then participate in art-making activities that delve into the ideas behind the artwork. Join us on July 5th as master lighting designer Glenn Shrum addresses Dan Flavin’s Untitled (To Barnett Newman for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”). Participate in a hands-on exploration of color mixing with light.  

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