Texas-born and New York City-based artist Sarah Oppenheimer didn’t anticipate that the installation of “C-010106,” her first outdoor (and largest) artwork, would involve flying 10-foot-by-20-foot sheets of glass by crane through windy skies under a tornado warning. Welcome to Texas. But despite working under these tumultuous, high-stakes conditions, Oppenheimer says that the install has been an amazing experience. The excitement and camaraderie among members of the installation team is palpable. As we chat, the contruction foreman walks by and jocularly asks, “Do you see that crack in the glass?” Oppenheimer chuckles in response. “The install team has been brilliant in their attention, care, and coordination,” she says.
A project nearly five years in the making, Oppenheimer’s “C-010106” is the latest acquisition by The University of Texas at Austin’s public art program, Landmarks, whose collection includes nearly 50 modern and contemporary works by some of the most prominent artists of our time. Landmarks commissioned Oppenheimer to create a work that would activate the new pedestrian bridge between the Engineering Education and Research Center and the new Gary L. Thomas Energy Engineering Building, both designed by New York City-based Ennead Architects with Jacobs as architect of record. The initial concept for the artwork was developed in concert with the design of the pedestrian bridge, allowing the two to function as a singular, integrated design.
It is only a truly compelling work that can beckon one to return to it again and again and again, each time discovering something new about the work, the space that surrounds it, and perhaps even about oneself. Such is the case with “C-010106.” (I’ve visited three times so far and hope to return soon to experience it at night.)
The work comprises two precisely crafted glass forms — carefully composed to modulate pedestrian flow while generating a complex subjective experience for the viewer — situated at opposite ends of the pedestrian bridge: one running along the north-south axis and another, perpendicular to the first, running east-west. Four pieces of glass make up each form: Two transparent 10-foot-by-20-foot panels sandwich two narrower panels, which are arranged at a 45-degree angle to the ground plane and function like a two-way mirror — a surface that is simultaneously reflective and transparent.
Though some may be inclined to call these forms “simple,” a more apt descriptor would be “distilled.” Each form slips through an aperture cut into the surface of the bridge. The optics at play, generated by the precisely angled reflective surfaces, produce the effect of a periscope, offering views below the bridge to one who stands on its surface and surface views to those below. The result is a mind-bending spatial layering of environment and self. While the forms themselves are rigid and orthogonal, the unexpected perceptions they generate invite exploration, encouraging people to view the work from a variety of vantage points. This phenomenon is key to Oppenheimer’s artistic vision. These are not objects to be viewed at a distance, but rather mechanisms for awareness and engagement that are only brought to life by people who interact with them.
“I’m interested in how architecture operates as a nexus of social connection,” explains Oppenheimer. “It makes us rethink our relationship to the space we inhabit and, most importantly, to other living networks.”
Much of her work is an exploration of spatial adjacencies, including several that unexpectedly cut through the interior cross-sections of buildings. “C-010106” was initially intended to be located indoors like the artist’s other projects, but plans changed once she saw the unique spatial conditions provided by the bridge. Instead of spanning a road or body of water, the bridge hovers above a steady flow of pedestrian traffic, which enlivens the experience even further. Because each form is collocated with a pedestrian axis, they function like a switch modulating this flow of traffic.
Unconstrained by the typical boundaries of a room — the spatial conditions in which she is accustomed to exhibiting in a museum — Oppenheimer was surprised by the impact her work could have on the space around it. “Having never made a work that addresses a larger urban plan — a campus in this case — I was struck by how something so relatively small could have such a large resonance,” says Oppenheimer. “I’m excited about that. Suddenly there are no rooms; there are just these different flows.”
Not surprisingly, Oppenheimer’s art defies easy description, and photographs don’t fully capture the dynamic and complex nature of her work. Accordingly, she eschews terms like “sculpture” and “installation,” which typically denote static objects, opting instead for terms like “apparatus” and “architecture.” In fact, her design processes closely parallel those of architects, and many of the people working in her studio are trained in the field, modeling in software like Rhino and Grasshopper. She is also a believer in the value of building full-scale mockups of portions of a project and created a one-to-one section model of “C-010106” to study various glass coatings and lighting scenarios.
Oppenheimer says the art world has been permeated by a false narrative that as exhibition spaces become larger, artists’ work — and thus their physical studio space — must follow suit. She disagrees, noting that architectural practice can offer relevant lessons to practicing artists working at increasingly larger scales. “The scale of our urban landscape is so great that modeling at a one-to-one scale would never work,” says Oppenheimer. “How would you construct a city-sized model? The representational workflows of architecture are far more fluid and adept at addressing scale.”
While the psychological and social exploration of her works takes priority, in her mind, Oppenheimer also delights in technical details, talking through the structural logic that makes these diaphanous works appear to miraculously float, contrasting with the solidity of the pedestrian bridge. (Each structure operates as a compression ring that is only structural once fully assembled.) “I enjoy the technical problem,” says Oppenheimer, “but I see it as a bigger social problem that has these wonderful technical puzzles nested in them.”
Oppenheimer and her team worked closely with the architects of the engineering buildings, outlining requirements for the bridge itself, such as making the slab as thin as possible to prevent obscuring views, limiting noise from structural components, the optimal placement of rebar and pavers, and so on. “I think there is a common misconception that architecture is static — that it is a container,” says Oppenheimer. “It’s actually a dynamic, ever-changing living system of which we are part and participant. If we, as inhabitants of space and systems, could be aware of that, we would build a much richer set of relations.”
Sarah Oppenheimer’s “C-010106” opened to the public in late August and will be celebrated with a series of public programs this fall, including a September 15 Q&A with Oppenheimer and curatorial contributor Lumi Tan (senior curator at The Kitchen in New York City).
Anastasia Calhoun, Assoc. AIA, NOMA, is the editor of Texas Architect.