Geof Oppenheimer: People in Reverse is on display at UCCA Beijing from December 23, 2022 until April 9, 2023.
Geof Oppenheimer (b. 1973, Washington, DC) is having his first solo exhibition in China. Oppenheimer has spent over two decades exploring how social and political ties are entrenched inside images and things through the disciplines of sculpture, video, drawing, and photography.
This show, which includes new work commissioned by UCCA, is centered on cast sculptures of three iconic figures—the businessman, the flagbearer, and the observer—that are placed in an immersive atmosphere consisting of custom-built walls, floor coverings, mass-produced objects, and raw materials. Last year, these pieces were shown as part of the Diriyah Biennale, Feeling the Stones, curated by a team from UCCA, in a venue particularly built to replicate the proportions of UCCA’s Central Gallery. The sculptures and their unique surrounds address our collective concerns about figuration, symbolism, and archetype in contemporary art and the modern social economy. Luan Shixuan, Curator of UCCA, has curated People in Reverse.
Each of the three sculptures that comprise People in Reverse represents a late capitalism society stereotype. Two cut aluminum legs are poised with the faintest trace of contrapposto in the Businessman (2019-2021), one in a professional leather shoe, the other in a clown shoe. The juxtaposition of footwear undermines the hagiographic nature of the relevant sculptural traditions, as well as the masculinity of “the businessman” as a stereotyped figure. The human body is missing from the bronze-cast Flagbearer (2019-2021), but the tone is similarly subversive: the would-be nationalist grandeur of a flowing flag is reduced to a blank miniature less than half a meter tall. A life-sized gloved hand wields a magnifying lens in front of a tablet in the Observer (2019-2021), which is likewise cast in bronze. The tablet, like the flag, is blank, and the magnifying glass’s lens is actually opaque metal. While the laboratory cart in the bottom half of the sculpture suggests that the context is conditional and mobile, the piece remains boldly ambiguous, implying that some forms of knowledge may remain ultimately unknowable.
These people are encircled by a labyrinthine array of walls, around which a number of additional images and items have been positioned, in a well thought approach to presenting reminiscent of theatrical set design. David J. Getsy, Eleanor Shea Professor of Art History at the University of Virginia, writes in the exhibition catalogue that these disparate elements are united by the “central allegory” of “exposed structure,” which can be seen in the sculptures’ rough unpolished textures and how the walls readily reveal their metal and drywall skeletons. Other details, such as a photograph of one of the world’s oldest mines (Social Flat Backstory, 2020), a projector supported by a metal arm, playing an animation in which lines morph between male- and female-coded hairstyles (queens image, kings form, 2020), and an assortment of hand-dyed textiles spread across the floor, allude to the origins and underlying structures behind large-scale power dynamics or social and economic systems.
Oppenheimer asks the audience to reexamine reality with a new respect by focusing on these bits of contemporary life. People in Reverse does not provide easy answers, but by demonstrating the brittle fragility of the economic structures we live under, heroic narratives, and hierarchies of knowledge, to name a few conceptual targets, it creates a powerful space for the viewer to question and begin to think beyond the quandaries of the contemporary condition.
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