Recently in the San Francisco Bay Area it has been impossible to walk down a street without running into (or trying to avoid) someone protesting something. The messages range from concise to ironic, sardonic to flat-out fed up. In the undulating sea of abridged manifestos, there is the rare message so poignant that it demands the sign-bearer’s cause receives deeper consideration. Geoff Oppenheimer’s current exhibit at Ratio 3 Gallery, Inside Us All There is a Part That Would Like to Burn Down Our Own House, presents a reductive, politically-driven narrative filled with violence, chaos, nationalism, pageantry, existentialism and self-reflection. The title may be a mouthful, but it creates an interesting opposite to Oppenheimer’s expertly edited works, and sets the tone for the show as a whole.
Depending on when you enter the gallery, your initial sensory experience will most likely be one of two things: visual or auditory. For some, a minimalist installation of sculptures and photographs will greet them. Others will not be able to ignore the deafening cacophony of marching-band instruments streaming from an invisible source. But we’ll get to that later.
The two bodies of work in the main gallery, Social Failure and Black Signs and Modern Ensembles, act as examples of how conceptual art can effectively function. The images in the series Social Failure and Black Signs are almost identical—black-and-white studio scenes of a hand holding a black sign with bold, white text. At face value, each piece holds an intriguing, reductive beauty. After learning the origins of each work, a satisfying sense of quiet epiphany develops. Each sign has a different fragmented statement that Oppenheimer chose from interviews with political figures such as Regan, McNamara and Castro, in which each man discusses the failures of his ideology. Devoid of any of the expected contextual information associated with protest signage, the images transition to an interior plane—a subconscious battlefield on which each person struggles with the contradictions of his actions and beliefs.
In dimensional and aesthetic contrast are the rectangular sculptures of Modern Ensembles. Oppenheimer made each piece by detonating various custom charges of explosive chemicals inside ballistic Plexiglas. The resulting cuboids are three-dimensional cross sections of a distinct explosion. By containing the blast, Oppenheimer makes us witnesses to a frozen moment of violence. Additionally, the time it takes to view the pieces’ six sides allows for the consideration of the relationship between space and time—an explosion takes place in an instant, yet with each ensemble, we are able to stop time and find the curious beauty in the chaos.
After or during your time in the main gallery, you will undoubtedly start hearing the sounds of Oppenheimer’s video piece, Anthem. Tucked into the side gallery, the projection features a marching band playing four different national anthems. Instead of hearing them in succession, Oppenheimer layers each anthem so they play simultaneously. The resulting meta-anthem and/or non-anthem is an assault on the senses. In the video, figures fade in and out of opacity, overlapping into an accumulation of tan and brass. Each anthem, recited with pride, becomes a futile attempt at nationalism—not one can be distinguished from the others. The longer you watch, the louder it gets, as if each anthem is competing to be heard. The notes crescendo to an unintelligible roar, and then, as if overwhelmed with sound and light, break into white silence.
Oppenheimer’s work truly benefits from deeper consideration. While each piece stands on its own, the combination of the three series, plus the title, opens an investigation into a part of all of us that maybe we are not very proud of: the part that never lets us forget we did something wrong, the part that would like to burn down our own house.