Featuring four interactive works that transect the Wellin Museum’s Dietrich Exhibition Gallery, Sarah Oppenheimer: Sensitive Machine breaks down barriers among art, audience, and architecture. The show invites visitors to engage with the artwork through touch. Activating a lever sets in motion a series of interconnected walls and lights that alters the gallery’s configuration and shifts its lighting conditions. Oppenheimer considers the space of the museum as a site of experimentation, where visitors experience the curiosity and joy of transforming the artworks themselves. Conceptually, the work explores how our actions — both individually and communally — shape the spaces we inhabit and how those spaces embody a constant state of flux. The exhibition will be on view from Sept. 4 through Dec. 5. An exhibition video may be viewed on the Wellin website.
Tracy L. Adler, Johnson-Pote Director of the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art, recently discussed the artist and her work:
A: I have known Sarah for about 20 years and previously curated her into exhibitions I organized in New York City. Through her large-scale artworks which respond to the architecture of the exhibition space, Sarah’s work addresses the impact that architecture has on our daily lives and also posits how we, as inhabitants, affect our surroundings. When the Wellin was founded in 2012, I started talking to Sarah about creating work for the museum. I knew Sarah would respond thoughtfully to the unique architecture and materiality of the building. In 2017, we began planning the show in earnest.
Q: How are Hamilton's letterpress studio and this exhibition connected?
A: Four years ago, when Sarah came for her first site visit, we arranged for her to tour Hamilton’s letterpress, among other facilities on campus. Andrew Rippeon, who was overseeing the studio at the time, and Sarah disassembled one of the presses to reveal the Mobius strip-like screw that drove the press’ trajectory. That was the spark of an idea that directly led to all of Sarah’s work that followed.
As a senior critic at Yale University’s School of Art, Sarah often works collaboratively across disciplines. She began developing screws with the engineering department based on the letterpress screw to drive her own artworks. In early 2020, the first iteration of this concept was realized in her solo museum show at the Kunstmuseum Thun in Switzerland. What she learned about the functionality of the apparatus and screw has evolved into the four artworks — or “instruments,” as Sarah refers to them — that make up the exhibition you see at the Wellin. That visit to Hamilton in 2017 entirely changed the trajectory of her work.
Q: This show seems so removed from what we traditionally consider to be “art.” Where does it fit? What makes it art?
A: As a teaching museum, the Wellin is ideally situated to explore questions about how contemporary art supports our intellectual growth and influences our understanding of the world by questioning the basis of our assumptions about how we operate in general. “Is it art?” is a great place to start because it begs the question “What is art?” to begin with. But even further, how can art impact or reflect our lived experiences? It’s an opportunity to explore and question the basis for our assumptions not just about art, but about our perception of the world around us.
Sarah’s work hovers at the intersection of art, architecture, and engineering, but on a base level, too, the show is very sensory. It activates touch and sight. The viewer becomes an agent of their experience, meaning they literally drive the artworks. Does the work exist at all without visitors to activate it? The work asks a lot of questions and leaves the door open to myriad responses. In that way, it provides a springboard for engaging many disciplines in thoughtful discussion.
It’s also an experiment. With every show, we try to offer different opportunities for our audiences to experience and think about how art can support learning more broadly. The Wellin is very much a laboratory where faculty, students, staff, and the community can experiment with ideas mirroring the liberal arts experience at Hamilton.
Q: What are some of the ways in which the faculty are engaging their classes with the exhibition?
A: We have been in discussions about this show with faculty from anthropology, computer science, dance, government, music, physics, psychology, sociology, theatre, and women’s and gender studies, as well as art and art history, often in dialogue with the artist. Whether it’s analyzing the various processes used to create Sarah’s work and probing ideas of perception for a science class, or exploring our relationship to the built environment and how we conceptualize and navigate space in a government or art history class, students will have many opportunities to access the artworks through various lenses. They will also have the opportunity to engage with the artist directly. In addition, we’re planning events in collaboration with some of the performing arts that respond to and will occur in the exhibition itself.