Expert Sleepers

Bernd Oppl
Expert Sleepers, 2022
mp4 Video, 3D model

Spaces seemingly built for humans, a strangely familiar habitat, but one devoid of reality, solid and eerie at the same time – a simulated environment, a sculpture, or in fact – a miniature 3D print. Bernd Oppl’s drawer opens up to a world abandoned by humans, where screens are the only living presences. His camera quietly traverses various environments, taking us to through the anxiety of an endlessly resuming i-phone screen, the calming oceans projected on a TV monitor, the poetry of karaoke subtitles or the fast running galaxies of screen-savers. Screens steer us through space and psychological states, indeed they seem to hold space and perception together. Turn them off and our 3D world, as well as our minds, might well dissolve back into cosmic dust.

A small model of a mattress with a pillow and a bed cover, reminds us we are “expert sleepers” – we dream our reality, and technology continues the dream for us. Wherever the missing humans from Oppl’s worlds are, screens and machines still shape space in the scale and ergonomy of human bodies, like the vestige of long departed gods.

“In my work I trace questions around the spaces we move within and occupy; be it foreign or self-created, real or virtual, physical or mental spaces. I explore what social changes and technologies these spaces are formed and influenced by. As well as when new shapes of space appear or disappear from our lives. Usually, spaces are containers for life situations. Life takes place in spaces. In my objects, installations and films the spaces themselves become protagonists and begin to tell themselves what happens or does not happen in them.”

Bernd Oppl (1980, Innsbruck, Austria). Lives and works in Vienna (Austria). Through images, films, dioramas and moving architectonic models, Bernd Oppl’s work explores the narrative of space.

(Dessislva Dimova, 2022)

The Outsourcing of the Eye to the Camera

»The camera allows us to have visual experiences that would be impossible without it. We are able to outsource our eye to film devices, sending it on a journey with the camera.«1 With this statement Bernd Oppl characterises one of the central foundations of his creative work: In largely multi-part, seemingly technoid video sculptures and video installations that merge moving architectonic space models, technical apparatuses, video cameras, transmission systems, projections and screens into complex systems, Oppl creates illusions with which he takes our perception by surprise and analyses it at the same time. In doing so, he refers to the early history of cinematography and motion picture exhibition with their mobile, optical-visual slot and viewing machines. In contrast to cinema as we know it today – which both in terms of space and the rather literary narrative of its films is strongly evocative of classic theatre – Oppl draws on the cinema of the 19th century, the ›Cinema of Attractions‹ that took place at funfairs and vaudeville theatres, not in well-behaved cinema halls or as home cinema.2 »Compared to the voyeuristic aspect of narrative cinema the ‘Cinema of Attractions’ represents an exhibitionist dispositive […]. The dramatic display, shock effects and the arousal of visual curiosity by surprising cinematic manipulations […] was given preference over storytelling.«3 One of the most extraordinary characteristics of this kind of early cinema was that the devices that generated the illusionist effects were never hidden; they were part of the presentation. Oppl is fascinated by those devices such as, for example, the praxinoscope, zoetrope or bioscope, or the early film studios such as Thomas Alva Edison’s Black Marie or that of Georges Meliès all of which were founded before the end of the 19th century, with some of them being state-of-the art facilities for the generation of illusions. However, rather than re-activating and re-staging these old visual media in his work, Oppl is more interested in the connection between technology and illusion openly demonstrated in these devices while retaining the magic.

Oppl’s installations convey this early cinematographic connection between technology and illusion into the context of the artist’s video works. His video sculptures and video installations are based on self-designed devices that are a mix of physical, experimental set-ups and architectonic space models. The space models often have the form of a black box but vary in their sculptural shapes, and they are evocative of a mysterious casing in which enigmatic, seemingly unfathomable occurrences take place. The black box is never closed; in its various embodiments it always has at least one or several windows that allow the viewer to see into it. The interiors of the models accommodate mostly simple but seemingly realistic spaces in miniature form – simple hotel rooms, corridors, rooms with doors and windows, featuring a few pieces of furniture, or rooms that contain elements generally not associated with them such as balls, dust clouds and other substances ranging from mysterious to surreal. These architectonic space models and their content are worked into experimental set-ups which are put into motion by movement mechanisms. Typically the spaces exhibit a slow yet continuous movement constantly repeating itself, revolving around itself, a vibration that sets a mechanism going. Video cameras that are firmly attached to the model spaces record what is happening inside and project the ongoings live on a screen or in full size on a wall in the exhibition space.

The aspect of real-time transmission is as central as the direct view into the black box since it contributes significantly to the reality effect of the video image on display. Everything seems to be real – the object, the motion, the live transmission from the inside. What we see, however, is in fact fiction, illusion. This becomes most apparent when the video transmission shows processes in which the laws of gravity seem suspended. It is remarkable that even though the entire mechanism that creates the illusion is plain to see we cannot help but ›wrongly‹ interpret the video image. We cannot help but believe that our interpretation of the video image equals the experimental set-up, even though we know that this is not the case and that we can verify this on the model itself.

Oppl’s work Untitled (2010/12) from the Point of View series is a significant example of this. A black box serves as the basis of the work, with the box being held by elastic cords within a larger sized iron construction, somewhat floating in the air. The interior of the box consists of a simple room with a door, window and lamp as well as four black balls. The space is put in a state of vigorous vibration generated by an engine. A camera is connected to the room and attached to it so rigidly that the video image that is directly transmitted to a flat screen does not show a room in motion but a completely static one. What we get to see as motion very vividly are the balls that jump back and forth owing to the vibration of the model. On the screen the balls seem to be jumping about or floating across the room by their own effect – quasi magically.

Angular Field (2013) is another example in which Oppl experiments with the Ames room known from perceptual psychology. The Ames room was used to demonstrate that a significant proportion of perception is complemented by experience, that memory forms a reasonable and comprehensible image of what we see. The Ames room appears to be perpendicular when seen from a particular perspective only with one eye. However, the true shape of the room is trapezoidal. This results in astonishing optical illusions. Persons or objects seem to abruptly grow or shrink when they move through the room. In Oppl’s Angular Field, similar to an Ames room, a black box performs a slow and continuous rotational movement. Inside there is a simple room with two silver balls that roll from one corner to the next following the movement. A greatly enlarged image of the room’s interior is transmitted via projection while the Ames room no longer appears distorted but perpendicular as the camera takes precisely the position in which the room seems devoid of distortion. This brings about the optical effect in which the balls seem to become bigger or smaller for no reason while they move through the room. A double discrepancy is formed between what we see through the window of the black box – a distorted room and two same-sized balls – and what the video image shows us, a perpendicular room and balls ever-changing mysteriously.

Bernd Oppl’s video sculptures and video installations share the outstanding characteristic that the experimental set-up and the resulting image are present in the room at the same time; they are so closely connected that the two realities cannot be perceived independently of each other. No matter how much we concentrate on the video image it is impossible to block out the fact that we know how the illusion which we see is generated since the model keeps on moving in our field of vision. The technical apparatus – the black box, the camera, the image – becomes somewhat magical as it seems to be able to turn the laws of physics upside down by simply changing the orientation and reference systems. The apparatus becomes the magic box through which a different reality can be generated. This might be just an illusion but even though we know how it came into being we cannot tell the eye to see it in its debunked state. What emerges is not a pure, immersive illusion, it is a broken one. Tension builds up between the different reality zones that are defined by the model and the experimental set-up on the one hand and the video image on the other. Oppl describes this as »rips in the fabric of perception reliabilities«5 in which the requirements of media become visible: »In the dialectic movement between the two worlds, the world of media-fabricated illusion and the world of production technology realities, between the virtuality and the production of this virtual world – hence when looking at the objects from the side – lies the interface of these two halves of an interrelated world: the reality of media.«6

The work Passage (2013) is a major variation, in which Oppl picks up the aspect of the decomposition of perception, however, without showing the apparatus that generates the video image. In this work he parts with the system of a circuit connected in real time by separating production and presentation from each other. The filmic illusions of space addressed in Passage are fragile and broken all the same. Similar to many of his other works Oppl builds on the viewer’s film-related experiences. Owing to our cinema and television experiences we know very well how to read camera movements in films and what they mean in the context of the respective action. In Passage Oppl takes as a starting point the so-called Vertigo effect, an optical illusion which puts a room into a vortex-like motion. This technique entails moving the camera in the opposite direction of the zoom. It was first used by Alfred Hitchcock as a means to visualise vertigo. The pivotal moment is the subjectivisation of the space which in turn becomes part of the protagonist, an extension of his or her body and psyche. In Passage Oppl zeroes in on precisely this moment in which the space starts to move, when perception can no longer differentiate who or what is moving – the space or oneself – which establishes an odd relation between viewer and space. Instead of the Vertigo technique, however, Oppl applies reversion: Instead of moving the camera he moves the entire space, once again using a miniature model. Passage consists of three video sequences in which moving different elements in the room initially creates the illusion that the recording camera is moving. The room elements – a space-filling black square, a mirror that doubles the room – do not only move in one direction, at first away from the camera, but also back towards the camera. By no later than the second movement the illusion collapses in parts. All three sequences merely hint at the illusion of camera movement intentionally without really acquitting it, but also without completely dismantling it. This way, Passage creates a state of floatation of sorts in which illusion is generated while at the same time its production method is visible to a certain degree.

Praxinoskop (2013) is a second variation in which Oppl addresses the rip between media and production technology realities and the correlation between illusion and technology, respectively. Here, similar to Passage, Oppl chooses a path that reveals only one part of his otherwise mostly bipolar video installations and unlike Passage prioritises the apparatus over the video image. Oppl’s Praxinoskop is a sculpture that shows a film without using a transmitting device such as a camera, a screen or a projection. The sculpture goes back to the early history of cinema. The praxinoscope, also called magic drum, is a kinetic device developed in 1877 by Émile Reynaud after George Horner invention of the zoetrope in 1833.7 Oppl’s version is a revolving, polygonal-shaped black drum, an oversized gyroscope of sorts, which features a revolving duct in its upper part. The outer side of the duct has a sequence of images, the inner side a mirror that reflects the images for the viewer. Due to the fast rotation of the drum a sequence of images is collected in the mirror which is perceived as related to each other. This effect is brought about by the persistence of vision on the eye’s retina. In his film sculpture, which is both a productive and presentative device, Oppl refers not only to early cinematography but also the early history of film. The animation shown in Praxinoskop is a short, abstract film in which a white surface grows out of a black background. The squares execute a growth movement and seem to whirl towards the viewer, which creates the impression that the space is moving. The short film which lasts just as long as a single rotation of the drum recalls Hans Richter’s abstract films, especially Rhythmus 21 (1921) in which space and depth are created by white and black squares and rectangles moving against each other.8 Here, the rip in the fabric of perception reliabilities, arises out of the use of an essentially obsolete technique in contemporary creative practice because it is the only way to detach the perception of films from the devices to which it is bound today without exception. As an oppositional counterpart it refers to the mutual dependency between transmission technology and cinema as we know it.

With works such as Korridor (2009), Flock (2011/12) and Sick Building (2012) Oppl not only taps the installative setting by demonstrating the entire cycle of moving architectural models, camera transmission and screen or projection, but also his engagement with space and architecture in film and video art. He specifically addresses the aspects of cinema that make films a discipline of architecture: »I understand film as an architectural form of art that depicts space and transforms, thereby creating new spaces.«9 Central to his work are predominantly the filmic moments in which space and architecture cease to be only just environment and setting and become autonomous, full-fledged protagonists and actors. Amongst other genres, Oppl refers to horror films such as the haunted house genre in which buildings and spaces are treated like bodies and interact with the human protagonists as if they had a conscious of their own. In his works Oppl experiments with these space stagings that have come to be collective experiences of space through cinema. »I find it interesting how mainstream cinema has found a way into our collective subconscious and how it impacts our experience of spatiality almost like real spaces do, and how we connect the virtual spaces in films with our real-life experiences.«10 In works such as Korridor and Flock Oppl walks down the path of reversal by using already existing filmic stagings of space and conveying them into a physical space model to »position the two locations, the physical and the media space within and next to each other, respectively, and to join them as one single installation«.11

In the video sculpture Korridor Oppl stages an architectonic element from Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining (1980), a long corridor of the Overlook Hotel which is haunted by supernatural evil forces. The film has an infamous scene in which blood gushes from the closed lift doors and floods the corridor. While until that moment the building seemed to be haunted only by a spirit it now virtually acts as a body. In his re-staging of the hotel corridor Oppl replaces the blood with small white balls that are put into a continuously floating motion by making the entire model revolve vertically around its own axis. Due to the rotation the flow of white balls runs not only along the floor but also the ceiling and walls. On a screen which is integrated in the sculpture and has exactly the same size as the corridor, positioned immediately adjacent to the model, the white balls whirl through the space as if driven by an uncanny force, seemingly defying the laws of gravity.

In Flock an empty space is haunted by a dustcloud. The cloud that looks like a swarm of insects whizzes along the walls and interacts with the few elements present in the space: an on and off closed and open door, a window with a heater, a staircase. Oppl borrows the elements from Hitchcock films in which a staircase is used to build up suspense, windows to heat up voyeurism and doors to enter the next action sequence. By interacting with the strange occupation of the space by the cloud – which also bears resemblance to science fiction films – the elements begin to tell a story. A central aspect of Flock, once again, is the discrepancy between the experimental set-up and the video image. While in the video it looks as if the camera follows the movement of the dust through the space in reality it is the upended space model itself that rotates around a static camera lens.

The title of the video installation Sick Building itself spells out the aspect of subjectivisation and embodiment of space Oppl explores in many of his works. Sick Building consists of a space model and a video created by the experimental set-up. The video shows an office floor that is gradually traversed by a viscous organic substance. The model’s rotation movement makes the substance in the video suddenly grow from the floor to the ceiling, settling there and then flowing from the side walls across the room. The laws of gravity do not seem to apply to this biomorphous liquid which appears to be alive, and it seems as if we could look into a physical interior of the room.

In all three works, Korridor, Flock and Sick Building, Oppl disrupts our experience of space and spatiality. On the one hand, the rotation movement of the space models suspend our regular reference system of gravity and on the other hand the transmitting camera renders a somewhat limited image, hiding the information about the fundamental change of the reference system. It shows us images in which the spaces are static, in which above is above and below is below. At the same time we see substances that move against the laws of physics in these spaces. The interplay between rotation, suspension of gravity and cunning camera perspectives creates a state of ambiguity in which the static character of the spaces is questioned and both the substances and spaces appear like entities that possess dynamics of their own.

Bernd Oppl’s photographs – for the most part conceived as series – can be read as stenographic condensations of the subjects and methods formulated in his video sculptures and video installations.

The three-series photo work Shrinking City (2013), for example, explores the perception of spaces exemplified by the architecture of large cities in which Oppl yet again works with a model and integrates cinematic references. The starting point of Shrinking City is an elaborately built wax model in the style of Chinese cities. The close-up of the lens makes the skyscrapers appear monumental while at the same time their fragile, organic materiality is evocative of the subjective almost physical architecture of expressionist film sets such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in which urban architecture expresses society’s dysfunctional psyche and modern age’s overwhelming trust in technology turns against mankind in the form of a Babylonian city that has assumed colossal proportions. In this photo series, heat gradually causes the skyscrapers to sway; the entire city collapses and dissolves. Oppl depicts a dystopia in which architecture is fragile, organic and body-like while also referring to economic failure.

Photo series such as Ennis House (2012) and Untitled (Plaza de las Tres Culturas) (2012) also revolve around the perception of architecture. They are »subjective portraits of architecture«12 that connote motion rather than a fixed point of view. By employing the in-camera method of analogue multiple exposure in which several pictures are collaged into one image, Oppl condenses varying perspectives into bundles of intersecting architecture and space sequences. The photographs look like memory diagrams in which sequential perspectives are collected in a similar way as when moving across a square or around a building. They somewhat symbolise our memory in which sequences of images and time manifest themselves in complex networks and intersections. Both in the photographs and in the mind’s memory traces the results include portions that are random, uncontrollable and subjective. Ennis House is a portrait of the house in Los Angeles with the same name designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1923. It combines the style of Maya temples, which served as an inspiration for its design, with modern concrete casting. In its numerous appropriations by the media and use as a set for films such as Blade Runner or Mulholland Drive the house itself stands for the moment of superposition. The photo series Untitled (Plaza des las Tres Culturas) – created in Mexico City – portraits a similarly multi-faceted place where the country’s ramified history in the form of pre-Colombian pyramids, a Catholic cathedral and 20th century high-rises superpose each other in a cultural amalgam. With his method of collecting and condensing single perspectives Oppl’s photographs indicate the complexity, ambiguity and subjectivity of how we perceive urban spaces, architecture and space in general.

(Jürgen Tabor, 2014)

  1. Bernd Oppl, »Von hier aus. ›Ich inszeniere die Realitäten vor und hinter dem Screen‹«. Interview with Ursula Maria Probst, in: Desiring the Real. Austria Contemporary, Austrian Ministry of Education, the Arts and Culture, Vienna 2012, 122f., here p. 123.
  2. Cf. Gabriele Jutz, Cinéma brut. Eine alternative Genealogie der Filmavantgarde, Vienna 2010, p. 73.
  3. Gabriele Jutz, ib.
  4. Cf. Bernd Oppl, ›Orders of Perception‹. Interview with Isin Önol, Reality Manifesto symposium (19-20 January 2012) as part of the exhibition Reality Manifestos – Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Vienna. Zur Geschichte der Kinetischen Schaukunst und der frühen Kinematographie cf. Hans Scheugl/Ernst Schmidt jr., Eine Subgeschichte des Films. Lexikon des Avantgarde-, Experimental- und Undergroundfilms, first edition, Frankfurt am Main 1974, p. 403-488.
  5. Bernd Oppl, »Von hier aus. ›Ich inszeniere die Realitäten vor und hinter dem Screen‹«. Interview with Ursula Maria Probst, in: Desiring the Real. Austria Contemporary, Austrian Ministry of Education, the Arts and Culture, Vienna 2012, 122f., here p. 123.
  6. Bernd Oppl, »Von hier aus. ›Ich inszeniere die Realitäten vor und hinter dem Screen‹«. Interview with Ursula Maria Probst, unabridged and unpublished rough draft, Vienna 2012.
  7. Cf. Hans Scheugl/Ernst Schmidt jr., Eine Subgeschichte des Films. Lexikon des Avantgarde-, Experimental- und Undergroundfilms, first edition, Frankfurt am Main 1974, p. 453f.
  8. Cf. article on Hans Richter, in: Hans Scheugl/Ernst Schmidt jr., Eine Subgeschichte des Films. Lexikon des Avantgarde-, Experimental- und Undergroundfilms, second edition, Frankfurt am Main 1974, p. 739-750, here 743f.
  9. Bernd Oppl, »Von hier aus. ›Ich inszeniere die Realitäten vor und hinter dem Screen‹«. Interview with Ursula Maria Probst, unabridged and unpublished rough draft, Vienna 2012.
  10. Bernd Oppl, ›Orders of Perception‹. Interview with Isin Önol, Reality Manifesto symposium (19-20 January 2012) as part of the exhibition Reality Manifestos – Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Vienna.
  11. Bernd Oppl, »Von hier aus. ›Ich inszeniere die Realitäten vor und hinter dem Screen‹«. Interview with Ursula Maria Probst, unabridged and unpublished rough draft, Vienna 2012.
  12. Bernd Oppl, conceptual text, 2012.

Ephemeral Places

A chair, a table, a bed end, two doors and a light switch give off a pale sparkle in matt grey. Everything appears calm and static. Only gradually doubts appear about the authenticity of the space and the reality displayed therein. In slow motion, a layer of ice starts to spread out over the furniture, the bed cover, the walls and doors; the camera opens up the room, widens the shot, and reveals both what the ice conceals and “makes disappear” over time. Bernd Oppl’s video/object Hotel Room (2011) revolves around what lies between motion and standstill, staging the so-called any-space-whatever or non-space in all its ephemerality.1 Hotel rooms remain in our heads long after the generally short duration of a stay, activated by isolated memories of real and cinematic journeys, of individual and collective traces of our virtual (visual) memory – a screen of the absent. In its monochrome simplicity, Oppl’s Hotel Room plays the part of many already or yet to be experienced places where we stay briefly or just pass through, to which we retreat or from which we set out. The seemingly simple composition of the object leaves room for the viewer’s own imagination and attributions, such as maybe adding a picture on the wall here, placing some reading material on the bed table there. It is the absence of such connoting objects, humans or animals that activates both real images and those created by the media in our memory we believed long-forgotten, and constructs a “space of virtual conjunction, grasped as pure locus of the possible”.2 Oppl’s objects are projection surfaces. They directly challenge our perception and imagination, bringing to light visual memories and memory gaps alike.

Meticulously assembled models or 3D prints of random places – such as waiting rooms, hallways and passages – form the basis of Oppl’s works that mostly reveal the mechanisms behind the construction. The works may be perceived as filmic objects evocative of the early cinema of attractions or as a world with its own laws of nature and gravity. Either way, they all have one thing in common: Using motion as the key element of representation, they play with media-specific relations between seemingly contrasting pairs such as illusion | reality, documentary | fiction, construction | coincidence, presence | absence, virtuality | actuality and memory | oblivion.

In the two objects Canteen and Sleeping Hall (2015) the projection surface becomes purely static and moves only in the viewer’s imagination: The two 3D printed models are encased in white peep boxes that are attached to the wall and merge with it. The viewer has to step up closely to them to fully understand the spatial objects – their “modern” architecture, the narrow window frames, the chair construction in the canteen, the embedded ceiling lighting of the sleeping hall. By controlling the viewer’s gaze the distance to the constructed image is eradicated and in addition to the artist’s own perspective reflects the viewer’s own “cracks in the web of perceptive reliability”.3 Oppl’s objects become actors. They encourage new perspectives and seem to be arbitrarily connected with a “second” nature inherent in the objects. At the same time, they do not manifest anything. They remain in motion and ephemeral. And – amongst other things – they remind us of the imageries of early cinema devoid of theatre halls and screens, and also of the independent existence of space and architecture in post-war Hollywood films. They move along with us to the next (random) place and vanish in the depths of our minds where they eventually splash over our memory in virtual form, exceeding their ephemeral existence.

(Lydia Nsiah, 2015)

  1. Cf. Réda Bensmaïa, the “any-space-whatever” as “conceptual persona'” in “Der Film bei Deleuze/Le cinema selon Deleuze” edited by Oliver Fahle, Lorenz Engell, Weimar 1999.
  2. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, Univ Of Minnesota Press, 1986, p. 109.
  3. “Seen from here. <I stage the realities in front of and behind the screen>”, interview with Ursula Maria Probst, in Desiring the Real. Austria Contemporary, Vienna 2012, p. 125.

Lingering on the Edge of Dreamland: Bernd Oppl’s Hidden Rooms

Hidden rooms are a space for dreaming.

Dreaming, such a softly tangled word. A politician’s future utopia, the surrealist’s strange subject, the psychoanalyst’s magic eight-ball. That place where the hard edges of reality blur with vaseline and gossamer, where the possible winks at the impossible, where desire and fear tango ‘til dawn. Whether the mind’s midnight mutterings or the soul of our deepest hopes, dreams are really real, or the part of the real that feels most unreal. Our beds make the most natural place for dreaming of course, with the merciful folds of blankets and the cool kiss of sheets whilst we succumb to weariness, that cozy refuge for sleep and sex, for idly drifting thoughts and sweating out fevers. But dreams make their own spaces too, forming architecture from yearning. We have more than beds to dream in.

The artist Bernd Oppl finds these rooms we shape through dreaming and often fashions them into miniature darkling dioramas, boxes hanging from the walls and beckoning you to lean in and peer, empty of bodies, a spectral intimacy impossible to enter. A bed with a lit laptop near the pulsating light of a window in Sleep Mode (20??), a shadowy karaoke room disco-lit with shards of colored light with the words of James Blake’s “Retrograde” (2013) playing on the screen in The Rhythm of the Night (20??), a line of computers in an internet cafe beaming screensaving stars in I Looked Around the Internet (20??). He has a penchant for crafting other less obviously dreamy rooms like airport lounges. But even that generic space built for transiency more than comfort (the anti-bed even), there’s room for drifting thoughts, daydreaming, wishing to move onward to home or elsewhere. Even if stuck there, we are still certainly at the place between worlds, surrounded by portals to places beyond. And though dreams possess depthless qualities, hidden rooms beneath hidden rooms, one of these is certainly in-betweenness, a threshold between the conscious and unconscious, what we want and what we have, where we are and where we wish we to be. And here at Kunstraum Dornbirn, Bernd’s taken these intimate spaces into a supersized maquette of one of the earliest cinematic dream chambers, a micro-movie studios that took the shape of a dark little shed of a building made for filming (both “an architecture and apparatus” as Bernd would say) in the late 19th-century by K.L. Dickson that he called the Black Maria. Look it up and you can see what one of the first ever filmmakers wrought from the nascent artform; my personal fave is a fifteen second clip called “The Boxing Cats” (1894). (It’s easily available online and the super bizarre magic of it is worth the effort.) A recreation of a kind, Bernd’s Black Maria feels half-formed as if pieces fell out over time, a ruin and a memory more than a replica, an elusive echo. Dreams are like this, recalling them after waking, they dissolve into a mist as we feel the tug of the day pulling us into the glare of morning. Tucked into this room, dreams inside of dreams are some of his microcosmic diorama, hidden rooms inside another.

In this work, as in other works in the past, Bernd has installed a closed circuit camera, somehow the unreality of the circumstance, the verisimilitude of the space becomes so much more real when mediated (a perceptual game German artist Thomas Demand has played through his own works by recreating quietly charged spaces in miniature and blowing them up into the spooky set-pieces of large-scale photographs). One could easily theorize these closed circuits as a kind of meditation or commentary on surveillance, but the intent feels dreamier, a way to create another layer of intimacy and distance, two qualities that fundamentally shape Bernd’s oeuvre. In the smaller dioramas, the lean-in and voyeuristic peek into these hidden rooms gives you a special closeness. But no matter how softly and keenly you peer into this special chambers, they can’t be entered. We are perpetually outsiders on the edge of these dreamlands. And in the case of Bernd’s recreation of the Black Maria, even as you enter, it’s partialness makes the enclosure you feel both that you’re both in and out of it. A world constructed of memory and dream, rather than of the hard boundaries of physical reality. At both scales, Bernd’s rooms are not quite illusions but feel made of the same dreamy material. In his Black Maria, accompanied by atmospheric music composed specially for this work by Andreas Kurz, we are at best ghosts in a half-memory of a disappeared place.

As the Black Maria is a dreamland from the past, one of the more distinctly modern rooms for dreaming is the “empty orchestra” of karaoke. Though founded in Japan, karaoke has found millions of amateur adherents the world over in suburban shopping malls and gray office parks, boozy living room parties and late-night dive bars. In her book Karaoke Culture (2011), Dubravka Ugrešić claims our boozy sing-a-longs are evidence of an emptied out culture, that all we can do now is imitate. But that’s not right, or it misses something important about that space and its rituals. In other books on the shelf, the authors I came across found an emotional release in the modus, but still didn’t quite get to the bottom of why we do it.

The simple fundamental beauty of karaoke: everyone gets to raise their voice and sing. A democratic catharsis. In some local churches for centuries, everyone could sing out their fervor without fear of having a bad voice or being off-key or looking foolish, being too young or too old. They were allowed the release and beauty of song without judgement. Religion for many has fallen away and with it our (relatively) safe, community space to gather in song. Pop songs and standards replace hymns (and for this who still maintain religion, they have even more freedom to sing outside of the spiritual canon.) And all over the world in another time and still truly in some corners, we could all sing. Whether sheet music in the 19th century parlor or around the campfire just about anywhere, faraway in time or space from recorded music, we all had a chance to show off our voices, have the joy and release and communion of song. Though some more than others spend time around campfires still, most humans just turn on the stereo when we want to hear music, and with this we lost that space to sing that karaoke attempts to give back to us.

And even though in karaoke, even though usually only one human holds the mic, most of the time we can all sing along, the collective voices a form of support to the bravery of the amateur singer. And though some surely close their eyes and imagine themselves to be David Bowie or Aretha Franklin or the latest K-Pop sensation as they sing, even if they pretend, the imaginary mixes with reality and even if they aren’t the famous pros who made this songs standards, they are still certainly on-stage. Karaoke is a place to safely live out these dreams and at least in some capacity make them real.

In Bernd’s karaoke room, the space is empty of people, but perhaps invitingly ready to be inhabited. The words flickering across the screen under the shifting disco-y flicker of colored light is James Blake’s “Retrograde”, a cryptic tune that feels of melancholic yearning, the lilting velvety depths of the singer’s voice encouraging the girl he’s singing too to be strong, ignore her friends, to find herself and her strength.

Find yourself. A self-help mantra perhaps, but alongside the emotional release perhaps in the songs we choose, why we choose them, for whom we’re singing, we can find that elusive thing that makes us who we are. Being free even to sing other’s words might even set us free from the heave of our own selves, to release our egos, and just be. However gnomic, sometimes to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.

All of these Bernd’s hidden rooms share this quality. The haunted passages, the glow of the laptop like a luminous door to another world, even the airport lounge for all its charmless bureaucratic decor, is a place between, one that can allow us to become something else, somewhere else. Their glow is one of possibility. But Bernd takes this notion even further, even if these are truly spaces for dreaming, they exist outside of us. These rooms are their own protagonists and not simply stages for our performances upon them. We project bodies into these spaces, but we are rarely able to actually exist within them. At this intimate distance, we can see these portals clearly as what they are and what they can be, the romance and loneliness and communion and potential of these hidden rooms and the dreams that take us there and beyond.

(Andrew Berardini)


Francesca Gavin about Bernd Oppl's Work

We inhabit space. Bernd Oppl’s objects highlight how human emotions are projected on to the architecture and interiors around us. His pieces are often absent of the actual human body. His practice sits between object and architecture, sculpture and installation. The environments he recreates – whether perfect detailed sculptures in miniature or animations and films – are seemingly neutral too, but their sterility makes them haunting. They resemble the future horror of Japanese and Korean horror films. The Ballardian fear of the suburban and corporate. The isolation and alienation of screen life.

The artist plays with architectural modelling but this is not the utopic projection of a future urban landscape. Oppl creates scenes of the present. The laptop on a bare mattress on the floor. Oppl’s works echo the atmosphere of Edward Hopper’s paintings. There is a sense of noir in his figure-less interiors, a manifestation of the ideas in Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City. The horror here is muted. The haunted house is no longer a creaky 19th century mansion but an airport waiting room, or an office with black ink floating in space like a ghost. There is no sound in his work, except at times the whir of an analogue projector. Here the ghosts of cinematic or computer history emerge – such as his recreation of the Black Maria, a skeleton of a historic stage that would spin in front a static camera. Or a minimalist maze that resembles a pared down version of the iconic computer game Wolfenstein 3d.

The screen is a central motif. Oppl embeds real screens into his work, using them in unusual ways. The artist plays with perception and perspective, choreographing how we view a scene like a director positions the camera in a shot. The angles of access and viewpoint are intentional. His black boxes and concrete cubes are placed on the wall at different heights, forcing the viewer to move and adjust. The screens in Oppl’s work can form a window, or can be viewed at strange angles, through holes or reflections. Sometimes, his screens seem to breathe, their light pumping slowly on and off. Alternatively, the screens are blank and hazy with white noise.

There is a tactile quality to the work, even as he refers to the digital. The artist’s take on media is both present and historic. White noise itself is something no longer experienced in contemporary life, but refers to an analogue past. It is now something fabricated to indicate emptiness. The phrase ‘white noise’ itself has connotations of ideology and bias. Oppl presents the ruins of media, given physical form. The materiality of modern concrete, and by extension Modernism, are echoed in the ruins of our televisual past.

(Francesca Gavin)

Concrete Communication

In 1970 Mel Bochner created a wall work, scrawling a sentence into dripped, fluid black background. He wrote “Language is note transparent’. That sensation of conflict between meaning and the word, the visual and the textual, ideology and experience emerges in Bernd Oppl and Elisabeth Molin’s exhibition at Wiels Project Room, A dialogue in form of an exhibition. Here their separate practises form a duet exploring the contemporary understand of meaning, object and the screen. Yet equally this is a show about failure. The failure of architecture, of capitalism, of technology, of the image and meaning itself.

Originally coming from a photographic background, Elisabeth Molin’s practise has developed to focus on storytelling. She is drawn to the moment where the image can’t represent something and text emerges as a kind of stand-in for the visual. Equally, when text fails to communicate, Molin looks to the image. Technology is also a fundamental element in her work – which manifests in photographic books, video works and kinetic sculptures.

Bernd Oppl is also interested in narrative, but with more of a focus on the architectural. His sculptures, dioramas and films are often devoid of a human presence. Instead the focus is on space and perception. He repositions the viewer to think about how they experience the environment in ways that are equally poetic and playful.

In the show, their works overlap, communicate, function separately and together. The exhibition played on the concrete, linear, whitecube it inhabited. Concrete blocks, video projections, embedded screens and the written words all emerged in different forms around the room. The placement of the word riffed on the architecture of space, using its central columns and floor as much as the more obvious wallspace to display work. Oppl’s concrete blocks are like miniature versions of the room itself, or Wiels in a wider sense. Many of the words were intentionally small , forcing the viewer to come closer to peer into or decipher them. It is an interesting echo of the phone screen, crawling into bed to stare at a tiny 3 inch moving image is a common contemporary experience.

On the first wall are three works by Oppl. Lightboxes hidden within small concrete cubes, the faces of their screen facing out at different angles. The first is direct, the second viewed from above, the third seen from the side. In all the case the only way to read these images, like a book, is to come close almost til your face is on the sculpture. The artist forces you to consider the process of perception. They show backlit images taken from ruined building sites in Mallorca, the aftermath of failed capitalist projects. Broken, covered in graffiti, these abandoned spaces are an interesting echo the concrete blocks they are encased in. The images are in holes, depicting holes in space.

These sculptures become little modernist building, as much ruins as the images they project. They are between 15 and 20cm, less than a A3 piece of paper. At first the blocks appear clean and linear. Yet on closer examination these minimalist, small monoliths are rough and textured. The images they hold are also intentionally messy and chaotic. This is the underbelly of the utopian aims of modernism, crumbling in contemporary society.

In Oppl’s next work in the room, Background, the screen is used in a different way. Behind the word in the concrete cube, is the hiss and static of an old television. Rather than an old analogue, it is a flat screen with a random generator that creates this familiar noise and flickering lights. It is a literal take on the title, but also a wider comment on the art historical and construction of image. Even when we are just presented with a word, the visual is indicated or explored.

Molin’s work begins to emerge at this point in the show. On the pillar at the centre of the space is a black screen, which again takes poetry and short texts as a starting point to something sculpture or visual. These text pieces explore her take on the mechanical nature and personal experience of the camera and image itself. These again are contemporary small monoliths, moving beyond the architectural to the screen space. They create a kind of freeform poetry, synthesising our experience of a plastic, mechanised world.

There a three similar works in the exhibition. The screen itself is covered with a dark privacy film, that prevents people to the right or left reading what is on the screen. It again shifts the body’s relationship to image, forcing the viewer close and making it a more individual, intimate experience. On the other side of the pillar is a similar work, but instead coated with an iridescent pink film. The third shifts from black to yellow. They appear to be video works but in fact are static.

Equally sized is the floor projection work by Molin. A tiny beamer projects a graphic film onto the surface of a concrete block. It sits on three fictional books created by Molin, or as she puts it “potential book titles”. The video shows a cigarette burning itself until it is finished, against a red background. It highlights the fragility of the object, as much as the projected image itself. Something transient, small, easily overlooked yet full of meaning about human experience and the comedy of life.

Molin’s second floor piece is a concrete rectangular block with a bronze sculpture of a cast, decayed banana on it. It is an object beyond its use. Heaviness made from something originally light. She also plays on the history of sculpture somehow. The plinth itself is the work. The significance of the insignificant adds another dose of humour, though the process of making here is quite intuitive.

All the pieces in the show create a tension between the two and three dimensional. Only one piece is entirely collaborative in the show. It is a wall based concrete block with a debossed word “POETRY”, in a blocky Helvetica font. This piece by Oppl was amended by Molin, who placed a crushed cigarette butt on the top; like a point of punctuation. The butt itself takes on entirely different meaning. Molin’s reference was towards the concept of revolution innate in cigarette imagery. The result is humorous, and twists the seriousness of the concept of poetry into something wry and playful. Oppl’s texts are always discovered by chance – cut from newspapers or taken from song titles. The font is intentionally unspectacular and anonymous.

Alongside the sound of static, the exhibition’s is filled with noise by a single video work by Oppl which shows a plant skateboarding around an abandoned lot near the back of Wiels. The board was electronic, and we watch the organic object become semi-human, skating around a graffiti covered space – similar to the ruins in Oppl’s sculptures.

Emotion is interesting in the context of this show. Concrete is a material perhaps devoid of emotion. The choice of Oppl and Molin’s fonts, and the texts they use, evade emotion. Instead we are left with a kind of comic poetry. A desire to imbue meaning onto object, image and the mechanical. Where even plants, bananas and cigarettes are signifiers for something else. Where even in ruins there is a sense of possibility.

(Francesca Gavin)

You Could Not Even Take a Picture

The boundaries between physical and virtual space often seemed to blur in the course of the pandemic since spring 2020. In some places, home office or online teaching transformed the home into a workplace, the room in a shared flat into a seminar room. Those who didn’t have a private yacht or even a spacecraft at their disposal were thrown back on their own living situation in case of doubt, and many an executive position soon wondered aloud whether the physical learning or workspace was still really necessary. The cinema, in contrast to the streaming industry, is certainly not one of the winners of these times. A physical space (the cinema) that only serves to pave the way for a virtual space (the film) has a hard time in the pandemic. This function should also be taken over by one’s own four walls, with the help of a laptop or cell phone.

In YOU COULD NOT EVEN TAKE A PICTURE Bernd Oppl gives the stage to a special cinema. Through a shaft, viewers look inside a box at an architecture that is only illuminated for a few moments. At first glance, not much can be made out: Ceiling, walls, floor, seat covers – all black. A space that seems to disappear completely to serve exclusively the space of the film. The concept of this “Invisible Cinema” goes back to discussions between filmmaker Peter Kubelka and some architects in the late 1950s. Kubelka saw the cinema as a seeing and hearing machine that acts as a mediator between the director and the audience. The attempt to realize such a cinema space in Vienna failed for the time being, but succeeded in 1970 in New York at the newly founded Anthology Film Archives with the support of filmmaker and author Jonas Mekas. It is his voice that viewers hear when they look into Bernd Oppl’s model. The flickering spotlights that briefly illuminate the miniature cinema are controlled by the amplitudes of the voice recording. Oppl was able to record the conversation during a visit to New York before Mekas passed away in 2019. He was considered a shining light of cinematic art, never ceasing to make films himself, to speak and write about them, until his death.

The “Invisible Cinema” in its original state existed only four years. Even the emergency exit lights were shuttered at the Anthology Film Archives at that time. “You could only see the screen… you and the screen,” Jonas Mekas tells us. Looking back on the past year and a half, the statement may remind some with a shudder of their own (not always entirely voluntary) screen time. Against the background of the precarious cinema landscape, however, Oppl’s work shows above all the space of possibility that opens up in such an architecture.

(Holger Jenss)