Reviews:

Bernd Oppl’s Surreal Interiors Come Alive, in Athens

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Bernd Oppl, Sick Building, 2012; video, 7 minutes.
Bernd Oppl, Sick Building, 2012; video (still), 7 minutes.

“Inhabited” is usually a reassuring word. The works in “Bernd Oppl: Inhabited Interiors” at the Georgia Museum of Art, however, beg the unsettling question: who, or what, is inhabiting these interiors? Three short works—Flock, Hotel Room, Sick Building—by the Vienna-based artist are being screened in silent rotation, none of which depict a human presence. According to curator Laura Valeri, the artist considers the spaces themselves as the protagonists.

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These blank-walled, barely furnished halls and rooms register both as absolutely normal, unremarkable spaces and as eerily empty. Or rather, they begin empty before surreal effects begins to take over the environment. One might think that the protagonists in these black-and-white dramas are not the spaces but the encroaching substances—such as goo or a dark swarm—that invade them.

The bland interiors serve as blank slates for the consuming forces that overtake them.  Consider, for example, Flock (2010). This four-minute video opens on an empty white room, a door slightly ajar in the center. From the darkness beyond the door frame a black mass comes swooping in from the left before spilling out toward the viewer and rushing past the camera lens out of view to the right. As the black dots amass and move through the space, they resemble insects or wind-blown debris. The source of motion is a mystery. It strongly suggests Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds, whose titular creatures also seem compelled by a mysterious natural force. Oppl cites the director as an influence along with horror films.

Bernd Oppl, Flock, 2010; video, 4 minutes.
Bernd Oppl, Flock, 2010; video (still), 4 minutes.

Like many people who see these videos, I was curious about how Oppl creates such effects. Remarkably for today, these are filmed events (rather than animated or digital ones) of actual materials that seem to move on their own. To create the scenes, Oppl builds architectural models inspired by Hitchcock films, adds whatever substance he’s using, and  rotates the model with a camera tightly affixed. The rotation causes elements to move within the structure, but this artifice is undetectable while viewing the film.

Initially, I wished that the wall text of the exhibition hadn’t explained his process, because it destroyed my suspension of disbelief. On further consideration, the artist’s openness about his process—his films are often displayed alongside a rotating model, although they are not in this exhibition—reveals an interest in perception and technology. Oppl uses the camera to bridge the gap between human experience and its perception, the gelatinous world of the cinematic and the real world of the viewer. His camera becomes our window into a world that we know to be unreal and yet that seems unshakably real.

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“Bernd Oppl: Inhabited Interiors” is on view at the Georgia Museum of Art through September 16, 2014.

Linnea West, a recently returned native of Athens, Georgia, is a writer and art blogger pursuing a masters in art history at the University of Georgia.