Sensitive Machine at the Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College, Clinton NY, features new interactive sculptures by the American artist Sarah Oppenheimer. The show includes four newly designed “instruments”, as the artist describes her kinetic sculptures, created for the Wellin’s open-plan exhibition space that build on Oppenheimer’s recent presentations at Kunstmuseum Thun in Switzerland and the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which encouraged visitors to interact with the works.
The exhibition is “profoundly social”, Oppenheimer says, especially during Covid-19, when people are “much more aware of navigating boundaries between each other in the same space [and] always aware of policing the physical distance between us”. Through interaction with the sculptures, she hopes visitors will realign their awareness and “turn it from something forbidding and foreboding into something collaborative and joyful”.
Visitors are encouraged to view the sculptures as extensions of their personal spaces, creating heightened sensory awareness and a changed environment. They are able to realign and reconfigure the works in a tactile way by touching and turning hollow beams, setting in motion a relay of spatial cause and effect. Columns split and slide, creating new sightlines, while light fixtures rise and fall, shifting the atmosphere of the gallery. The instruments are often interconnected—turning one alters the configuration of another. Visitors experience changes in light and space, and by extension collaborate with others in that space.
It is rare to experience an exhibition from the inside looking out, or to become part of the scene by walking inside it and physically moving it, changing it and interacting with the architecture and space. “I’ve been struck by this idea of the acquisition of an embodied awareness that extends beyond ourselves,” says Oppenheimer. “Not only does the instrument extend the body, it becomes an extension of it.”
Oppenheimer describes watching visitors interact with the exhibition as “almost like watching a plant grow at an accelerated scale”. The artist says something unique happens in the moment when visitors activate the works: “They create a web that comes together through time, a symphony we are watching unfold at the Wellin.”
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated publication that includes essays by Oppenheimer and Tracy L. Adler, the museum’s director, who has been in talks with Oppenheimer about the exhibition since 2012.
“Our space becomes extended when we have an instrument as an extension of ourselves,” Adler says. “The idea of community comes to life through those activations. There’s a lot of agency within the space to attract the process of discovery.”
- Sarah Oppenheimer: Sensitive Machine, the Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, until 2 December