DENNIS OPPENHEIM ESTATE
Lecture #1. 1976
Figure in the image of the artist supplied with mechanized lip sync voice control, forty 12” chairs, lectern, microphone, lamp, stereo soundtrack. Collection Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
"I would like to welcome you here tonight. Many years have passed since we have seen each other. Some of you may know, my eyesight has grown progressively worse, and although I cannot see you, I feel your presence. I will begin tonight’s lecture by refreshing your memory regarding some basic art historical facts; facts that you now realize are the basis for the conspiracy that continues
to plague us. Let us begin with the summer of 1973 in Amarillo, Texas, with the death of Robert Smithson, the American sculptor. In recalling that period most of us had no reason to believe the circumstances were anything but accidental. The aircraft simply lost control; the motor failed, he died. There were no suspicions. Four years later on July 12, 1977, sixty miles south of Las Vegas, Nevada, Walter De Maria committed suicide. He was preparing the final details concerning the installation of his lightening rod project in the desert. The art community was shocked but the investigation uncovered no circumstances that could be considered abnormal. I became suspicious. On September 11, 1977, four years after Robert Smithson’s death, Michael Heizer, the American earth artist, was found trampled to death outside his trailer east of Reno, Nevada. As far as I was concerned, my suspicions were justified. All three of these artists worked within a similar sensibility, that of large, land based projects. The coincidence was overwhelming. The art community became slightly edgy. This discomfort broke into mild hysteria when on January 15, 1979 a Boeing 747 en route to Copenhagen exploded off the coast of Sweden; all the passengers were killed. On board were Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry and William Wegman. Bomb fragments were discovered within the wreckage and the reports termed the situation “bizarre.” Apparently, the placement of the bomb in proximity
of the passengers created rather unusual after-effects. It was now overwhelmingly obvious that we were in the midst of a conspiracy. American artists who had surfaced during the sixties were the target of a carefully planed series of assassinations beginning in 1973 with the death of Robert Smithson.
I have always believed this, although with Smithson’s death I had no direct clues. Meanwhile, I began preparing myself for what I felt would be the slow and complete annihilation of the American avant garde. A methodical master plan, spread over perhaps twenty years, but successfully wiping out the backbone of American art. My first performance project using a marionette as a stand-in was tested in 1973. Many felt this was just another extension of myself, similar to the performance projects in which I involved my children in activities which spread or passed on my actions. However, behind the early performance figures was a mounting paranoia that shortly, if I remained surfaced, I too would become a victim of assassination. I was not able to detect any theme or consistent patterns in the deaths of the early victims, Smithson, De Maria, Heizer, outside of the obvious relationship of their work. I did, however, after the plane crash over Sweden in 1979 notice underlying abstract connections that are often found in the methodology or logic used in art making. On September 19, 1980 eight months after the crash of the Boeing 747, Vito Acconci fell down an open elevator shaft of his mother’s apartment building in the South Bronx. Because of my close relationship with Acconci, I was notified immediately of this tragedy and did, in fact, rush to the Bronx. It was then that I knew my suspicions were warranted. There was an artist behind these acts. The individual acts were facets within an evolving larger work. Acconci’s body lie in the basement of the tenement building. He had dropped fourteen floors. There were spears of intersecting light patterns jabbing into his body, from the cracks in the basement ceiling. They produced an almost perfect grid over the body, containing it in six squares. God knows how a body lands after a fall, a fall almost two hundred feet. But I have never seen a position like this; he was completely rigid. His right side pressed into the soft earth of the shaft’s floor, showing only the left side... he looked more as if he had risen from the ground than fallen from a great distance. His body was magically integrated within the space. As the authorities pulled Acconci from his tomb of intersecting light patterns, the imprint of his body appeared. It seemed more related to art than to death.
For the next few months I emerged myself in the examination of facts and details pertaining to what now amounted to the death of eleven artists all of which occurred between 1973-1980. I was not alone in my interrogation of these actions. I remember only too clearly back in 1970, twenty-five years ago, speculating on the art of the 80’s feeling out the sensations of my own development, testing hypothetically the duration of particular sensibilities in terms of change. The 80’s always appeared dark and mysterious somehow. The rhythm in my own work did not make the sufficient leap to afford a perspective into the future. When the eighties came upon us with Acconci’s death the new art suddenly showed itself. In some way our individual objectives gave way to a
union of investigation, our work became an instrument to combat what seemed to be happening to us. The 80’s bred “the art of survival.” Artists became investigators. The purpose of the American avant garde was to break the code, trace the connections, feel out the rhythms, and shed light on what seemed to be an untranslatable aesthetic master plan set into motion by presumably an artist. As victims continued to fall during the winter of 1981 (Robert Ryman and Keith Sonnier were taken within the same week) the better galleries began to close. Their attempts to absorb new artists to replace the growing number of assassination victims failed. Mediocrity prevailed in most of the Art community. Critical writing focused on the more lightweight developments for fear of implication or association with the aesthetics of possible victims of assassination. My new projects continued with surrogate performances. The inclusion of an Audio System built into the figures started in the mid-seventies. This device allowed me to inject live voices into the figures from offstage. These indirect performances became less frequent because the risk of even being in close proximity to the work was too great. All the strong dance companies of the late sixties were wiped out... Yvonne Rainer, Joan Jonas and Trisha Brown died during their performances. Musicians such as Phil Glass and Steve Reich went into hiding but reports suggest that Glass had been the victim of a head-on collision in the south of France. There had been no news of Steve Reich in fifteen years. Of course, I too, went into hiding. The South Houston area of New York became a barren landscape of foreclosed buildings. Some commercial industries moved into the area in a attempt to save it from complete deterioration but generally it was known as New York’s ghost town, like a stage set, it was no longer real. Landlords defaulted. Squatters began to occupy most of the buildings on West Broadway such as 420, which became the home of heroin addicts. Only two galleries remained in that area throughout this period, but, needless to say, the caliber of work they exhibited bordered on department store art and it’s proprietors had no way of relating to any sense of recent art history. Meetings of artists which proliferated during the 70’s in an attempt to confront this wave of what became known as “aesthetics of assassination” came to a halt when an entire room full of panelists and the audience were machined gunned Chicago-style, leaving only three members of the underground alive. Even that seemingly classical method of execution had the constituents of a performance or some considered art activity. One survivor spoke of bursts of machine gun fire projected from four corners. The type of cartridge used was a tracer shell which produces traces of the trajectory, causing, during the peak volley, a perfect dissection of the room from corner to corner. On November 16, 1987 an attempt was made on my life. It was only due to bizarre circumstances that I escaped only wounded. This was not uncommon. Several artists escaped assassination during this period. Never at any point were there any clues left leading to suspects. Somehow, even though the grand scale and exactness of these acts suggested an army or at least a well organized group, the inside feeling, that is, the feeling of the remaining victims, was that these acts were produced by one person."