Dennis Oppenheim Device to Root Out Evil

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  • Topic: Venice Biennale, Stanford University, Contemporary art
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  • Published : October 9, 2006
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Device to Provoke Censorship

Tom Bricker
Contemporary Art History
May 11, 2006

Journalist Allan Jenkins once said, "Censorship in any form is the enemy of creativity, since it cuts off the life blood of creativity: ideas." Censorship weakens a society's ability to produce provoking and interesting things, and ultimately results in a homogenized world where all is made bland in order to avoid offending anyone. Censorship is an all too common plight of the art community; pieces are censored because they are deemed offensive, irreverent, or just plain misunderstood. Dennis Oppenheim has first-hand experience with the wrath of censors; his artistic tenure has suffered from many of his adversaries' attempts to hide his works from the public eye.

When the President of Stanford University, John Hennessy, rejected Device to Root out Evil, an outdoor piece Oppenheim had made, Oppenheim suffered such censorship. The piece Stanford had intended to acquire was Oppenheim's second reproduction of a piece he created for the 1997 Venice Biennale. Stanford's director of the Cantor Arts Center, Tom Seligman agreed to purchase the piece from Oppenheim in 2002. In 2004, Stanford terminated this agreement, as the Dean for Religious Life informed the University of "potentially inflammatory elements"1 in the piece. When writing a letter as to why the plans for acquiring the art were terminated, Hennessy replied, "[Device to Root out Evil] was not an appropriate addition given our long-term goals for outdoor art."2

In order to understand the controversy surrounding the device, one must understand its background and implications. Device to Root out Evil was originally envisioned in 1996 and was to be built in Public Art Fund in the city of New York last year on Church Street. However, the director of the Public Art Fund felt the name of the piece, Church, would elicit a backlash from the religious community. Not wanting the piece to get buried in a sea of controversy before it was even made, Oppenheim changed to name to something more subtle: Device to Root out Evil. At this point, however, the piece was no longer wanted by New York.

The Venice Biennale, located in Marghera just south of Venice, found the piece to its liking. Oppenheim created the main portion of Device to Root out Evil out of Galvanized structural steel and anodized perforated aluminum, adding transparent red Venetian glass to serve as the church's roofing, all set on a concrete foundation. The final structure stands 25 feet tall by 15 feet wide by 12 feet deep. The original piece still stands outside the warehouse of Oppenheim works in Marghera, with two reproductions being made by Oppenheim; one stands in Lincoln, Nebraska at the headquarters of Duncan Aviation, with the other, aforementioned Stanford-reject being showcased at the Vancouver International Sculpture Biennale Open Spaces 2005/2006. Oppenheim has had different explanations for why he built Device to Root out Evil at different times. Shortly after the piece first premiered at the Venice Biennale, Oppenheim said this about it, "It's a very simple gesture that's made here, simply turning something upside-down. One is always looking for a basic gesture in sculpture, economy of gesture: it is the simplest, most direct means to a work. Turning something upside-down elicits a reversal of content and pointing a steeple into the ground directs it to hell as opposed to heaven." At the time he mad this quote, it was obvious that the piece was made in a response to certain questions about religion that lingered in Oppenheim's mind. When considering the piece, let us begin with the name. Device to Root out Evil. The connotation of the name alone suggests an exorcism of sorts. The ways the religious inundate foreign soil, on ‘missions' to help, while really attempting to spread its ideologies. It also alludes to the way religion is used as a façade for advancing one's causes…the way people use God to...
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