Sarah Oppenheimer: D-17, Rice University Art Gallery, Houston, TX

Installation view

September 16 – December 5, 2010

Walking up to Sewall Hall after dark, Sarah Oppenheimer’s D-17 feels as otherworldly as the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A year and a half in the making, the epic 65-foot, aluminum-sheathed white structure angles above the transom of Sewall Hall’s front doors, into the foyer and extends into the floor of the gallery itself. Along the way the work seemingly passes through two walls of glass that act as filters, subtly changing the color of the structure as you look through them. D-17 is unexpected, surprising and completely changes your experience of the space.

Oppenheimer is known for playing with viewers’ perceptions. In some works she has altered their sense of space with sophisticated, fun house-like effects. An installation in an upper gallery of Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory art museum created what appeared to be a gaping hole in a gallery floor, with a chute that angled down to look into a neighbor’s back yard, four stories below. As one visitor described the experience, “I took my second step into the room and my stomach fell into my shoes.”

D-17 is a massive physical intervention into the building and gallery. Seeing it in bright daylight creates an entirely different experience of the installation. Approaching Sewall Hall in full sun, D-17 is essentially invisible; the wall of windows becomes a mirror reflecting the green leafy grounds of the campus. Your only real clue to what lies inside is the foot or so of the structure that pokes out from the opening above the doors. It is only once you enter through the doors that the rest of the massive construction is revealed, looming above you. While the daylight turns the building’s glass exterior into a mirror, the same thing occurs discretely inside. An overhead channel in the piece directs sunlight in from the outside, and when that channel of light hits the glass of the gallery wall, it creates a tiny mirror. Standing in the entry and facing the gallery, you can peer up into the open channel. Find just the right spot and you see the leafy swaying branches of a Live Oak, almost as if it were a film projection.

Inside the gallery is where you really feel the work’s energy. The expansive aluminum plane angles dramatically up from the gallery floor and soars out toward the courtyard beyond. That slender channel running along one side of the piece directs your eye out into the trees beyond the building. (If you happen to stand equidistant from a lobby viewer watching the tiny reflected image in the glass, you both will be watching the same scene while facing each other.)

Pulling off a work of this scale involved wood and metal fabricators, structural engineers, architects, a fire and safety inspector, as well as an intrepid construction team. The fabrication process began this summer with actual construction beginning in August. In June, Oppenheimer conducted a design workshop with Rice architecture students in which they analyzed the light conditions in the space and reflectivity of the gallery’s glass wall. In creating her work, the artist takes on the role of a scientist leading a research team as well as that of a contractor supervising a construction crew.

Where previous Oppenheimer installations centered on the idea of “holes” in spaces (she has categorized these apertures into types, among them “cinema holes,” “wormholes,” and “horizon holes”) D-17 seems to mark a shift in focus in the artist’s ever-evolving work. The aperture (light channel) is far less prominent than the enormous white aluminum plane that becomes a “research subject” for the effects of light gradated by glass planes. It’s the first time Oppenheimer has gone through transparent walls and the work generated unexpected effects for the artist. This information will no doubt be incorporated into the artist’s next installation, continuing the cycle of research, creation, and discovery that fuels her art. “It’s like life,” says Oppenheimer, “If you know what you are going to get, why do it?”