Parallel Stress is the documentation of two actions Oppenheim performed in New York State in May 1970. The work comprises two individually framed black and white photographs and a section of typewritten text on blue paper, also framed, that are displayed in a column, one above another. In the first action, shown in the upper image, the artist stretched his body between a masonry-block wall and a collapsed concrete pier at a location between Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges in New York City. He held this position for ten minutes, straining against the pull of gravity to maintain a horizontal position. According to the text, the photograph was taken at the ‘greatest stress position prior to collapse’. The image shows the artist’s body curving downwards between his arms and hands – gripping one set of breeze blocks – and his feet – hooked onto another parallel wall also made of breeze blocks. His back arches as he hangs face-down into empty space. The second image, installed below the first, shows the artist’s body in a similar position, parallel to that assumed in the first. For this photograph, Oppenheim lay in a large V-shaped dip between two mounds of earth in an abandoned sump on Long Island. The short section of text positioned at the bottom notes the basic facts of the performance.
Parallel Stress is one of several works marking a shift in Oppenheim’s practice from the radical interventions on the landscape that he had created during the late 1960s, that came to be identified with the movement termed ‘Earth Art’ or ‘Land Art’, to another seminal movement termed ‘Body Art’. He commented:
outdoor works demanded a dialogue with time in ways that art had not done before. They were a strenuous departure from the traditional art settings and contexts. Unfortunately, the work quickly became postured, a recycling of abstract sculptural idiom ... I chose a course, a diabolical act, to circumvent it. I found this other agitation, the body, and I felt that unless I have myself the chance to pursue it, I was going to be forever disappointed. I couldn’t help but stretch myself into it ... I started a dialogue between ‘land wounds’ and scars on my body ... Then in 1969, I got video equipment, and I began to record activities. Earth Art quickly evolved into Body and Performance Art for me.
(Quoted in Heiss, p.150.)
In such works as Directed Harvest, 1966 (Tate T07590) and Directed Seeding – Cancelled Crop, 1969 (Tate T13002), Oppenheim directed agricultural machinery to operate in fields according to systems that made a pattern on the landscape, resulting in a form of ephemeral drawing. For the artist, this mark-making related to the tradition of painting, subverting it by using the land itself as the canvas and preventing the raw materials (the wheat crop, symbolising paint) from entering the food production chain as an analogy for the ‘illusionistic force on canvas’ it might otherwise become. When he began using his own body as the material of his art, Oppenheim focused on processes of exchange and effect to emphasise relations between his body as a potentially expressive tool and the materials of his environment, while playfully referring to the traditional processes of sculpture and painting. In Arm & Wire, 1969, the artist slowly rolled his arm over knotted wire, leaving deep indentations in his skin; Material Interchange, 1970, shows the artist’s fingernail lodged between gallery floorboards and a splinter from the floorboards stuck into his finger; Stomach X-Ray, 1970, is an X-ray documentation of the artist pressing his hands into his ribcage as though kneading sculptural materials; for Reading Position for a Second Degree Burn, 1970, the artist lay in the sun for five hours with an open book on his chest until his exposed skin was pigmented red by the sun, leaving a white rectangle under the book. These works insert the body of the artist as a depersonalised mark-maker on his environment or utilise it as the landscape on which external forces operate, reversing the traditional hierarchy in which the artist uses materials to create more or less expressive marks or objects. In Parallel Stress Oppenheim’s arcing body (temporarily) marks the industrial landscape of New York by bridging the two parallel walls of masonry blocks and echoing the real bridges visible in the background of the photograph. Oppenheim’s use of his body at the end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s on the American east coast had a contemporary parallel on the west coast in the actions of Bruce Nauman (born 1941). His willingness to test his body to its limits was developed further in the early 1970s by Californian artist Chris Burden and Serbian artist Marina Abramovic (both born 1946).
The photographs in Parallel Stress were taken by Joshua Kalin, who also photographed Directed Seeding – Cancelled Crop, Oppenheim’s landscape interventions in the Netherlands of the previous year. Tate’s copy of Parallel Stress is one of several versions the artist made of the work.
Alanna Heiss and Thomas McEvilley, Dennis Oppenheim: Selected Works 1967-1990, exhibition catalogue, Institute for Contemporary Art, PS1, New York 1992.
Germano Celant, Dennis Oppenheim: Explorations, Milan 2001, reproduced p.109 in colour.
Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis, Land and Environmental Art, London 1998, pp.50, 75-8 and 224-6, reproduced p.117.