Archival Interrogation

Archival Interrogation

An investigation into the relationship between narrative and imagery characterises the work of American artist Lisa Oppenheim (b.1975). Her practice is guided by an interest in the process of creating photographs and film. This preoccupation, paired with the use of historical material, questions both the documentary genre and the concept of the archive. In utilising these past sources, Oppenheim interrogates the role they play in narrative making. At the heart of a  recent exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art, Ohio, is an exploration into the significance of the spine, its connection to nature, the body and labour.

Central to Spine is a series of repurposed compositions from the 20th century artist and sociologist Lewis Hine, who used the medium as a tool for societal reform. He is recognised for the portrayal of the working conditions in American mills and factories, particularly in relation to immigrant and child labour. The illustrations, appropriated from the Library of Congress’ archives, capture the physically misshapen backs of adolescent women, demonstrating the detrimental health effects of textile manufacture on the body. Continuing a trademark method of reprocessing antique compositions, Oppenheim printed the depictions to life-sized scale, bisecting each on the vertical lines of the subject’s vertebral column. By creating photographs and videos, which connect historical imagery with the present, she gives the pictures new forms and contexts, inviting viewers to question their nature.

The transformed Hine portraits are accompanied by a series of jacquard loom woven textiles, Pre-Colombian artefacts from the museum’s permanent collection. Together, these pieces consider the poetic relationship between labour and the evolution of industrial production. A catalogue, created in collaboration with independent writer and curator Karen Archey, is released is partnership with the exhibition.


Lisa Oppenheim: Spine, MOCA Cleveland, until 14 May.

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1. Lisa Oppenheim, Mildred Benjamin. Right Dorsal Curvature (2016). Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery.