Bernd Oppl and the strangeness of the model

Krinzinger Gallery, Vienna

Bernd Oppl is an Austrian artist born in 1980. He studied at the University of Art and Industrial Design in Linz, and attended the famous WIELS Residency Programme in 2018, among a number of other awards and residencies. Most of his solo exhibitions were in Austria; elements of his work were on show at Art Brussels this year, in the booth of the Krinzinger Gallery.

An important part of Bernd Oppl’s work consists of video installations or “video sculptures” which use architectonic model spaces and infuse them with magic by using relatively simple illusionistic technical processes, such as introducing smokes, dust, or perhaps liquids, as well as geometric objects moving by way of magnetic attraction for instance, into a model which appears to be a real-size architectural space. Other works are photographs with a strong architectonic presence, which can easily appear are scuptures, such as in the series Shrinking City.

Shrinking city

The connection with the early days of cinema is immediate, and in particular with that of Georges Méliès, who built the world’s first studio in 1896 near Paris, and directed so many films of which he wrote the narrative, designed the sets, and invented the “special effects” all by himself. We understand that Oppl is quite fascinated by these ancient “machines of illusion” such as the praxinoscope. And animatograph, zoetrope and other inventions of the turn of the century. The reference to Méliès is particularly interesting, as he was the director of a theatre specialized in sleight of hand, which had been established by the greatest magician of the 19th century, Robert Houdin. Méliès thus became a specialist of optical illusion. He created the “Kinetograph”, for instance, which allows for more complex shootings. However his images are full, saturated, confusing, while Oppl’s are geometric, empty, neat. You are attracted to the world of Méliès, you wish you could escape from the one Oppl. Illusion is a common set of techniques, but what do they serve?

Of course, Oppl does not only reproduce and modernize these century-old illusionistic devices, which would only constitute a pleasant hobby. We witness here a process by which the illusion is elevated, so to speak, from the curious to the strange, and from the amusing to the threatening. This is achieved by a combination of means which relate both to form and to subject.


The “subject” is often an architectural space, or sometimes glass façades in the case of photographs; and in these spaces there is absolutely no human (or animal) presence, only the possibility of such a presence as suggested by some scarce pieces of furniture. As if all had gone, or died, or could not come back into what feels like a contaminated space. By what we do not know, although you may actually see these threatening clouds moving around in the series Terminal or Diffusion.


From a formal perspective, Oppl creates images which are extremely neat, with strong contrasts, exhibiting mostly clean angles or elementary forms; most of his work is in black and white. The absence of colour immediately signals that we are not in the actual world. We may be in a different time, or a different space. The “pure forms” have a Platonic connotation that is virtually unescapable, and would easily explain the absence of any living form. The fact that we are placed in front of models is of course a practical necessity for the creation of the special effect. One could state nevertheless, without being formally contradicted by Oppl’s works, that they offer us the idea of a contamination, a decay of the model, of the ideal world, even before reality itself. As we know, the model is a key paradigm of today’s world: decisions are made according to what models tell us, whether these are climate  models, financial models, macroeconomic, or any other model. What if the model is flawed, contains impurities, opaque elements ?

As models are children of Reason, and function by abstracting information from reality, simplifying such information to the point where it become quantifiable and calculation is made possible, and ultimately forecasting, they require to discard what is hard to quantify, and to endow with numbers what is not. And because they are transparent, clean so to speak, they become difficult to discard or disparage:  why would you contest what is there for all to see, in full light ? 

Of course, the small size of the video boxes used by Bernd Oppl tend to let the cat out  of the bag: these boxes operate like peep shows, voyeuristic devices, allowing you to peer into the model, and its failings; like if it were a dirty secret. After all, pornography is the reduction of human relationships to one single dimension ; the model operates in a similar fashion, as it is a reduction of reality which allows to make operations on, and ultimately modify, reality.


“I stage the realities in front of and behind the screen”, Oppl tells in an interview. By “staging” he must have meant select, manipulate (in the etymological sense), control. The reality shown is not a mirror of reality, it is a transposition, a noesis.  And how not to imagine these small magnetic cubes popping out from the side doors and assembling into a threatening, unidentifiable form, as the bricks of our actions and knowledge building up some “entity” of which the design and purpose escape our understanding?

Yes, Oppl uses illusionism, probably not to entertain, but possibly to warn. This topic is of course not new, and many relevant questions have already been asked in the work of many artists. We find here a different angle, with an approach open and ambivalent enough to avoid the usually indigestible pomposity of new converts to the questioning of reality. Something frivolous does linger in the air, despite everything else.

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