Work of Art: Device to Root Out Evil by Dennis Oppenheim

Five years after it disappeared from its former site in Ramsay, this sculpture has found a new home in Calgary’s East Village neighbourhood.

Photograph by Jared Sych

Title: Device to Root Out Evil (second version), 2004.
Artist: Dennis Oppenheim (1938 to 2011).
Medium: Aluminum, galvanized steel, Venetian glass, Plexiglass.
Size: 6.7 metres by 5.5 m by 2.75 m.
Location: 5th Street Square, 712 5 St. S.E.
Note: This installation was made possible by the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation in collaboration with the Benefic Group of Vancouver, facilitated by CHIMP Charitable Impact Foundation (Canada) and Art to Public, a subsidiary of TrépanierBaer Gallery.

 

This past summer, Device to Root Out Evil reappeared in East Village after five years out of the public eye in Calgary.

In the fall of 2008, the truck transporting the sculpture arrived in Ramsay from Vancouver amid great fanfare. An expectant crowd watched as the steeple of the miniature traditional New England-style church (not unlike the Little Church in Drumheller) was bolted into a prepared foundation at a sharp tilt. Device’s creator, the world-renowned American artist Dennis Oppenheim, was quoted in The Globe and Mail at the time, saying: “I think Calgary looks as if it’s going to become a major Canadian art city, so in that respect I’m quite pleased that it’s going there.”

The steel and aluminum framework of the structure was then set on top, wondrously balanced on the tip of the steeple, floorboards to the sky. Over the following days the belfry and front end of the peaked roof were clad in beautiful, thick slabs of handmade transparent Venetian red glass in overlapping rows. The light that shone through the roof in a range of vitreous reds — from ruby to crimson and scarlet — intensified the mystique of the sculpture.

But the Ramsay site would see a change of ownership a few years later and, in 2014, the Device disappeared.

But now it’s back, thanks to the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), the master developer of East Village. CMLC was looking to solve a design problem: a square on 5th Street S.E. at 7th Avenue needed a boost of colour and light to bring it to life as a community space. Upon learning that Device to Root Out Evil was available, they had it brought out of storage and redesigned the plaza to accommodate it, creating an engaging public space that will house the sculpture for the next five years.

Oppenheim, who passed away in 2011, traversed the possibilities of many artforms throughout his long career, including conceptual, performance, photography, land art and public art. His works often turned the tables on convention and expectations.

Device is not the only Oppenheim work that has appeared around these parts. Visitors to the Illingworth Kerr Gallery at the Alberta College of Art (now Alberta University of the Arts) in 1978 saw and heard Lecture #1, a set-up of chairs facing a lectern where a puppet in the image of the artist, complete with mechanized lip-sync controls, delivered the soundtrack of a quirky, dark lecture. (The piece is now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.) At the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff in 1983, he exhibited alongside Calgary’s own out-of-the-box installation artist Rita McKeough. And in 2009, the City of Calgary Public Art Program commissioned him to make Pathways to Everywhere for the Jamieson Place building downtown.

This article appears in the December 2019 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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