Philadelphia has a new sound. Home to the Declaration of Independence and the famous Liberty Bell, the city now hosts an installation of bell-like public sculpture by conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim. Wave Forms is spectacular, featuring six, 20 foot, bell shapes made of aluminum tube and perforated aluminum, in open-air courtyards adjacent to a new apartment complex at the University of Pennsylvania. One three-bell cluster rises 34 feet tall. The bells lay, stack and swing atop a patterned base made of granite. Vines grow on and through the sculpture itself. The bells, set in the open air, are illuminated at night.
Passerby and visitors can walk under, around, and through the bell forms. The granite is patterned after sound waves that crisscross and collide under the bells. The sculptural forms resemble the famous bell’s shape but Oppenheim reinvented the iconic symbol with inserted architectural elements including windows, promoting transparency.
“By taking the visual configuration found in sound waves to structure the plaza garden, I could detour from the more obvious associations brought forth by the Liberty Bell, Philadelphia’s most famous image. By increasing the scale of the bells to approximate architecture, I was able to disturb the association of the bell as ‘object’ to bell as ‘dwelling’ ” says Oppenheim. Oppenheim has become one of the preeminent artists working today in the context of large-scale fine art for public spaces. The artist and his studio are concurrently working on major projects for six US states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan and North Carolina) and also for Spain and China.
Wave Forms comments on the Liberty Bell and its role as both a symbol for American ideals and aspirations and as a centerpiece for the city’s marketing and tourism. The conceptual bells of Oppenheim, using modern materials and ideas, brings to the viewer a contemporary statement regarding how one interprets and ultimately uses history. The bell forms and sound wave patterns evoke history and modernity, freedom and enclosure, silence and speech. The artist brings forth the ideas of dwelling place and the organic, unpredictable nature of change.
Wave Forms is a $1.2 million project sponsored by the Hanover Company under the guidelines of Philadelphia’s Redevelopment Authority Public Art Program. The Slought Foundation presented a public exhibit titled: “Wave Forms: Proposal for 3401 Chestnut St., Philadelphia” in the spring of 2006. Oppenheim refined his proposal in consultation with the landscape architect Sara Peschel. The work was engineered, transported and installed by La Paloma Fine Art of Sun Valley, California.