Claes Oldenburg’s “The Ray Gun Wing”

Claes Oldenburg’s “The Ray Gun Wing” is a collection of items shaped like ray guns. The preceeding sentence is based on the phrase “ray gun” more than any other and assumes a passing knowledge of science fiction from 1898, with H.G. Wells’ “The Heat-Ray” in The War of the Worlds, to the use of the phrase in 1959 when Oldenburg made ‘”Empire” (“Papa”) Ray Gun,’ a ray gun soft sculpture. The concept of the ray gun is fictional, referencing weapons from science fiction cinema and literature. Oldenburg’s approach to the collection is similar to children choosing sticks, or any other object, on which to base pretend guns. The objects in “The Ray Gun Wing” are specifically ray guns.

“Empire” (“Papa”) Ray Gun. 1959. Casein on papier-mache over wire, 35 7/8 x 44 7/8 x 14 5/8″ (90.9 x 113.8 x 36.9 cm).

As Oldenburg uses it, “ray gun” is a semiotic experiment, an exercise in sensational pattern matching. The script of ray gun is applied to all objects. Like an artificial intelligence algorithm seeking out patterns, Oldenburg’s script treats everything as a ray gun and then provides a range of ray guns. Every ray gun is a ray gun but some are more ray gun than others. Yve-Alain Bois quotes Oldenburg in Formless A User’s Guide: “Examples: Legs, Sevens, Pistols, Arms, Phalli-Simple Ray Guns. Double Ray Guns: Cross, Airplanes, Absurd Ray Guns: Ice Cream Sodas. Complex Ray Guns: Chairs, Beds.” Bois explains:

“…Oldenburg made huge numbers of ray guns (in plaster, in papier-mache, in all kinds of materials, in fact), but he soon saw that he didn’t even need to make them: the world was full of ray guns. All one has to do is stoop to gather them from sidewalks…Even better he did not even need to collect them himself: he could ask his friends to bring them to him (he accepted or refused a find, based on purely subjective criteria).” (Bois, 176)

Was Oldenburg’s criteria for the potential ray guns brought by his friends purely subjective or was he running a more complex decision script that mimicked a certain subjectivity? The following mix of screen-written and computer script, including a reworked “for each” loop from a web log (Rich), is a fictional approach to a possible scenario for Oldenburg’s choices:

Selections from “The Ray Gun Wing”


	INT. STUDIO of Claes Oldenburg

Claes and Friend are standing face to face.
Friend hands Claes a roughly L-shaped object.

Here's another ray gun.

Claes looks down at the object before accepting it,
 considers it, then accepts it.

bool rayGun (acceptedObject) {

	/* Claes
		The acceptedObject must be compared against all ray guns
		 that Oldenburg has already accepted or collected.

array^ arr=gcnew array(all_existing_ray_guns);
for each (str i in arr) {

	/* Claes
		Is this ray gun outside the bounds of what we
		 can consider a ray gun?
	/* Claes
		Is this ray gun over-represented in
	/* Claes
		Is this ray gun a worthwhile exception?

	/* Claes
		Does this ray guy reinvent the entire concept of ray gun?

Thank you.


“The Ray Gun Wing”, which is a collections of results of the ray gun script and not a finished collection of all ray guns, represents a range that collectively describe a ray gun as it exists in the comparison part of the ray gun script. Oldenburg asks the viewers to go through the same process, or run the same script, as they view the ray guns in the collection. Ray guns come from plastic bits, gloves, tire pieces, mostly from things that were once something else. They are reduced to ray guns rather than built into ray guns. “The Ray Gun Wing” undoes the ray gun and defines “ray gun” as objects chosen to stretch this definition. Oldenburg insist in a multiplicity of ray guns or insists that everything could potentially become a ray gun.


Adam Trowbridge

One response to “Claes Oldenburg’s “The Ray Gun Wing”

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