It’s been years since I have looked at Tony Oursler’s work in any sustained and critical way. In fact, the last time I saw his trademark faces projected onto fabric and resin objects must have been at Metro Pictures in the late-1990s, a time when video installation had so recently broken through the esteemed walls of the Museum of Modern Art. I was excited then by Oursler’s work because, as the second wave of video art, it was still doing something that the first wave – the likes of Gary Hill, Stan Douglas, and Bill Viola – had not yet done. And seeing some of Oursler’s recent work at JGM Galerie in Rue du Temple, I am delighted to report that he is still pursuing the medium in new and exciting ways.
Describing the works is challenging because they are weird and wonderful, joyous and heartwrenching, funny and sad, and just plain obscure. And on top of all these mixed messages and meanings, the video installations are not for the casual gallery hopper. This is heavy stuff, both intellectually and emotionally challenging in all sorts of different ways. This is my excuse for not promising to understand Oursler’s work fully. Its complexity, multiple layers and not always obvious philosophical, art historical, and theoretical infusions make it difficult to access.
The faces, or more usually eyes and lips, openings in painted skin, projected onto figures made of fabrics, resin and plaster have a dual function: At one and the same time, the moving images are dependent for support on, as well as animate, often anthropomorphize, the figures, shapes and unidentifiable things onto which they are projected. It’s hard to believe, but the quiet, anxious voice that emanates from huge grey lips surrounded by eight single eyes in Star (2005) solicits our empathy and identification. This monster like image or object, this thing that is created through video superimpositions, has a voice so soft, so gentle that we are drawn close to hear it speak, and as we are drawn close, the image disintegrates, or we lose its sense of cohesion. Her words are disjointed, fragmented, not telling a coherent narrative, but rather, like other of her monster companions, she speaks the agony and alienation of a life of urban loneliness. Million Miles (2007) in the basement of JGM even says as much with her appealing face, and tentacle-like arms wrapped around herself. She cries out, not literally, but in the sensitivity of her voice, the appeal of her deformed face, and her unhealthy skin. She echoes the difficulty of living, being alone, abandoned. Million Miles like Star is a figure, a being, or some kind of monster and discolored aberration who, to our eye, has repulsive features, but to whom we are nevertheless emotionally and psychologically drawn.
The voices of these animated forms cry simple requests to be fed and loved, and they reminded me of the replicants in Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982) who want nothing more than to be human. There is something about these nightmarish shapes that has them screaming at us (despite the softness of their voices) wanting the same as us – more life. Therefore, to make another reference, they also reminded me of the grotesque figures out of the urban conflictual nightmares in Cindy Sherman’s world. However, Oursler’s intricate and provocative video installations go further. The figures and forms are appealing, we are drawn to them, and rather than being confronted by Sherman in drag, we actually identify very strongly with the cries of Ousler’s freaks.
On an intellectual level, the most obvious, and perhaps the easiest, interpretation is the videos’ discourse on death, on age, anxiety and the deterioration of the body as it morphs uncontrollably into something we do not want it to be. In addition, the works must be all about seeing as they are all about the eyes, the body in disintegration, discolored skin. Even when they venture away from images of eyes and mouths, the mixed-media installations will include mirrors, reflections, cut glass and complex visual mazes. In one of the installations, The Angle, The Tilt, and the Point of View for Allendale South Carolina, 1998, a piece of glass is cut both to reflect the video image back onto a resin environment and to allow the same image to filter through onto the wall behind. Critics have written about how Oursler’s works hold a mirror up to us, to our unconscious to the unfettered, uncensored image of our insides. And that mirror is enabling a form of seeing, a new form of vision, it is accordingly, a vision that resonates with a surrealist dream world.
Even without the theoretical interpretation, his works continue to manipulate us physically. As I mention, in Star we are all too ready to walk around, to walk up to the installation, looking and listening for the best angle. Downstairs at JGM there is a miniature man on the ground who forces us to bend and contort our bodies, our vision becoming corporealized, in an attempt to see him. And in another variation on the kinds of vision Ousler pushes us to experience, the faces, the eyes and lips of a work such as Thaw repel us, straining our vision in a different way yet again, as we make compromises to accommodate its distortions. Clearly, these physical experiences of vision resonate with the groundbreaking installations of Bruce Nauman, who was among the pioneers of the art form to invite us to participate in a time based media experience. Like Nauman, my suspicion is that Oursler is not really interested in representation, so much as he wants to create a new experience of the conceptually motivated art work for the gallery goer. And again, this is an experience that is uncomfortable as it challenges the conventions of viewing (mass media) as we have known them up to this point.
In spite of the frustrations and discomfort, there is also a sense of joy when together with these creatures and microscosms. Each installation is a wonderland, of the unconscious, as well as a place created by stream of consciousness. Just like the surrealist world from the first half of the twentieth century, these works have an uncanniness to them. It is as though a stone has been lifted and a kingdom of crawly things are there, waiting to be set free, by me as I lift that stone. There is, ultimately, so much going on in Oursler’s work, most of which resists rationalization and conscious process. Letting go to this confusing place outside of language, is the joy of being with Oursler’s video installations.
--Frances Guerin. film historian and writer living in Paris (see France's blog FX Reflects)
(Images top-bottom: Tony Oursler, Star, 2010; Tony Oursler, Thaw, 2010; Tony Oursler, Million Miles, 2010; all images ©André Morin courtesy JGM.Galerie, Paris; (bottom image) Tony Oursler, (detail image) ©Tony Oursler studio.)