Dissolving the Self Through the Other

By Eckhard Schneider
Published in Kunstverein Hannover
May. 1, 1998

The following publication accompanies a traveling exhibition of early and recent works by Tony Oursler. It is divided into nine chapters, along the same lines as the nine groups of works featured in the exhibition, which comprise videos, dummies, photographs, drawings, viruses, talking lights, heads, eyes and the latest version of the CD-RW Fantastic Prayers. This adds up to a comprehensive survey of the artist's oeuvre, from Joe, Joe's Transsexual Brother and Joe's Woman - his first video, made in 1976 - to the latest works created in spring 1998 for this show, including Produced Head, Digital 3, Talking Light, some Viruses and Eyes, and a collection of new drawings. There is also a series of trash photographs, which occupy a position of particular importance. Over a period of several years, Oursler has photographed piles of garbage on the sidewalks of New York and in other places he has visited. These snapshots are reproduced in a catalogue and exhibited here for the first time.

The chapter division does not imply a strict categorical separation but follows the idea of a family in which the groups of works are individual members. And, as in most large families, there is a wide range of physical and psychological variety, offering many surprises. Yet despite the tribe's cryptic growth and diversity of appearance, it continually recalls its creator, as an omnipotent and ever-present figure. This idea is significant in two respects: on the one hand, it suggests how Oursler conceives of and plays his role as an artist, and on the other, it indicates the position he accords to the viewer in his work.

Here, the artist becomes a multiple personality, a complex figure with a baffling plethora of professions and characters. He, the artist, is also a researcher, a psychologist, an inventor, a doctor, a film director, a writer, a cameraman, a technician, a draughtsman, a photographer, and above all, an actor. Intentionally, even artfully, he gets in a situation of conflict between cold rationality, emotional action and critical contemplation. These figures act independently, but at the same time they are manipulated and "abused". From the outset, in the early videos of the 1970s and 1980s, Oursler made them the focus of his investigations, creating miniature stage sets for them, inventing, acting out and filming their limited (artistic) life, and in the process becoming a wanderer between the interior and exterior worlds. His method of working is deliberately simple, crude and direct, so that the strong psychic and emotional potential of the figures immediately break through the thin covering of artistic form and spills out naked and unprotected in front of us. Exaggerating slightly, we could say that Oursler deliberately maneuvers himself into the artistic dilemma of being the producer and consumer of his own drug, thereby enabling himself to gaze narcissistically into the depths of his own soul, hovering between voyeuristic curiosity and embarrassed resistance.

By this technical device, Oursler makes the viewer an instrument of his work, placing him or her under the spell of a self projected out into the world. The artistically crucial step is the incarnation of the self (the artist's personality and that of the viewer) in the dolls and figures of the early 1990s. The viewer spontaneously senses the fatal attraction of these figures. They are abbreviations, primal forms of the human body, and they contain no reference to art - which is what makes them so dangerous. Their entire existence is concentrated in the faces that command our rapt attention as they speak and grimace. In video sculptures, for example by Nam June Paik or Wolf Vostell, the power of the images is attenuated by the conventional shape of the monitor, with its frame like a piece of furniture that gives it the aura of a constructed object, or by the rectangular flatness of the screen, in which the voyeur's unblinking gaze domesticates the explosive force of the filmed material. But in these later works, the figures undergo a liberating transformation, turning themselves into magical siblings of their own existence. Leaving no room for resistance, the figures bear down on us with their archetypal feelings of fear and aggression, their sexual drives, their vices, their powers of seduction and their craving for compensation.

The suggestive impact of these works is rooted in the magic of projection. Technically speaking, their effect is the product of light, of electronically generated images projected onto various surfaces, mainly fragments resembling human bodies. In psychological terms, it is the result of the projection of thoughts which thereby become a mirror of the inner self. The dramatic immediacy with which this happens is explained by the excitement of the dialogue established between the figure's self and its projected twin. With these compact and relatively simple technical devices, combining a seemingly provisional method of creation with a rigorous artistic intelligence, Oursler has succeeded in breaking down the barriers between work and viewer in such a way that the external "other" can become an alternative "self".

A final important aspect of Oursler's work is his fascination with the immense potential of new technologies - especially those, such as video, in which he finds structures of a quasi-mimetic kind. Technology, in his view, has the power to imitate human spiritual and emotional capacities, and he therefore regards it as the real heart of our age. In this context, the molecular figures of Eyes, Heads and Viruses, and especially the series of Talking Lights, take on a crucial significance. They appear to reveal the true object of Oursler's investigations. Though they are initially bound by the constraints of the human figure, the technologies subsequently mutate into independent automata, which in turn become living creatures that are humanoid but no longer need to mimic the human form. In Talking Light, for example, a naked light bulb "speaks", in appropriate fashion, by flashing on and off at varying intervals and with differing degrees of brilliance. The "text" is supplied by an invisible synchronized soundtrack. And on the CD-ROM, the visual material is presented in a form that suggests the fascinating notion of intellectual self-organization; the electronic signs seem to order themselves automatically, while the producers, the artists, the technicians, and the works themselves, recede into the background.

With the work of Tony Oursler, the traditional metaphor of the "coming to life" of images takes on a new and challenging quality, addressing the society of the late 1990s. The images of the electronic media, and indeed the media themselves, are no longer a source of material that can be turned on and off at will; instead, they surround us like a fluid element in which we are just beginning to float. 

Translated from German by John Ormrod