Face to Face

By Lise Pennington

Published in ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum: Face to Face exhibition catalogue
Mar. 2, 2012

In the exhibition Face to Face you con come face to face with New York-based video artist Tony Oursler's strange and remarkable universe. Using humor as a tool, his artwork balances on the edge of insanity. Step closer and allow yourself to be lost in the exhibition's clinical interiors, where white labyrinthine passageways lead you into a world of preposterously wild, morbidly funny and fantastically spectacular video installations. With Tony Oursler's distinct almost-living objects, we have here an untraditional video art exhibition where the interaction between audience and works is in focus. The exhibition Face to Face takes you on a bizarre journey, as if you were Alice in Wonderland who, in a jiffy, is sucked through a deep hole and finds herself in a world where anything can happen. So, step right this way!
By Lise Pennington
The American video artist Tony Oursler is known for involving both sculptural and performative elements in his work with the video medium, which he has worked with intensely since the late 1970s. But through the 1990s he developed his very own genre. He projected video onto different objects and in that way created peculiar dolls that, by magic means, were able to speak. This was a totally unique artistic take that today is characteristic of his many works. His video art differs from many other works of video art in the very fact that it is not viewed on traditional screens or surfaces. He abandons the TV monitor and jumps out in advanced visual, performative and acoustic experiments with references to visual art, theatre and music. Tony Oursler combines the video medium with a number of physical objects, such as dolls, furniture or organic forms cast in fiberglass, and breaths life into them with the help of striking images and soundtracks. Through the visual and auditive Tony Oursler creates a magical, humorous, and at times terrifying form of life, which in fascinating ways balances between humor and madness, reason and schizophrenia.

Among the first things one meets when moving through the exhibition's labyrinthine universe is a small creature lying wedged under a chair. It is a doll with a round head made of fabric and a limp body in a floral dress. Onto its head, which is merely a lump of cloth, a face is projected. By such a simple means this small creature is brought to life. The cloth lump becomes a living entity, as we bend down in order to listen to it. "It's inside me, I feel it, but then I'm the Devil's daughter", whispers the doll. It is the Devil's daughter lying there, like a mutated version of the beautiful Rosemary, from the film Rosemary's Baby, in this version though Rosemary is anything but beautiful, yet she feels, as in the film, the evil within. And as is often the case with Tony Oursler, the work contains yet another twist. The doll is not just sinister; it is also comical and ridiculous. As in many of Tony Oursier's works the doll has an odd duplicity: it is flimsy and vulnerable but at the same time also alarming and wicked. Should we care or should we be disgusted? Should we laugh or should we cry?

One thing that fascinates Tony Oursler about the video medium is the way in which it can awaken emotions. In the early years the artist was inspired by American soap operas and the gamut of emotions in each of the various characters, which are so caricatured that they seem absurd, but simultaneously manage to stir feelings in many of us. Since he was a very young artist, Tony Oursler has been occupied with the question of meaning in the TV medium towards people's behaviour and ability to show empathy. Consequently, he has since worked with the theatrical staging of motionless dolls and the establishment of cacophonous sound images, to investigate the ability of the video medium to communicate feelings. The question of how little or how much is needed before we feel empathy or aversion, plays an extremely central role in his art. This question relates to considerations concerning TV and video media images in the USA and their meaning for our understanding of reality.

The French sociologist, cultural theorist and philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, has referred to the influence of the American media image on the notion of reality in his 1986 travel narrative America. The book is a kind of travel postcard, where he, amongst other things, writes about violence in the Wild West, on jazz, on the empty desert, on neon lights in the night, and on gang wars in New York. Baudrillard broadly criticises the USA for being a glittering empty shell, a hollow non-culture, or a hyperreal culture, as he calls it. That is to say, a culture that is more real than reality. What once was original has been replaced with a substitute. But those who live the illusion experience it as reality. One is so to speak, involved in an illusion, where one believes that one actively participates in something which does not exist in actuality. He uses the term "simulacrum" to describe it. Originally the word simulacrum was used to describe images without content, quality and originality: a copy or an empty shell that has a hollow ring. However, in Baudrlllard the idea Is developed as not merely a copy of reality, but a new reality - what he calls hyperreallty, as it is more real than real.

A number of newer works composed of plexiglass, dolls' faces, lumps of clay, molten glass, and small artificial flowers form the scenery for a number of miniature grottos, sculptures and houses, in which video projections hide. They are all mounted on a metal stand at eye level, so one can look directly into them when one goes searching for cinematic motifs. Tiny men and women crawl around inside next to a gigantic thumb, for Instance, or an all-too-large head. Many of Tony Oursler's visual concepts are founded on a long philosophical tradition. Therefore, when he literally creates caves with images on the walls it is only natural to compare them with Plato's cave parables, which tell how some captives sit in a cave with their backs toward the entrance of the cave. The world which the captives believe is the real one is the shadow images that are cast on the back wall. But Tony Oursler's art does not merely present a reflection of the world, like Baudrillard's hyperreallty or Plato's shadow markings, in Tony Oursler's works not even that which is reflected is real. As such, we are presented with a world that is not real, yet one which we are able to Imagine.

The miniature scenes do not only give Tony Oursler a special chance to play with scale and seriously jump in size, but also to use the little tableau as a theatre scene for a universe where anything can happen. Alice in Wonderland has now shrunk a little. As in earlier doll works, Tony Oursler is investigating reality, or rather our concept of reality. A question that is raised is whether the things are real when they are merely experienced as real. In line with Plato's cave markings, where reality is apparently only shadows. Or does a thing become real through our feelings as when we empathise with the characters in a soap opera? When we look into Tony Oursler's universe we know full well that it is a constructed scene or an extraordinary creature, but the effect is rather convincing. The trick Tony Oursler employs when he projects onto objects is that he animates them to such a degree that we follow with the game for a moment. We are led astray.

Lock is a gigantic installation one has to move through. It is built up as stage scenery where the image comes together in one composition when one views the work from a central point. Through a sequence of images the overall picture changes from being an almost painterly play with colours - red, blue and yellow fields - into very large faces, a pipe that smokes itself or simply a brick wall. When one moves through the installation the collected image dissolves and one discovers the individual parts which together make up the collected image. The soundtrack creates a background weave of murmuring: "Come back you coward, you want to go back In and hide", as if suggesting that one leaves in cowardly fashion, and does not dare come back out of fear of being swallowed up by the overwhelming and growing installation. The journey through this installation is to a large extent physical, where the sound, scale and transformations around oneself emerge from all sides. With Oursler we experience the world through technology and the media society, but we are also at the same time kept in a mental space. He both breeds and cultivates the nervousness, and allows psychology to meet advanced technology.

The exhibition is entitled Face to Face because a large part of Tony Oursler's work involves the face and an interest of how the face can communicate emotions. For example, the news presenter on TV whose body is dissected by the TV frame, but whose face, without body and without large gesticulation. Is able to communicate deep gravity when the news deals with tragedy, only to switch thereafter to a little light humor when it is time for a weather forecast. In contrast to the extreme exaggeration in soap operas, the news presenter's communication is achieved by very small means; a raised eyebrow or a head slightly tilted to one side. With Tony Oursler questions such as these are flipped and turned, and occasionally taken all the way to their logical conclusion. When his faces are missing a nose, hair, an ear or a throat it stems from a desire to investigate how few of the facial elements are needed for us to still interpret it as a face and for it to still be capable of communicating emotions. He utilizes both the advantages, challenges and limitations of the TV medium, and builds further on the ways in which TV has taught us to experience the world. So when either the restrained news presenter or the exaggerated Krystle from the 80s TV series Dynasty, in glittering golden robes, is again struck by tragedy, then it is TV phenomena such as these Tony Oursler zooms in on when creating strange beings, which we do not know whether to laugh or cry with. He examines relations between humans and the systems of mass media by using the video medium in other ways than via the TV screen.

A totally round head, without either ears, nose or throat addresses you in a mixture of an accusatory and love-hungry tone: "You want all the fun!" as if she in any case is not having fun, and then in the next moment pesters you for love: "Love, love me please, pretty please with sugar on top, top, top, top." Immediately after which she protests that love is flowing out of her: "Love-is-coming-out-of-me-to-you", as if it is going a little crazy and then totally nuts when she repeats 3 times in a row: "Cuddle-connectics-cuck-konk-clock-cling-to-me. Cuddle-connectics-cuck-konk-clock-cling-to-me. Cuddle-connectics-cuck-konk-clock-cling-to-me".

By making use of bodily symbols like, for example, the face, Tony Oursler opens up a long list of references within the world of media, but also within psychology. Our ability to read other people, to feel empathy or a lack of the same, has been the pivotal point for much of Tony Oursler's work. He has over a number of years been extremely interested in psychological phenomena; for instance, split personalities (MPD or multiple-personality disorder). Several of Tony Oursler's figures, aside from relating to the systems of mass media, have often several personalities, In that they change character. They can be both surly and happy at the same time, and they want to be hated and loved simultaneously. Many of the scenes Tony Oursler presents for us have a schizophrenic character, where reality closes down and melts together with a scheme of things that can be difficult to figure out. He creates a fantastic form of life which contains both psychotic and schizophrenic sides.

The exhibition also has contemplative sides. If one is not stood face to face with a roaring hellish fire, where the core of the fireball gloats over how hot it is and verbalizes all the sounds of the explosions: "boom, boom, boom - I'm the best - boom, boom, boom - I'm blowing up the whole room", then one can in fact also meet gentle, quiet, and meditative works. In an extremely still space, tranquil eyes are installed as a large mobile. The eyes look only at you. No matter where you go they stare at you, and the work has in its entirety a very beautiful and compelling calm over it: an all-monitoring sensation, like a visualized surveillance camera that slowly follows along with each movement. Another calm place to stop on the journey is on the way out of the exhibition hall. After a tour through a psychotic universe, with rather few calm moments, one can finish with a cigarette in peace and quiet. Except for the fact that the smoking break's reference point, namely the cigarette, is actually various man-height cigarettes, which like a whole little forest or peculiar, spiritual totem poles, just stand there and smoke themselves. The only smoking experience one gets oneself is the sound of a cigarette being smoked; the soft crackling when the cigarette burns in peculiar ways both up and down. Take a deep breath; you are now out on the other side.