The Pathology of Projections & Cynical Spiritualism
By Carlo McCormick
Published in Artangel
Nov. 1, 2000
Shamans and priests, doctors and healers, scientists and seers, alchemists and astronauts, artists and tricksters all: each with their different agendas, all after the same old riddles, conjuring the unknowable as manifest with the consensual authority, chicanery and conceit of their esoteric crafts. For this post-evolutionary ape's first protocultural gestures, be it looking to the skies for the face of god or painting in the caves to visualize the magic of a successful hunt, the need for answers is of the same root as our capacity to make up our truths as we go along. And when you're wielding generalities, speculations, superstitions, and methodologies that are at best myopically reductionist, as the validating proof of some transsubstantial cosmological certainty, well, you best have some skills in the sleight of hand and work in gestures that are grander than the practicalities of life itself.
We are by nature a rather skeptical species. Yet, of all God's creatures we are certainly the only ones who across all cultures have believed in an invisible, absolutely irrational, supernatural, spiritualist dimension. Tony Oursler, one of those rare exceptions who seemingly has not been wired to make such leaps of faith, is hardly a believer. And his art is not really concerned with God or gods per se. Most likely such deep theological issues would be a little too silly for him. What Oursler's The Influence Machine is more about, is the curious, seemingly inexplicable, aspect of the mind to invent these metaphysical forces, and to believe in them. The art in this for Oursler is not some divine spirit, but the very human capacity to project these images into the ether, void of existence, in such a way that they suddenly become apparent.
Lest the very idea of talking to such an unrepentant atheist as Tony Oursler about spirituality in his art seems the visual equivalent of looking for the face of Elvis in a moldy piece of bread, consider that he was born Fulton Oursler III. That would make his grandfather, Fulton Sr., the author of The Greatest Story Ever Told, a broad popularization of The Bible (if ever there was an oxymoron), that became an enduring best-seller in America. Fulton Sr., a long-time editor for the likes of Liberty Magazine, and the very successful True Crime, a magazine which he co-founded, authored some hundred-plus books in his lifetime, but it was his Greatest Story that proved to be his greatest success, a biblical epic of such proportions that Hollywood itself could not resist turning it into one of the most successful stories of the life of Jesus ever to hit the big screen. The movie version, directed by George Stevens, arrived in 1965 with a star studded cast including Max Von Sydow, Telly Savalas, Dorothy McGuire, Charlton Heston, Jose Ferrer, Claude Raines and Van Heflin. Big budget and monumental, at some 225 minutes long, this pompous spectacle remained for many generations the closest most Americans ever got to actually knowing the Bible. And then Junior, Tony's dad, after a long career as editor and vice president of the immensely popular magazine Reader's Digest, went on to be the founding editor of Angels on Earth, where every month readers were regaled with "true stories" of divine intervention and the kind of blessings that come with faith. Still being published and widely read today, Angels on Earth offers up stories based in faith through angelic intervention, stories in which these celestial spiritual bodies literally would come down to our material world to guide and assist those in great need.
This abiding sense of faith, at once so abstracted in Tony's own work, is to his creative process "an inherited mantra - guardian angels and devils - almost like a mental illness." In as much as Tony Oursler's vision is honed by scrutiny and doubt - his lens a kind of super-acute analytic tool - his long-standing fascination with the psychological topographies of image, form and narrative must intuitively stem from this familial and greater social dementia of belief. Like some prodigal child who has deliberately thrown out the transcendental map that has been passed down in his family for generations, Oursler has danced in self-imposed exile around the proverbial garden - always on the outside, but still looking in, forever staying away, but never too far from the cloying embrace of religion's comforting and complacent home. "It's intense," Oursler admits, "you can't get rid of it."
The legacy here is certainly much more than an aesthetic armature of denial. To enjoy how that which "you can't get rid of" plays out in Tony Oursler's early single-channel video work, consider how his hilariously amateur puppet shows relate to the crude programming of old Christian television children's shows. Think of Davey and Goliath, a claymation cartoon that doubled as Bible-story lessons, which ran throughout America as early morning children's television programming, or for the great aficionados of pop oddity, try out the obscure treasure of Ventriloquist Children's TV shows, a la Jimmy and Rusty, or Marcy, and countless others that had their heyday in the early to mid-Seventies on local affiliates and regional stations as a truly perverse form of Bible story-lessons, featuring some ventriloquist (usually a woman) with a dummy child on her knee, explaining the parables and moral truths of the good book. For Oursler, this kind of absurdity takes on greater relevance in the light of the fact that the first television broadcast was of a ventriloquist.
Oursler still has his fun, but in his mature work produced since the mid-Eighties, his jaded punk sarcasms of yore have been replaced by greater complexities of information manipulated through ever more baroque fantasy structures and paranoid delusions. Kind of like the evolution of most religions, you may be thinking. It is certainly these fantasy structures, socially inherited or physiologically inherent, that fascinate Oursler, and provide the strongest link between his oeuvre and the outstanding dominant body of contemporary spiritual practice. Growing up Catholic, or as he describes it, "believing in a system
that's not there," what Oursler learned from a family of church-based storytellers is a particular kind of inflection, a way of conjuring disembodied forms and fleshing out the immaterial. In such a way, we can see these same kinds of spiritual parable strategies employed by Oursler in his most renowned body of sculptural work, when he projects actual human faces on rag dolls - making us see what's literally not there in a humbuggeried suspension of disbelief. These are narrative devices and representational strategies he uses, not simply because they make good art (hell, in a world where "a sucker is born every minute," they are the essence of show biz itself), but because they are at the heart of contradictions around which all his pictorial issues revolve. Tony Oursler as an apparent heir to the new genres of Seventies art, is concerned with process more than product, and when he tricks us into seeing things that aren't there, or pushes our emotional buttons, he's not doing it to manipulate us so much as to help us understand the formal ways in which these kinds of manipulations can occur.
Premiered in New York during America's anachronistic pagan holiday of Hallowe'en - a sort of hyper-commercialized celebration of the dead replete with witches, skeletons and all manner of cartoonish morbidity - and in London in the waning days of Fall into Winter, itself a seasonal metaphor for life's mortal transience, Oursler's The Influence Machine was in every way a public haunting. The artist here is himself going further than creating an elaborate multi-media spook house (though it does clearly enjoy some of those elements), he's revisiting the ways in which such apparitions act as ephemeral transmissions between the frailty of existence and the vast unknown of death. For believers and non-believers alike, the notion of life after death cannot help but have an irresistible appeal. For Oursler, whose art and ideas maintain a brutal existentialism (not to be confused here with nihilism, which is far too depressing and negative for Oursler, who prefers to regard all this with a greater sense of humor and pleasure), the fashions by which we collectively imagine some continuance after this brief futile dance upon Earth are perhaps an even greater mystery than life itself. Even with the modest comforts of secular humanism, the position that Oursler is willing to accept, a here-today-gone-tomorrow, worm-food spiritless biological absolute, is mighty hard to take, as is, without compromise. Don't we all need some sort of construct of ulterior being, a grand master-plan to give sense and solution to why we are here in the first place? Every culture across all times and environments has imagined its own vision of guiding forces and constructed its elaborate rituals for death and burial. As different as all religions may be, in the end, doesn't their existence in every isolated facet of human consciousness or corner of this planet tell us that
we all need this embrace to keep our very sense of self in the harsh cold of always immanent demise? By not particularly buying into this shared yet, differentiated universal language of immortality, Tony Oursler it would seem must take his own curious comfort in enjoying the absurdities of how this psychological need has become a mutant set of undead signifiers for a culture at the end of history. He relishes in the particulars, but it is the phenomenology of our self-deceit as a whole that fascinates him and informs his art.
The Influence Machine, a multi-projection, mock environment of ghostly apparitions is a glorious celebration of the huckster spectacle. However, unlike most who parlay in eerie trickery, Oursler gladly parts that red velvet curtain to reveal the modest means behind the mighty Oz. Rooted in the primary gestures of performance art, Oursler minds neither those aspects of self-referentiality nor process as visible, quotable elements of a new media formalism. Essential to this development in Oursler's installation work is his ongoing construction of an ever more elaborate timeline, in which he has been carefully plotting the trajectory of such illusory projections. He enjoys phenomena in and of itself, but what he is really after is a larger map of the phenomenology as a holographic model of human desire and dread. In relation to the Christian texts of his paternal branch, he draws a comparison between religion and art in how both "think about things that aren't there and make them concrete, using an associative quality that's super poetic to read objects in multiple ways."
Thus, as the iconography of the church allows us to read the divine or the devil in all manner of objects from the material world, be it gems, stained glass, vanitas, memento mori or even dogwood trees (from many of which this artist has borrowed imagery and ways of seeing things in his earlier pieces), Oursler can follow this kind of medieval symbolism as metaphysical allegory with the awareness that this still happens today in both art and religion. For this artist - be it the way in which Abbe Suger found the face of God in gems and stained glass, or how American folkloric Biblisms have it that since the wood used to crucify Christ was from a dogwood tree you can see in its flowers both the nail hole and the blood, and in its stunted growth the curse that this tree will never grow to a size capable of supplying another crucifixion - it is "the wonderful paranoia in how they read all this symbolism" that informs his manic layering of visual information and symbolic meaning. The multiple meanings that Oursler invests in The Influence Machine then are spawned from his investigations in what he calls "magical thinking," an aspect of consciousness he is concerned with less for its capacity for magic than its basic transmission of social and individual psychology.
Drawing extensively from his obsessively researched timeline, Tony Oursler will freely employ the strategies, all that abracadabra, now-you-see-it-now-you-don't, smoke and mirrors prestidigitation, of proto-cinematic projections, as an investigation into the arcane roots of his supposedly new medium and an intervention into the mysticist causes for all these extraordinary effects. From Gaspar Robertson's moving image theater of the 1790S conjuring the devil in a Parisian crypt, to Kircher's camera obscura, running parallel yet divergent to its age of Enlightenment, Oursler takes those shadows out of Plato's Cave and does the whole phantasmagorical light show of evolving technology's increasingly more sophisticated projections. And more than simply the quasi-scientific charlatan's way of conjuring the worlds beyond, the way in which Oursler distills this technology is in itself a life after death, a mode of reproduction in the simulacra, of living on through what has been made, that is at the heart of The Influence Machine. Technology is its own post-human Golem here, not so much the persistence of spirit as the interminable machine. Be it all the ways that technology cheats death, from perpetual simulation to more simply scaring the begeesus out of people, the ways in which television's constant reminder/rebroadcast of death acts to invoke some personal victory over it (this time) for the viewer, or the immediate, nearly concurrent rise of spirit photography that accompanied the birth of this seminal medium of mechanical reproduction - Oursler understands how the mystery of every technological innovation has brought with it a deeply superstitious sense of possibility in terms of communicating with the dead. It is a rapping, a communication with loved ones no more, a bridge between life and death. It is a hoax, a loss and its need is so great that it would have to bear its own witness. It is a dimmed light, a thrown voice, a disembodied sound, a rising table or a mysteriously scrawled message. It is The Influence Machine - the casting of spells, the mesmeric hypnosis of a more than willing subject, the suspension of disbelief we all make every time the lights dim and the film starts to roll. It is the projects, personal and cultural, we all make when we face the dark unknown. In the end, perhaps, it's not really that Tony Oursler does not believe in God, it's more like he believes so dearly in the power of the mind, the spirit of invention, the psychology of imagination and the stubborn will of faith, that he would rather attribute this transcendental power to humanity itself than the inevitably flawed fantasies of our own myopic cosmologies.