Oursler, a master of video sculpture, has further extended his technique of projecting moving images onto inanimate objects. Appearing on disparate materials and shrunk to fit tiny spaces, his projections, three of which appear here, form a kind micro theater of the absurd — one whose small scale forces viewers to lean in close to decipher barely audible words and dialog.
Psychoanalytic confession, spaghetti western sounds and soap opera and sci-fi dialog coalesce into a heady, neo-Dadaist audio stew. The visual component, about which I’ll say more, plays on backdrops consisting of porcelain figures, crystals, mirrors, transparent marbles, curved tubing and carved wood figures – all of which are fused together to form sculptures not much bigger than a human cranium.
They’re mounted on metal stands, about a foot away from a video projector that is just slightly larger than an iPhone. It emits a beam that divides into multiple images: of flames, smoke, explosions, pirouetting models, a grimacing, grease-painted visage of the artist and miniscule figures that crawl – barely visible — across surfaces of the above-mentioned objects. Tallying the number of moving images that appear in these works at any given moment is akin to the old game of counting the number e’s on the back of the Camel cigarette package: it seems to change with each count.
If this sounds complicated, well, it is. Think of a multi-track audio recording. Then, imagine the video equivalent, engineered so that the component pieces appear on different surfaces, at different speeds, and with sound levels adjusted to reflect their relative positions in space.
Audio excerpts from one piece, Absentia, include: “Oh no, the children are running away from me”; “decode the soul”; and “decision-making apparatus”. Such utterances, when paired against, say, the image of a face moving through a snake-shaped glass tube, make you feel as if you’re caught in a cross fire between John Waters, Karl Jung, Commander Kirk and Dr. Caligari.
Oursler understands the magnetism and leveling force of media images, but he also understands how individual experience and emotion warp perception in ways that defy consensus. In these stationary happenings he places us in the role of cave dweller, asking us to seek meaning from the play of shadows and light and the seepage of ambient sound.
The experience is like channel surfing and eavesdropping at the same time; our attention ricochets from one image to the next , while sounds drift in and out. Like Rorschach tests, the images and audio clips trigger a great many emotions: fear, confusion, desire, angst, wonder and so forth.
The concept – that meaning is personal, contextual and therefore slippery — is not new. Neither is Oursler’s way of expressing it. He’s done this over and over in various guises; yet despite obvious debts to Bill Viola, Bruce Nauman and Nam June Paik Oursler remains fresh in each new incarnation.
The show also includes seven drawings, two of which have LCD screens embedded in them. They’re good, but it’s the 3-D works that carry the day. And if three major pieces sound like too few to carry a show from an artist of this stature, trust me: it is not. The technological innovations and the physical and emotional impact they register are stunning. This body of work sets the bar even higher for an artist who, for decades, has been sui generis.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Tony Oursler: “top-down bottom-up” at Gallery Paule Anglim through June 2, 2012.