New York

Tony Oursler

Metro Pictures

In the midst of a jumble of pieces scattered in the darkly lit space, you could make out someone’s face—registering the kind of abject terror and nascent humiliation usually associated with an infant’s struggle to escape his crib—incarcerated in an oversized, capsulelike object. A tripod-based, miniature projection system faced this chirping visage (that of the artist himself), which stared back at the site of its origin: the video camera beaming the image into/onto the capsule form. Technically deft, Tony Oursler’s Instant Suckling, 1994, also coyly acknowledged the tradition of self-portraiture. An indictment of the plundering of traditional models (and experiences) of “subjectivity” by media culture, this work poignantly depicted the frustration of our desire to locate ourselves in our own reproduced reflections.

Disturbing enough to be endearing, Oursler’s theater of multimedia video-performance sculptures—a description that only begins to suggest the hybridity of this work—invoke both the threatening and pathetic nature of existential strife. Through Oursler’s sardonic filtration system, our individuality finds its expression solely through the video trace, mapped onto/into the fabric of provisional, readymade object-constructions that announce their inadequacy as surrogates for the human condition.

Oursler’s installation of a dozen or so works reflected his absorption with the vicissitudes of what one might call an impoverished formalism (for example, the randier aspects of arte povera, the abject antics of Mike Kelley, and even the weird totemicism of Nayland Blake), as well as a desire to reconfigure aspects of the video-art tradition. Nam June Paik’s influence was unquestionable, particularly in the way in which Oursler consistently staged encounters between an object as recognizable and autonomous and that same object as nothing more than a receptacle or “screen” for the images projected from a miniature video unit standing opposite it.

By and large, Oursler organized our attention around moving/speaking disembodied heads—faces struggling, sometimes vainly, to articulate some type of emotion, some kind of meaning. Employing images of himself as well as of a number of performers (Tracy Leipold, Catharine Dill, Steven Boling and Constance DeJung), Oursler playfully anthropomorphized a series of mundane objects by projecting these images onto them. In MMPI (I Like Dramatics), 1994, a doll-like form, perched atop a tripod (like the video projector sitting across from it) was overlaid with the projection of a mumbling “talking head”; this same face (played by Leipold) reappeared in Flowers (Undermined), 1994, although here it dwelled, apparitionlike, in a lovely bouquet of silk flowers. Getaway #2, 1994, featured a woman’s face (Leipold again) projected onto a shirt and pair of pants (i.e., a body surrogate) laid out on the floor. Partially covered by a mattress, she assaulted the viewer with a series of admonitions such as “Hey you. Get out of here. What are you looking at? I’ll kick your ass.”

The deadpan humor of Movie Block (Sony), 1994—comprised of a live-action image of the colossal Sony movie theater complex on 3rd avenue and 11th Street in Manhattan projected onto a small white box—spoke volumes about our pandemic addiction to the entertainment/pleasure zone. But inside Oursler’s tragicomic world, humanity suffers because it cannot escape its abject objecthood, and likewise can find little solace in the knowledge that images—and the whole realm of reproduction—promise the pleasures of recognition but offer only phantom representations that are merely another form of entrapment.

Joshua Decter