Los Angeles

Tony Oursler, Subz, 2017, wood, metal resin, gesso, video (color, silent, 23 minutes 33 seconds); four panels, from left: 71 × 34“, 87 × 30”, 76 × 24“, 38 × 35”.

Tony Oursler, Subz, 2017, wood, metal resin, gesso, video (color, silent, 23 minutes 33 seconds); four panels, from left: 71 × 34“, 87 × 30”, 76 × 24“, 38 × 35”.

Tony Oursler

Redling Fine Art

Tony Oursler, Subz, 2017, wood, metal resin, gesso, video (color, silent, 23 minutes 33 seconds); four panels, from left: 71 × 34“, 87 × 30”, 76 × 24“, 38 × 35”.

The fringe world of alien believers and self-proclaimed “contactees” was the subject of “Unidentified,” Tony Oursler’s recent exhibition at Redling Fine Art, his first show in Los Angeles in more than a decade. Oursler’s investigation into the emergence of ufo culture could be viewed as an offshoot of his “Imponderable Archive,” a historical collection of more than twenty-five hundred photographs, drawings, publications, documents, and other objects from the eighteenth century to the present related to a variety of occult practices and accounts of paranormal phenomena. (Amassed by the artist over the past twenty-some years, this sprawling archive sparked an exhibition, book, and film of the same name in 2016.)

Upon entering the dimly lit gallery, one was immediately drawn to four flat, larger-than-life-size busts, spotlit and mounted on the room’s walls. Part of a larger ongoing series titled “Screens,” begun in the late 1980s, the gleaming busts—cut from wooden sheets, painted with bright acrylics, and coated with resin—are based on drawings of aliens made under hypnosis by people who claimed to have been abducted in the 1980s and ’90s. Oursler’s re-creations of these “abductor” depictions are cartoonish, even silly, ranging from the feminized manga-esque faces of Gold [Hypnotics] and Fuchsia [Hypnotics], to the androgynous reptilian ones of Sapphire [Hypnotics] and Emerald [Hypnotics], all 2017. Embedded in and animating the large painted works were LED screens with videos of facial features and limbs moving involuntarily, which Oursler made by hypnotizing stand-ins for the original abductees. These stand-ins were presented with original drawings by the abductees, and then documented in the throes of a hypnosis-induced “recollection.” Hidden speakers played enigmatic statements (spoken by the abductees? The stand-ins? It wasn’t clear) in whispered tones during these sessions. While emphatically inspired by memories (real or fabricated), Oursler’s re-presentations resulted in multimedia works that ultimately read less as portraits of specific “alien” figures and more as meditations on how alien encounters have been imagined, documented, and translated by humans.

The other two works included in the exhibition were more overtly theatrical. In one corner of the gallery was the installation Subz, 2017. For this work, four cutout, roughly life-size humanoid forms were held upright on stands. Projected onto these figures was a video showing modernized public spaces in LA shot at disorienting angles, interspersed with shifting, exuberantly colored patterns. The four silhouettes alternately blended into their projected background and stood in stark relief to it. Projected markings of large beady eyes, slit-like mouths, and strange attire—imagery based on drawings by other “abductees”—appeared at intervals on the propped forms. Opposite Subz in another corner of the gallery was a ten-by-twelve-foot black box, which one peered into in order to view the two-channel video My Saturnian Lover(s), 2016. Loosely based on the first wave of ufo reports and contactee literature published around the middle of the century, My Saturnian Lover(s) presented fictionalized dramatizations of the historical “contactees” George Adamski, Ruth Norman, and Howard and Connie Menger. (Connie Menger’s 1958 book My Saturnian Lover, published under the pen name Marla Baxter, provided the video with its title.) The film ends with the Mengers, remembering that they had met on Venus in a past life, joyously embracing, in blissful communion with the “extraterrestrial” discovered in one’s self and partner.

The exhibition insightfully historicized the social phenomenon of alleged ufo sightings and contact with aliens, casting the notion of alien life as an evolving cultural mythos on which people have projected their innermost fears and desires. Whereas in the 1940s and ’50s “aliens” were typically presented as benevolent creatures who sought to help humans (“Space brother, come to me!” cries Kate Valk, playing Ruth Norman in My Saturnian Lover[s]), by the 1980s and ’90s they had become associated with capture and trauma, accompanied by paranoid undertones of government conspiracy (as epitomized by the ’90s hit TV series The X-Files): The contactee had become an abductee. And now, in the twenty-first century, as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson launch a new space race, the existential threat of an extraterrestrial “other” seems moot, almost campy in its conspiracy-theory appeal, as “outer space” begins to represent merely another market to conquer.

Kavior Moon