City Gallery

Josie McNaught, ‘Cool to the Core’, Dominion Weekend Post, 26 June 1999.

Video might have killed the radio star—but it’s enabled New York artist Tony Oursler to be at the cutting edge of art’s interface with technology—and work with rock stars such as David Bowie.

A major survey of Oursler’s work opens at the City Gallery today and includes video, CD Rom, lighting, sound and installation works, as well as drawings and photography.

According to the publicity, his multimedia installations ‘cut to tie core of modern-day anxieties and neuroses’.

With that sort of background, you might expect Oursler to be either strung out on drugs and dressed in black from head to foot or a nerdy computer geek sipping on a spearmint milkshake.

Wrong on both counts. Oursler is more like a cross between Jerry Seinfeld and the Fonz—bright eyed, funny and very coooool.

As is David Bowie, who contacted Oursler after they had worked together on an exhibition in Italy a couple of years ago that included fashion, music, and art.

‘I couldn’t go, so I sent my assistant, and I told her to tell David Bowie that I loved his music and that I was really pleased to be in a show with him’, Oursler says.

‘She called me from Italy and said, “Guess who I’m hanging out with here—David Bowie!” I was cheesed off I wasn’t there because be been one of my heroes since I was a kid.’

Bowie told Oursler’s assistant that he would contact Oursler when he was next in New York.

‘And a few weeks later he gilled me out of the blue and invited me to his studio to listen to his latest record’, Oursler says. ‘He had a couple of ideas for his fiftieth birthday concert at Madison Square Gardens [in 1997] and those ideas involved my work.’

Oursler designed some figures to work with Bowie on stage, and they were present throughout the performance in different songs.

‘Then we did a video for his single Little Wonder.’ The video, made in 1997, is part of the show.

Oursler has nothing but praise for his boyhood hero. ‘They say that all rock stars want to be artists and vice versa, but what David does is art, and I was really pleased to work with him.’

Bowie also pops up at the City Gallery show on Oursler’s CD Rom, Fantastic Prayers. It’s a collaboration with writer Constance de Jong and musician-composer Stephen Vitiello. ‘David morphs out of a flower in the graveyard, so there’s a Bowie connection there, as well’, Oursler says.

Morphing is a pretty common visual trick these days, but Oursler’s use of video projection produces some downright spooky installations.

For example, She/Green/Blue (1996) is a large fibreglass head in a small tank of water. The face, desperate for air, puffs out its cheeks, moans through closed lips and looks upward toward freedom.

It is only an illusion, but one reviewer wrote that ‘The urge to reach into the tank and rescue this poor disembodied head is overwhelming.’

If you’ve ever been eye-balled by someone and found it disconcerting, you’ll think again after seeing the work Eye Installation. Thirteen white fibreglass spheres, hanging from the ceiling and placed on the floor, are actually huge human eyes, irises darting and lids blinking. Within these ‘windows to the soul’ you see the reflection of the video screens that these eyes are intently focusing on, showing video games, music videos and classic and adult films.

Oursler says the work illustrates our obsession with the media. ‘The media has a mirror effect in the creation of self-image, body  types and the manufacture of desire. It’s a more complicated relationship than simple cause and effect.’

He says the Columbine High School massacre a couple of months ago in the United States is a good example of the dissolving of the division between the media and the real world.

Oursler’s work seems to straddle that divide. He’s participating in the World Fair in Hanover in 2000, and his work is just as likely to turn up on the catwalk or MTV. So why does he bother with the structured, even conservative, gallery setting?

‘Well, I’m an artist, and a gallery is a sanctuary where you can concentrate on the art. But I also like the idea of being on MTV. In terms of showing in a gallery, it’s culturally vital that art be recognized instead of being used as something to make people feel stupid or offended’, he says, in reference to the recent furore created by the Christian Heritage Party over City Gallery’s Keith Haring exhibition.

Though the exhibition features a number of his drawings, photographs, and paintings, it’s definitely the multimedia creations that will have audiences buzzing. And Oursler is in good company. All the artists shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize, Britain’s most prestigious art award, use film or video with nary a paint brush in sight. While some art critics are scathing, others say it is inevitable that film-based artists should fill the top places.

According to British art critic Matthew Collings, the Turner Prize is not setting an agenda, it is simply reflecting what is going on.

And what’s going on is art in-spired by television and movies rather than fine art traditions, Oursler says, though he did start out with a paintbrush at art school back in the 1970s.

‘When I was at art school, I realised there was this visual continuum that started with cave painting and went through to tele-vision. So I grabbed one of the first video cameras from the 1960s and started making artists’ television shows.’

From such humble beginnings, Oursler now enjoys a high profile on the international art scene, having exhibited with the Saatchi Gallery in London and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

The exhibition has come to Wellington via Oslo and Sweden.

Oursler does sound a little world weary when he explains that Europe is still the place where experimental work is valued over his home, New York, which is the ‘show place’.

This is Oursler’s first visit to New Zealand, and so far he’s spent most of it in Rotorua, a world away from New York. He says everyone in Wellington is incredulous as to how he filled in the time.

‘It was wonderful—especially the smells, not to mention the colours of geysers and bubbling pools. They are incredible blues and greens. I just worked the whole time photographing, and I’ll use it in a show one day.’

Oursler says he’s doing some work at the moment with devils, so all that heat and steam was perfect. One thing he won’t be doing is taking a leaf out of Bowie’s travelogue.

‘David told me to buy a guide book and hire a car and drive around because that was the best way to see New Zealand. But I’m way too dyslexic to start driving on the other side of the road—it’d be too scary!’

Matt Johnson, ‘Watching You, Watching Me’, Sunday Star Times, 4 July 1999.

New York-based hi-tech artist Tony Oursler has been in New Zealand for only a short time but already a steamy love affair has evolved—with Rotorua’s mud pools.

‘Loved it. I shot a lot of video there. Graphically, the mud operated like this huge transitional, psychological space where, somehow, the landscape distorts itself into some kind of implication of good and evil’, he said.

Bubbles aside, it’s not all heavy stuff for Oursler, who’s been on the cutting edge of ‘art’s interface with technology’ since the 1970s.

He cites films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Exorcist and popular television as among his biggest influences. ‘The structure of television alone has always fascinated me—certain news programmes in the morning, then housewife psycho-dramas leading into the melodramatic talkshows … the way technology reflects people’s life rhythms has always been an inspiration.’

Oursler’s multimedia exhibition, showing at Wellington’s City Gallery this month alongside Australian artist Jeffrey Shaw’s ‘virtual playground’, uses such materials as light bulbs, rag dolls, and sophisticated projection technology to examine how the media warps our perceptive abilities.

‘People think I’m preaching about the evils of television or going to see Star Wars, but that’s not the case. What I’m against is a naive approach to consumption—stripping people’s storytelling out of their own lives. I think people should be aware of what they’re consuming.’ He says works like Empathy Wheel are an attempt to rip viewers out of their context as consumers and to provoke deeper responses.

‘If you think about the amount of hours that go into one frame of a Speilberg or Disney movie, you realise there’s this incredible amplification and distillation of information going on. Sometimes I think when the human race looks back in time 1000 years from now, we’ll all find it curious that people spent so much time in this kind dream state before a television, computer, or movie screen—watching.’

Katy Corner, ‘Weird Logic Makes Sense’, City Voice, 15 July 1999.

Vegemite is too past the pale for Tony Oursler, but as we have a break-neck interchange over a late breakfast, anything else seems possible.

Having checked out a fraction of his work on the net, and read piles of rather esoteric rhetoric, nothing could have prepared me for the works themselves. A disembodied, submerged, whimpering head takes us deep into recesses of drowning in whichever way we fear most. Mutant forms, devoid of gender, Where the make pronouncements both banal and potentially traumatising. Eyeballs reflect shows they are seeing, but as delicate windows to the soul, they can leave you exposed in more ways than one.

Angels, chosen by (for?) you alone, through the mouse, merge their thoughts with yours. This can be disturbing, but fascinating in the way children love to frighten each other. In a one-hour tape, Oursler has spliced short clips from Public Access TV, on which, in the US, anyone can have half an hour for a small fee. There was great hilarity on the occasion I witnessed twenty years of this man’s inner workings. Strangely gorgeous studies of trash from New York and London fill up another gallery.

Oursler agrees his world is more multiphrenic than merely schizophrenic, in tune with the hybrids of ideas continually being produced by this world in flux. He says if you look at the evolution of media, that’s almost in the programming, the end result surprises the viewer in a very odd way.

‘Of the speeding up of technology (and life in general), throwaway culture, and people yearning for easier times, I think what you’re defining is the Internet which is going to be the composite of all the above. It’ll have the 1950s subgenre and that kind of cyberchat, morphed personality, avatars. Some of the more poetic stuff [global villages], I wonder if that will come to pass.’

Each of Oursler’s works grasp the viewer’s consciousness in a peculiarly intimate way. People don’t want to fix personalities, they don’t want to be stuck, they want the fluidity.

In a way, Oursler sees himself as a moral guardian. What has to be done is the logic has to be exploded somehow. In the States the logic is so powerful that Joe Schmo in the street could spend one fraction of his tax dollars on something that defiled a religious icon [ie: Virgin] but [much more] goes towards military projects.

There’s no way to stop that logic.

Whether Oursler will continue his work with viruses, DNA, or angels, he’ll no doubt fit in footage of a Rotorua sojourn into future high-tech explorations.

Beatrice Page, ‘Cultural Scrapheap’, Pavement, August 1999.

Americans love to talk. Sigmund Freud wrote of the talking cure, but Americans suffer from a talking disease. In other words, they are excessively articulate. America is a motor-mouth, talkshow, sitcom culture, where overindulgent self-analysis has become part of the problem. Tony Oursler’s works could only come out of America. T his artist creates compelling but neurotic oracles that make us witness their interior monologues, their private horror shows.

Oursler, with a major show at Wellington’s City Gallery until 3 October, is best known for projecting talking heads onto puppets and rag dolls, his videos giving voice to their anxieties. ‘I can’t tell whether I’m alive or dead’, gripes a pickled head in a glass jar. ‘What are you looking at?’, moans a prostrate woman trapped beneath a mattress. A stranded head questions us from within a wall: ‘Can you see my lips move?’ Oursler’s entities are rudimentary. Alternatively malignant and pathetic, inane and philosophical, these little drama queens offer a Jerry Springer update on the old Punch and Judy theme.

Many of Oursler’s scripts draw on accounts of Multiple Personality Disorder, a new pseudo-disease likened to channel-surfing and popularised by too many movies-of-the-week. Coming from a generation of artists who grew up on television, Oursler is only too aware of how it shapes our reality. Television defines society and its collective reality. We are what we watch. Our relationship to television (arid to one another through television) is a key theme in his work. In the biggest installation in the show. Oursler projects extreme close-ups of eyes watching television onto big suspended balls. Caught in a symbiotic relationship, the eye stares al what is actually projecting it. They say the eye is the window of the soul but isolated from the face, the eye becomes gross, inexpressive, its movements robotic. Remember the Ludovico Treatment in A Clockwork Orange, with Malcolm McDowell immobilised, strapped down, forced to watch, eyes wide open?

But Oursler isn’t simply acting as a media critic. He also revels in media culture as a source and amplifier of our most compelling modern mythologies. Why else collaborate with David Bowie on his recent Little Wonder clip?

While much of the commentary on Oursler casts him as a techno-artist, he’s really more of a low-tech guy, a techno-primitive who uses gimmicks to simulate and satirise special effects. When he projects faces onto a wall of perspex blocks, deranging them, he says it’s like the transporter in Star Trek. While fascinated by television, Oursler looks back to much earlier and more primitive forms of entertainment, such as very early filmmaking, when the illusionist Georges Melies could develop a film language of wall-to-wall trickery. He also goes even further back, to nineteenth century proto-cinematic phantasmagories, such as spook shows of smoke and mirrors.

Oursler rummages around in trash culture. His photo series Trash (Empirical) addresses rubbish quite literally, documenting discarded stuff piled up, mostly on New York streets, waiting to be cleared away. Junk collections also feature in Viruses. These are like pile-ups of cheap desktop and mantelpiece statuary, including a skull, a kitsch Americana figurine, a mini Venus de Milo and a big penis, with psychedelic videos projected over the top like fluorescent, occult television shrines, accretions of cult cultural mythology.

If Oursler is fascinated by the rubbish on television, it is only to get to the rubbish in our heads. It’s the stuff we consign to the recycling bin of the unconscious and which never gets cleared off the mental sidewalk.

‘Low Brow Becomes High’, Capital Times, 11 August 1999.

Contemporary art’s leap into new media and digital technology is a little perplexing, but the TV generation seem better able to cope.

Following two groups of unexpressive young people around the City Gallery’s cur­rent exhibition of leading con­temporary art­ists Tony Oursler and Jeffrey Shaw, it’s hard to know what they think about the projec­tions of hu­man eyeballs and talking heads onto inanimate objects. But they say they love it.

‘Some modern art can be lots of splotches, but this one you can relate to with all the tele’, says Kate Butler, a member of the Putney High School Choir which visited Wellington recently.

A group of Aotea College design students dutifully trailed around looking decidedly uninspired, but then they decided they didn’t want to leave. Their teacher Deb Donelly says the Year Thirteens genuinely liked it, but a younger student was finding it a bit of a stretch.

‘In some ways I thought, “how are they going to see the concepts?”, but for them the media is easy.’

Donelly was back for the second time, and admitt­ed it took her longer to get it. But the first time she had to prise her twelve-year-old son off Jeffrey Shaw’s reality art installation Place: A User’s Manual which explores eleven dif­ferent locations.

‘It relates to their level, the tel­evision and video games.’

I don’t get it, but the security guard assures me he likes the eye­balls. If you look closely you can see the television screen reflected in their eyes.

Justin Paton, ‘Puppet Master’, Listener, 25 September 1999.

This is more like it. After a run of international shows in which star power has far exceeded the power of the art, the City Gallery in Wellington is back in stride with this buoyantly freaky sideshow by Ameri­can artist Tony Oursler. Oursler, 42, uses newish technology to pry into some old psychic crannies. Along with Jeffrey Shaw, whose eye-boggling installation rounds out the double bill, Oursler reminds us that when any ‘technological’ art is good, the fact that it’s technological seems beside the point—the stuff plugs right into your nervous system.

Oursler has what marketers call ‘cross­over appeal’. He’s a handycam expres­sionist, a collaborator with David Bowie and Sonic Youth, and an all-round art-world it-boy—you could count on one hand the number of art-mags he hasn’t been in. For curators anxious to beguile new audiences without insulting their intelligence, Oursler’s trifecta of new media, stunning visuals and ultra-trendy themes is as irresistible as catnip. Ourslerism is breaking out all over. One sculpture has inspired a Lotto ad (that talk­ing light-bulb) and another seems to have migrated into Auckland’s new Imax cinema complex. The big-brother-is-watching-you video eye that peers down at moviegoers is a sight gag that is pure Oursler.

His career is built on what could meanly be called a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick that works like a dream. Things start downstairs with something of a whimper, but upstairs Oursler lowers the lights and turns up the anxiety. This section of the show is less a parade of inert objects than a hall of omi­nous incidents, each of which unwinds in a panicky present tense. Eyes cry and blink pinkly in mid-air. A face contorts in a fish tank, eyeing the surface. And a bulb flick­ers in sync with a nearby voice, as though the very wiring were channelling ghosts.

Note what Oursler doesn’t do: maroon his videos on fourteen-inch televisions in vast spaces with bad acoustics. If Oursler mat­ters, it is for taking video off the monitor and giving it a body and a voice and a vengeance. His eureka was to sew floppy fabric effigies and, where the faces should be, to screen tapes of actors in advanced stages of psychic meltdown. Satan’s Daughter is the most famous of these living dolls for obvious reasons—the body spilling across the floor like a bloodstain; the head that’s also a pillow, as if she has sunk into her dreams; and the monologue that skitters from phrase to phrase, like a TV on the fritz.

Video comes just before voodoo in Oursler’s alphabet. Like his collaborator and fellow West-Coaster Mike Kelley, Oursler is obsessed with dolls because they are sculpture of the rawest kind—dead things we reanimate with raw fantasies and id stuff. Oursler, who ‘projects’ those fantasies in the most literal way, wants to connect his eerie puppets to an older, weirder line of objects that includes scare­crows, Guy Fawkes effigies, nasty old Punch and Judy. Think of him as a sinister Geppetto, coaxing life from these dummies with camera and tape.

What results is a marriage of puppet theatre and TV talkshow—The Muppet Show meets The Jerry Springer Show. Oursler is fascinated by the swirl and stut­ter of life in the great American super-marketplace, by the way private emotion is vented in public. It makes sense that he is an adept of video art, because video, more and more, is where people store and spill their secrets. Oursler plainly sees the medium as a confessional, a ‘medium’ in the psychic sense, a lead running straight to the secrets of the tribe.

Oursler’s show-stopper really is a site for sore eyes. You turn a corner on the top floor to a view of seven eyes in mid-air—a hang­ing garden of gazes, an optical constellation. Trainspotters will note the way that Ouster updates a tradition of Cyclops imagery that runs from Odilon Redon to Philip Guston to Robert Crumb. Everyone else will just gawk. Scooped from the faces that hold them, the eyes seem vast, silent, reptilian. when one blinks it gulps like a snake. Look­ing on, you are queasily conscious of the intricate strings of nerve and gristle feeding the whole spectacle to you. Oursler should project one somewhere truly grandiose, like the moon.

The trouble starts when Oursler tries to transcend gimmickry, to shake off his sig­nature look. Bizarre is right next to corny in Oursler’s alphabet, and only the c-word can describe the recent sculptures on show downstairs. Plaster still-lives showered in abstract static, these new works resemble to nothing so much as props for an Austin Powers acid-flashback scene. Meanwhile, his dozens of huge photos of trash suffer for comparison with Martin Parr, seen every­where in New Zealand earlier this year, who has been there and done that on half the scale and with twice the gusto. Digging herself a deep hole in the show’s accom­panying catalogue, Martina Goldner opines that his ‘trash photos pile up like so much garbage piled on the street, the result of four years of garbage photography’. Quite.

Oursler’s desire to rummage beneath the cosy, neatly upholstered surfaces of middle American life is a bit cosy itself, but a streak of black slapstick crowds out any inclination to moralise. His biggest prob­lem may be the line of moralistic claptrap he inspires in others. Symptomatic is the British critic who sees Oursler’s sculptures as portraits of ‘the American middle class … trapped in the banality of their exis­tence, the hits of drink, drugs and the cathode ray no longer bringing excite­ment’. Oursler’s art is too creepy and too comical to be reduced to a seminar on the perils of the goggle-box.

Skip the lecture and enjoy Oursler’s sculptures for what they are—3D sitcoms from the other side, high-strength capsules of American weirdness. They blink, you blink, and it’s hard to tear your eyes away.