Tony Oursler: Ghost in the machine - Art Collector

Issue 61, July - September 2012

Tony Oursler, Blue You, 2006. Fibreglass form and DVD, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Jensen Gallery, Sydney

The mechanics of Tony Oursler's video works are plain to see. But why is it so hard to shake the feeling that there's something in there, watching you, like some kind of ghost in the machine? By Edward Colless.

The first encounter with Tony Oursler’s work is, for most of us, unforgettable. Recall that unnerving moment when a luminescent decapitated egg-head lying forlornly on its side on the floor (perhaps jammed under furniture or stuck on a stairwell) suddenly and animatedly speaks gibberish like an upstart humpty dumpty or intones with the nightmare mischief of a demonic halloween pumpkin-head; when a street light or a bare light bulb that could be hanging in an interrogation cell sputters on and off with the whispers and outcries of a tormented voice; or when a cluster of eyes projected onto an amoeboid lump or viscous splatter stare fitfully, then wistfully, then despondently around the room as if they’re looking for you – or, even more disturbingly, looking through you with a cat’s gaze at some ghostly presence.

That moment with Oursler’s installations comes as a shiver of malicious fun laced with dread: it’s a ghost-ride or horror movie chill that for all its obvious mechanism (the often visible video projectors and speakers) becomes genuinely menacing and fearful, as if a parlour-game seĢance turns dangerously anxious, its trickery backfiring when lost souls appear to be actually conjured up from their dead purgatory by a spell bought in a kids’ magic shop. And as castaway body organs these mouths and eyes often look caught in slapstick pratfalls that might make a joke of their metaphysical apparition and voodoo vibrancy. But, equally, and with a murky sort of allure, there’s a dark sarcastic rapture – a sinister rictus of Saint Teresa’s ecstasy – rippling through the mournful narratives uttered by Oursler’s cartoon-like, mutilated or ethereal cast of characters – who appear as out of time and place as Samuel Beckett’s famously disembodied mouth floating in the dark void of the play Not I, raging against its own dreadful cheshire cat persistence.

There’s no doubting that despite the unadorned evidence of smoke and mirrors, there’s something discomfortingly and grotesquely eerie in Oursler’s talkative effigies and imprisoned souls that exceeds the double- take correcting our misperception of their simple illusionist devices. The illusion, after all, is managed with very familiar – in fact often ludicrously mundane – technology. So why does the gawky video projection of a grimacing face on a ball lying on the floor or stuffed in a cupboard seem so very strange and ominous, even while it looks so droll? Oursler’s response would be resoundingly materialistic: it’s our own obstinate will to believe that is parodied in these visions; a will to induce the man in the moon or the ghost in the machine or a God in heaven even while we know they’re not truly there. What has remained equivocal throughout Oursler’s career, however, and kept his art as far from being dogmatic as from becoming didactic, is whether this inducement of the fantasy is a matter of superstition or of entertainment: of deception or delight. Perhaps also, whether this fantasy deserves reproof or respect.

Born Fulton Oursler III, and with a young son formally named Oursler IV, Tony Oursler is in a family genealogy the pedigree of which offers an ironic backstory to the ambiguous spiritual chicanery of his art. The grand patriarch of the dynasty, Charles Fulton Oursler, was a journalist, senior editor of Readers’ Digest and crime novelist whose conversion to Catholicism occasioned (via a radio series of gospel dramatisations) his 1949 best-selling biography of Jesus, The Greatest Story Ever Told (followed by The Greatest Book Ever Written and the posthumous Greatest Faith Ever Known). In 1965 The Greatest Story was adapted with appropriate pomposity into a blockbuster three-and-a-half- hour movie during which Max von Sydow endowed Jesus with sub-Bergmanesque agony, steering a gargantuan cast of pop-up Hollywood cameos most hilariously epitomised with John Wayne’s one-line Texan drawl at the foot of the cross as the Roman centurion conceding that “truly this must be the son of God”. Tony Oursler’s father, Will Fulton Oursler Jnr maintained both the crime novelist and evangelist tradition: co-writing at a tender age with his father the book about a Catholic priest’s inner city boy scout mission that became the movie Boystown, founding a spiritual inspirationalist journal Guideposts, while also writing for Readers’ Digest. His last editorial initiative before his death was the journal Angels on Earth, reporting on contemporary experiences of religious epiphany (incorporating pious lifestyle advice and testimonials of faith) expressed in motivational encounters with heavenly visitors.

In his late teens Tony Oursler took off from this literary East Coast Catholic family milieu (with Cape Cod comforts) to the volatile bohemian environment of CalArts in Los Angles in 1979, befriending as a life-long school mate Mike Kelley among other notable resident mavericks. He returned to New York’s East Village during its early 1980s late-punk and aggressively anti- commercial no wave insurgency, making zero-budget, stop-motion narrative videos and projecting onto surfaces such as broken glass. The New York lo-fi punk impress in Oursler’s work is sustained throughout his career in those sporadic eruptions of truculence or belligerence from the otherwise manically melancholic monotones of mouths projected in his installations. “What the fuck are you looking at?” interrupts one of these, in the midst of poetically remote, self-absorbed reverie – but it’s not quite clear who’s being addressed, the viewer upbraided for their voyeurism, or a phantom of the speaker’s psychosis, or the superimposition of both. These outbursts of temper or lunacy or passive aggressive insistence in his characters are ambiguously rhetorical, since they’re graced by taste for the charm and elegance of antique phantasmagoria and automata, for the captivating spirit photography hoaxes of the late 19th and early 20th century, and for caricaturing media personality as talking-head puppetry or deranged ventriloquism.

There’s probably, too, an odd touch of nostalgia as much as critique in Oursler’s evident and complex disowning of his familial spiritual legacy when it’s aided by the equally evident inheritance of storytelling talent: scripting his videos with what at deeper strata could be patronising homespun Readers’ Digest truisms that are converted into parables of dementia, or with the kitschy biographical superflux of The Greatest Story mutating into a delusional confession or invoking multiple personality disorder. Perhaps, too, all of Oursler’s installations will add up to a spectral crime story. But the long tail of Oursler’s episodic narratives has a sting sharper than family melodrama and to which most of us are vulnerable: that phobic moment embedded in childhood when we notice the uncanny insinuations of the ventriloquist dummy’s spiteful grin or the fiendish button-eyes of a rag doll and we glimpse how mockingly sinister the miracle of life might just be.

Edward Colless

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