Video-artist Tony Oursler off-handedly mentioned Nam June Paik (his hero), Vito Acconci and Samuel Beckett as influences on his work currently on display at the Williams College Museum of Art. Because the exhibit is entitled Introjection, a psychological term for one person’s unconscious incorporation into his own personality the characteristics or traits of another person, such a comment appears highly relevant. The WCMA exhibit is unique: as it displays Oursler’s work, which explores the introjection of the media into our society, it follows the progression of Oursler’s work from painting to video to his most recent video doll pieces.
Saturday afternoon in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall, in conjunction with Introjection: Tony Oursler Mid-career Survey 1976-1999, the artist lectured about his career. The lecture provided an introduction and some explanation of Oursler’s complex, multi-media pieces.
Oursler opened by sharing that recently he had been working on archiving old video footage for the retrospective. He began his career as a painter studying at the California Institute for the Arts. There, he became interested in more conceptual performance and video art. Oursler showed clips from what he termed “the lost tapes:” lo-fi, homemade videos that represented stream of consciousness narratives or tabloid narratives that he made shortly after graduating from CIA.
At his studio near Long Beach, Oursler worked on some of his first projects with video, experimenting with perspective and scale. He set up cameras to film the gray, desolate landscape behind his studio. Then, he superimposed a giant crow onto the film. The bird, which was as tall as the spindly tree in the background of the shot, ambled across the screen at the horizon.
In another short, which more thoroughly engaged the audience, there was a sound bite of a man singing softly to himself and almost off-key “I’m pretty nice…I’m pretty nice until you get to know me, and then you wouldn’t want to know me.” On the screen a pair of hands popped clear seals that covered what appeared to be short paper cups of the type one would get medicine in at the hospitals. As the voice sang about his exploits of not being very nice, the hand crushed the cups spilling liquid from them.
The next video Oursler played was entitled Life of Phillis/ Part II: Revenge. “Phillis” was a mass-murdering doll, so in the short the viewer witnesses an attack on an unsuspecting victim – a pair of fingers dressed up in white go-go boots and short shorts. On a small-scale city block, Phillis waits in an alley for the figure to round the corner. Then, there is a big splat of dark paint on the wall, and Phillis has killed again.
Oursler had his first show in the Lace Gallery in Los Angeles. At school, he had been interested in set design, so he began to combine his interest in sets and video to create pieces that included painting, sculpture and video. His first composite work of this type, which was exhibited in 1981-1982, was entitled Grand Mal. It marked not only a change in media, but a transition for Oursler in terms of subject matter as well. In Grand Mal his narrative focus shifted from the tabloid to the psychological.
Oursler created an anti-Hollywood work, in which the editing and the narrative worked in opposition to preconceptions of how films should work. He perceived the accepted structure of having a beginning, middle, end with long shot, mid shot, close-up as a trap for filmmakers, so Oursler created pieces that ignored accepted structure. Grand Mal was shot in an enormous studio in one take. Oursler used dissolves, but no cutting, so the camera had to roam from one set in the studio to another
Oursler also worked on dark room installation projects that he termed “gothic.” During the time of Tylenol poisonings and the scandal over the possible demonic symbols in the Proctor and Gamble logo, he investigated urban legends and the points of intersection between individual and corporate narratives, where hoaxes and ludicrous scandals could destroy multi-national corporations.
In Spill Chamber 2, which Oursler described as an exploration of human bonding, he referenced Hollywood movies. In this video installation, a face appeared on a black screen and described the exploits of his friend Vanner, who had gone to see The Exorcist while high on acid. After seeing the film, he began to have disturbing visions of the devil, and the one way Vanner’s friends could think of to exorcise him was a return trip to the movies. Only after watching 2001: A Space Odyssey while on acid was Vanner freed from the visions.
The next project that Oursler discussed was his James-Freddie Take I, a video spoof of horror movie characters that featured one actor hamming it up in front of the camera as the slasher film villians.
Then in 1989, Oursler began collapsing his work, creating pieces that were smaller in scale. This seemingly minor transition away from his earlier room-sized video installation work proved an important one for Oursler; this new artistic direction eventually led to his more recent artistic phase of creating video dolls. The next year, Oursler filmed a video for Sonic Youth’s “Tunic (Song for Karen).” Incorporating animation and found footage of Karen Carpenter, he used as few cuts as possible in a long conceptual video that was anathema to the MTV format. The station played the video once “at four in the morning, but they cut out the found footage,” Oursler said with a slight smile. However, the video served as a precursor to his projected figures. In one segment Oursler projected Kim Gordon’s face on to a ping pong paddle, the head of one of the dolls in the video.
In the early ’90s, Oursler said that he suffered “a meltdown” in his beliefs of the power of the set and the power of the image. He wanted to create pieces that he felt that anyone could make. Oursler’s first figural works consisted of clothes he had bought at second-hand stores, which he had stuffed with newspaper. However, he did not ignore his fascination with the video media. Instead, Oursler created pieces that celebrated voyeurism and the prevalence of surveillance in contemporary society.
Oursler would place a camera on the body of the figure or near it, and then in the next room he would place a second dummy watching the first on a video monitor. During this period, he created figures without heads because he felt that heads would distract from the significance of the rest of the work. But then, in 1991, with the advent of LCD projectors, Oursler began projecting video of people’s faces onto heads he constructed for the figures.
Disenfranchised with film, Oursler turned to figural work, on which he has collaborated with Tracey Leipold, using video to examine emotional responses and the interaction between characters without the usual limiting constructs of video. His video dolls, some of which are featured at the retrospective on display at WCMA through October 24, were also displayed at the Whitney Biennial in 1997 in New York. While showing at the Whitney, Oursler was interviewed for the McNeil/Lehrer News Hour. To conclude the lecture, he aired a segment from the television program showing the disembodied video heads of a show reporter and himself discussing the import of his work.
Introjection leads museum-goers through two decades of Oursler’s work, allowing them to discover his art piece by piece but also by following the development of his work through transitions in form and subject matter. In his lecture, Oursler provided insight into this fascinating progression.
After the retrospective leaves WCMA next fall it will travel to Los Angeles, Houston and Des Moines.