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Art That Talks Back: The Shrink Is In

Tony Oursler's works burn with psychological intensity, snaring viewers as participants. Next on the couch: San Diego.

June 30, 1996|Leah Ollman | Leah Ollman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

People are laughing at the limp body sprawled out on the floor, her head clamped to the ground by an overturned armchair. She's not a real person, but a sculpture. For that matter, the laughter feels false too, an automatic, instinctual response to the unease of voyeuristic complicity.

The stuffed cloth figure is crudely formed, but projected onto her head is a video image of a woman's face, staring spitefully back at those who are staring at her. "Get away from me," she hisses through clenched teeth. "You're making me sick." She sighs, purses her lips and lets out slow, enraged curses. "What are you looking at? I don't have time for this!"

It's hard to avoid an awkward smile. Empathy and repulsion are both hard at work here, and there is no neutral middle ground.

"Don't Look at Me," a recent video installation by New York-artist Tony Oursler, reeks of entrapment. In other works of the last few years, several of which go on view next Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego/Downtown, Oursler wedged a dummy's head under a mattress, submerged one in a tank of water and buried another beneath a heap of broken chairs. A toxic stream of invective courses endlessly from their video-activated mouths, except for the submerged head, whose inability to communicate is equally punishing. Whether out of curiosity, pity or wonder, the viewer--whom Oursler prefers to call the participant--gets drawn in and then is ensnared as well.

"He's putting you on the spot," Barbara London, the Museum of Modern Art's video curator, says of Oursler's recent work, which she included in a show last year. "You can identify with the trauma. The nervous laugh says: 'I'm glad it's not me--but it could be me.' When you're watching a film, you sit back and you're carried along, but with Tony's work, you make a choice to become involved, you make decisions about the story through your involvement."

Obviously, what's happening in these works is not really funny, Oursler says, with the same edge of "dark humor and super seriousness" that he ascribes to his work. But humor is part of the complex of emotions, including guilt, shame, anger and amusement, that the work generates. "They are almost a barometer for people's individual psyches, which is what I'm really interested in."

Since studying at CalArts in the late 1970s, Oursler, 39, has used video to probe the mucky terrain where individual identity and media technology overlap. Like many experimental videos of the time--characterized by one writer as "television turned against itself"--Oursler's early single-channel tapes rebelled against film grammar, "the traditional Hollywood setup of what they consider a template of human consciousness."

The pervasiveness of television plays into the feeling of entrapment he exploits in his work now, for with television, he says, "there's always a frame, a static quality, even though it's kinetic, which is kind of a conundrum. When you're locked in, watching television, you're kind of stuck, you're frozen into position. You're trapped.

"I think a lot of the seductive quality of media has to do with psychological entrapment, but it's also a willing suspension of disbelief. There's a kind of complicity by the viewer. I like to bring that to the forefront of the work. Are you going to engage with this person? Or are you going to say, 'It's a trick, it's formalized, it's stylized, I'm not going to.' "

The psychological intensity of Oursler's work and the push-pull dynamic it imposes on its audience hark back to the tough, groundbreaking videos and installations of the late 1960s and '70s by Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci. Their work also incorporated performance and heightened the viewer's sensitivity to his/her own body as it related to the surrounding space. Oursler shatters the passivity of the art-viewing experience and calls into question the viewer's position, both physically and emotionally.

By presenting a situation that requires making choices, Oursler creates a self-defining experience for the viewer. "The best art is really a catalyst," he says. "That's what I aspire to making."

If an encounter, or more accurately, a confrontation with his work ends up in some way being autobiographical for the viewer, it's not necessarily so for the artist. Oursler often uses his own face, body and voice in his work, but many people, he says, wrongly interpret the work's hostility as a mirror of his own state of mind. Reading such one-to-one correspondence is fascinating, he admits, but "it's a basic misunderstanding of the way that we should experiment with artwork and experience our cultural moments. It goes back to a notion of Robbe-Grillet's that if I pick up a novel and the first line says 'It's raining outside,' and I look outside and it's not raining, do I throw the book away? Or do I take it on another level? If I scream on camera, does it mean I'm angry, or that I want to explore the possibilities of the scream?"

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