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Art That Talks Back: The Shrink Is In

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.

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“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.

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“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?”

The fluid intermingling of authorship, autobiography and artistic neutrality is a “postmodern battle,” Oursler says. Though he writes the text to be spoken in his works, he likes to use actors because it gives him more control to direct. Actress Tracy Leipold, the talking head in “Don’t Look at Me,” works regularly with the artist and has become an alter-ego.

“She’s a very mutable character, which I like, because a lot of the work is about psychological shifting and multiple personality disorder as a metaphor for a sort of contemporary media consciousness. She’s able to slip between a lot of characters that we’ve invented together.”

Multiple personality disorder has fascinated Oursler for years and made its way into his work in its own multitude of guises.

“The belief is that it’s brought on by trauma--sexual, psychological or physical. A certain action takes place and the psyche reacts by creating something to absorb it, a new personality, an alter.

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“The more I researched it, the more I found texts that are quite dubious of its very existence as a true clinical disease. Many people believe it’s a kind of hysterical trend in the U.S., which was brought on by its introduction into media and television, starting with ‘The Three Faces of Eve.’ ”

For the 1995 “Video Spaces” show at the Museum of Modern Art, Oursler made “System for Dramatic Feedback,” a room-sized installation that explored the idea of media acting upon a malleable consciousness. The mind, Oursler believes, is a blank, mutable space, not locked into one fixed identity. When in the hypnotic state induced by television watching, we “slip into another dimension, and passively connected with this system of narrative structure, we take on different aspects of the media into our personalities.”

Cindy Sherman’s photographs of herself playing a plethora of media-defined roles are an example Oursler cites to show how pervasive this issue is among artists. Multiple personality disorder, like many mental illnesses, exists on a scale, so everyone has it to some degree or another, Oursler explains, and new technologies such as the Internet, the camcorder, even the telephone, all facilitate the shifting of identities. They are all conducive, he says, to the “shape-shifting” that blurs the lines between direct and mediated experience, immediate and projected realities.

In his newest series of work, shown at Metro Pictures in New York in May, Oursler filled a gallery with fiberglass spheres, each projected with the video image of an eye. When the eyes were filmed, each had been looking at another filmed image, and the reflection of those screens, with their news broadcasts or video games, can be seen in the eyes. One of these eyes stares hauntingly from the cover of Art in America magazine’s June issue, and another of these odes to media absorption will be on view in the San Diego show, which is organized by MCA Director Hugh Davies and Curatorial Coordinator Andrea Hales. Oursler will also be making a new work for the show, something he describes as a talking light, a dangling bulb that dims on and off, synchronized to an audio track of his own, whispering voice musing about the nature of beauty.

The show, which will include a selection of Oursler’s single-channel videos, should whet Southern California’s appetite for the artist’s mid-career survey coordinated by Williams College and MASS MoCA, scheduled to travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in early 1998.

As hard as Oursler’s art often works to push people away, its perverse appeal has been drawing more and more of them in. The false threats and verbal abuse unsettle, but they also echo familiar anxieties that are typically silenced by propriety and convention. Oursler recognizes how universal that hostility is.

“It’s a voice that everyone has, one way or another, but it’s something we strive to overcome. It’s a special voice, at one time in its shell and being aggressive. How long can you laugh? That’s the question.”

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“TONY OURSLER,” Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego/Downtown, 1001 Kettner Blvd., San Diego. Dates: Opens next Sunday. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Ends Oct. 20. Price: $4. Phone: (619) 234-1001.


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