TONY OURSLER : Dolls, Dummies and poison Candy. Art Monthly, Issue 171, November 1993.
It is refreshing to see an exhibition of small-scale video pieces. Most often ‘video installation’ means large-scale, often monolithic and macho pieces dominating the gallery space. This hitech and costly spectacle often seems intended to awe and mystify the public rather than to enlighten. In contrast to this, a sense of intimacy is achieved by the American Tony Oursler who shows a collection of small-scale video and multi-media pieces at the Ikon Gallery. Quite naturally this approach encourages a closer look – you are compelled to peer into the tiny screens Oursler has placed around the gallery. This creates an impression of intimacy that on closer inspection proves false. In spite of our proximity to the work we are denied any further insight, as if the act of invitation was itself enough. Our expectation is that domestic video equipment, playfully deployed and stripped bare, might liberate us from techno-fear and reveal some deeper insight into the artist’s vision, but instead the tiny flickering image that has drawn us in turns out to be a distorted and uncertain picture occasionally mixed with obscure scrolling texts. In Oursler’s best pieces this resulting uncertainty is turned to advantage.
At times the display of consumer electronics seems endowed with an element of magic – in E4EUH the stripped down mini- TV showing a flickering black and white image appears all the more miraculous, seemingly producing pictures from discarded junk. The work takes on an almost sinister aspect – an electro-mechanical monster still crawling forward despite being dismembered. The monochrome image in this work is also one of the most revealing, displaying a sequence of the artist or his surrogate wrestling with one of his own dummies, as if to depict unspecified personal conflicts. Television as opiate of the masses, product packaging as seducer, the fetishisation of technology – the issues that Oursler centres on are important though perhaps unremarkable for an artist working with video. At times Oursler tries to take on too much; curatorial claims that works such as DUMMY 1 and DUMMY 2, challenge commonplace assumptions about individual identity, are exaggerated. These works seem altogether too disposable, hastily thrown together figures made from discarded clothes draped around closed-circuit surveillance systems seem superficial and unresolved. This grunge aesthetic may well be deliberate but the Poison Candy series also lacks any real sense of transformation, the act of scaling-up these candy wrappers is too obvious a way of drawing our attention to the toxic ingredients. The result looks a little like a classroom ecology project. Oursler can be direct and effective. In KEPONE DRUM the relationship between a concern for the environment and his theatrical manipulation of materials is well judged. An oil drum, oozing a black and suspicious substance, reflects a series of lurid images emanating from the video monitor embedded within it. KRYPT demonstrates Oursler’s whimsical sense of humour: we are encouraged to peer into a mirrored box decorated with mystical symbols and flickering lights drawn from a fairground aesthetic. Revealed inside is a cocktail of American broadcast TV images, with references to drug-taking and pollution, fragmented by the spectator’s attempts to get a clearer view, as s/he circles the sculpture. The resulting peep-show is both frustrating and seductive.
Perhaps one of the most engaging works is also one of the simplest. A miniature doll’s blank countenance is animated by the tiny projected image of a crying human face. The play between scale and realism is disturbing, even though the source of the illusion is completely visible. Tony Oursler wants his work to critique the world of consumer products which represent, ‘the point where poison and utopia meet’. At times he succeeds, most effectively with his use of small-scale, almost private video pieces that function on a one-to-one basis. Echoing the media landscape of American televisual consumer culture, Oursler creates his own flow of information from piece to piece, reinforcing his message across the exhibition.
This exhibition is the first section of a two-part show, curated in collaboration with Moviola. The second part, ‘CIGARETTES, FLOWERS and VIDEOTAPE’ opened at the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool early in October. This is yet another in a series of major exhibitions featuring American male artists coming up over the next few months. It is important to ask when similar attention will be shown to British artists working in this field.
Dummies, Dolls and Poison Candy, Multi-media installations by Tony Oursler, was at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, Sept lSt-Oct 30th and Cigarettes, Flowers and Video Tape is at Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool, to Nov 13