Exploring Tony Oursler’s art on poetics of light and impact of new tech

In a conversation with STIR, New York-based artist Tony Oursler brings some light on his latest series of works: Facial Recognition, Lumina, and Dolls.

by Daria KravchukPublished on : Jul 18, 2022

For over 40 years Tony Oursler analysed the phenomena of how humanity perceives narratives and video sequences, the way the audience interacts with technology. The visual artist addresses a wide range of media, including computers, video screens, video sculptures, optical devices, projections on architecture and landscapes in order to shape a prescient view of today’s world. Through multiple projections, Oursler creates a mesmerising and enveloping environment, featuring close-ups of human eyes, images from pop culture and video collages, which all have a hypnotic effect on the individual. Oursler's hybrid artworks, half sculptures - half videos, are a bridge between physical and psychological spaces, affecting the eye as much as the mind.

Untitled (rainbow lumia), 2022, Cast acrylic, Acrylic paint, Wood, LCD screen, Media player| Tony Oursler | STIRworld
Untitled (rainbow lumia), 2022, cast acrylic, acrylic paint, wood, LCD screen, media player Image: Courtesy of Tony Oursler and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London

Known as the originator of 'video sculpture', Oursler researches the ways in which everyday devices, technologies and digital networks have altered our collective consciousness. He constructs phantasmagorical worlds and focuses on our physical attraction to light sources. Immensely poetic in nature, the American artist continuously works on extensive archives. One of his archives focuses on the theme of light – from the Plato’s cave to Northern Lights, from Thomas Wilfred’s light generating machines to computer screens. As he mentions, he is "collecting every manner of light", which “becomes fuel” for his artworks. This theme echoes both in Oursler’s older and newer works, creating a thread-like trail throughout his artistic practice.

Tony Prikryl | Tony Oursler | STIRworld
Dolls Image: Tony Prikryl, Courtesy of Baldwin Gallery

Our world, altered by the rise of digital technologies, says the artist, is mirrored by “George Orwell – and his paranoia of the future. The fact is - it’s here, it’s happening. We have to deal with it one way or another.” Oursler questions, “What is the next level of art making? A more poetic interpretation – what can it be like? We need new paths forward. Can the poet interpret the world better than the computer? I don’t know – I hope so.”

Tony Prikryl | Tony Oursler | STIRworld
Lumina Image: Tony Prikryl, Courtesy of Baldwin Gallery

Following one of the favourite quotes of Oursler from Nam June Paik, “…television is the new fire”, the artist tells STIR, "These fascination with light and fire goes back to prehistoric age. This is a rich element which stimulates our imagination. Fire pattern is never the same yet it is an example of the characteristics of the flame. The patternicity and effect of these fire-light forms is what fascinates me. I am trying to capture it in my new works. We are creating a large archive of hundreds of different patterns of light, which we will use in order to animate new pieces."

aka:wudu, 2022, Cloth, Wood, False hair, Cast acrylic, Acrylic paint, Epoxy resin, Aqua resin, Steel, LED light, Digital moving image with sound | Tony Oursler | STIRworld
aka:wudu, 2022, cloth, wood, false hair, cast acrylic, acrylic paint, epoxy resin, aqua resin, steel, LED light, digital moving image with sound Image: Courtesy of Tony Oursler

Discussing one of his recent series of works, Facial Recognition, which witnesses and reflects the rising use of facial recognition system, Oursler says, "Facial recognition is the entry point of computing systems. These things change rapidly. When I started working with it, people didn't really know what it was. Now it’s just a given. The mechanics of it was really interesting for me. In the beginning I just saw these points of reference. The computer measured distances between all the facial features. This is how we are able to define one person from another. It got me thinking – if this is really the way computer sees us – it is the new portrait of us. With this new system you are connected with all the data in your life: search preferences, economics, education, health, psychological profiles – whatever digital trail you have left. This is the new way of representation of culture. It’s the new way of looking at the world – through numbers. When you have these numbers – you have to figure out how you are going to interpret them. It’s the beginning of a new era. Can we access and understand our own numbers, turn them into art? The poetry in Facial Recognition is challenging the situation, asking what it is to be human and what it is to be a statistical fabrication."

Menlo, 2022, Cloth, Cast acrylic, Acrylic paint, Epoxy resin, Aqua resin, LEDs, Glass, Steel, Digital moving image with sound | Tony Oursler | STIRworld
Menlo, 2022, cloth, cast acrylic, acrylic paint, epoxy resin, aqua resin, LEDs, glass, steel, digital moving image with sound Image: Courtesy of Tony Oursler

Facing the world, transfigured by constant simultaneous change of physical and information space, Oursler in his series Lumina dives into the field of contemporary archaeology, "Light bulbs are changing, remotes are changing. It comes from the binary light switch all the way to computer screen. Looking at those things together as the index of life is the archaeology of the moment, of now. Compositions are meant to suggest these chains of flows of energy and information. You have objects which you might come across in your daily life. Some are more mysterious than the others. Some have deep history. It could bridge from insulator, from a power cable to prehistoric shark tooth, from Buddha head to death masks, from devils to pin-up girls, Gameboys, remote controls, weapons and so on, all becoming light. You have a vocabulary of transformation and it becomes an interpreted open message. It can’t be too literal, otherwise the artwork will die. It’s meant to be a bit open ended collaboration with the viewer.”

“otkin adarad utaalk”, 2022, Cloth, Cast acrylic, Acrylic paint, Epoxy resin, Aqua resin, LEDs, Glass, Steel, Digital moving image with sound | Tony Oursler | STIRworld
otkin adarad utaalk, 2022, cloth, cast acrylic, acrylic paint, epoxy resin, aqua resin, LEDs, glass, steel, digital moving image with sound Image: Courtesy of Tony Oursler

Robots, objects of designed desire, were always a subject of interest for Oursler. He tells STIR, "I always liked the idea of robots, but I could never figure out how to deal with them and finally I started thinking about them as of psychological puppets, which interact as artificial intelligence. They are almost like sentient stick figures. In a way bodies are diminishing and the mind takes over and in that case they become a certain reflection, mirror for people. The faces are always recombining. Their identities are not really fixed. It’s a sort of cascading, rolling psychology. Their faces are glitching in and out, registering potentials and inadequacies of the technology. If you have ever been on a computer-call, you know what I mean. There is certain sadness in them. They are almost endangered species on the road to the singularity."

Portrait of Tony Oursler | Tony Oursler | STIRworld
Tony Oursler Image: Courtesy of Tony Oursler

The theme of the state of interdependence with everyday technologies continues in the Dolls series, a continuation of the artist's early emphatic works. They almost look like quotes from movie scenes, collective memories or archetypal visitations. Created from such material as glass and resin, wearing extremely detailed costumes, as the artist says "they have references all over place. If you are asked to Google images of Carl Jung, Kendrick Lamar and Patricia Highsmith to cast a movie titled: how we got here – they are something like that for me.”

IDE…, 2015, Wood, Inkjet print, LCD screen, USB flash drives, sound, performed by Josie Keefe and Joanna Smolenski | Tony Oursler | STIRworld
IDE…, 2015, wood, inkjet print, LCD screen, USB flash drives, sound, performed by Josie Keefe and Joanna Smolenski Image: Courtesy of Tony Oursler, and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London

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