Tony Oursler talks about ‘Black Box’, a retrospective at Kaohsiung Museum

New York-based artist Tony Oursler talks about his exhibition, the first full-scale retrospective of his career in Asia, at Kaohsiung Museum for Fine Arts in Taiwan.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : May 14, 2021

To walk into Black Box at Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Taiwan, is to enter a dreamscape constructed by the mind of artist Tony Oursler. Tony Oursler: Black Box is on view currently, the first full-scale retrospective in Asia compiling and documenting more than four decades of Oursler’s creative practice. In an exclusive interview with STIR, the artist discusses his journey so far and his hopes for the exhibition. Tony Oursler: Black Box continues to be on display until May 16, 2021.

Installation view of Black Box at Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts | Tony Oursler: Black Box | Tony Oursler | STIRworld
Installation view of Black Box at Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts Image: Tony Oursler, Courtesy of Lisson Gallery

Oursler shares the conceptual intentions behind the title of the exhibition, as well as its curatorial approach. He says, “Well, Black Box is the title of our exhibition in Taiwan and I worked quite a bit with the curator Alice Ko on the title. If you look back at my work, one of my main fascinations has to do with the camera obscura. For those who don't know what it is, it's a phenomenon which happens whenever you have an enclosed dark space with a small aperture, whatever is outside that space is reflected and projected through the hole onto the surface of the dark and interior. This is how all cameras work and this may sound familiar to you from biology class because you have two of them in your head, your eyes are camera obscuras. Those camera obscuras take the light through the aperture which is your iris and pupil and projected onto your retina, which converts the light signals into information and thought. There's another reference which has to do with the black box theatre as a performative gathering place. Just to complicate things, the black box in system designs refers to an element which has a known outcome but the means is unknown. In other words, we know what it does but not how it works and this is the kind of metaphor for contemporary society where we are surrounded by tools which we use but we don't know how they function. This is a weakness on one hand and a strength on the other. When you look at my work you can see how the magic happens, how it’s done, it's not hidden away. I want people to think they can make art also. My dream for the exhibition is to inspire people to use technology productively rather than as consumers, to realise that they have agency when they think creatively”.

Caricatures by Tony Oursler on view at Black Box | Tony Oursler: Black Box | Tony Oursler | STIRworld
Caricatures by Tony Oursler on view at Black Box Image: Tony Oursler, Courtesy of Lisson Gallery

Although Oursler began as an artist with more traditional leanings like sculpture and painting, he branched out into more varied media over the years, experimenting with installation, performance and video art. Sharing stories of his myriad influences which shaped his artistic interests, he says, “My space of art moves around, unplugs and makes noise and sometimes you have to walk through it. Give me a curse at you I'll try to put you into a trance, although it may also ask you to contemplate beauty like more traditional art. I started out as a sculptor and painter as a kid, really, but I like to ride as well. I was really inspired by pop artists in the surrealists, all kinds of art. I even met Salvador Dali on my 18th birthday, thanks to my dad, who was an editor at Reader’s Digest and somehow found out that Dali used to hold court at a certain time of day at the Saint Regis Hotel. I always loved David Bowie. My sister introduced me to his music and we used to sit around listening to Stevie Wonder, T. Rex and Bowie on the headphones, which was kind of an education and how to design sound and distort minds. But I was always curious and open to anyone I met did anything creative, always wanted to know how it was done. But I think I had a kind of charmed life. If I told you the chain of influences in inspirations, people I bumped into and had the pleasure of working with, it seems like a fairytale. When I was a kid, I used to play in the abandoned house of Edward Hopper who is from my town Nyack. A lovely woman I dated in high school, who happened to be the daughter of Robert Breer, happily took me into a studio and showed me his animation contraptions, films, drawings and paintings. When I went to college, I studied with Douglas Hubler, John Baldessari, Michael Asher, Susan Rothenberg, Lori Anderson, Jonathan Borofski. Right around the time I met Alan Vega, Tony Conrad, Glenn Branca, Kim Gordon and Sonic Youth, and of course Constance Dejong. This was all by 1982. Through a twist of fate, I ended up meeting and working with Bowie in 1996”. 

  • Oursler experiments with palimpsest effects | Tony Oursler: Black Box | Tony Oursler | STIRworld
    Oursler experiments with palimpsest effects Image: Tony Oursler, Courtesy of Lisson Gallery
  • Oursler creates surreal landscapes at Black Box | Tony Oursler: Black Box | Tony Oursler | STIRworld
    Oursler creates surreal landscapes at Black Box Image: Tony Oursler, Courtesy of Lisson Gallery

Talking about his material concerns, New York-based artist Oursler says, “I feel that art should be inclusive and also reflect the world in which we live. It's complicated, messy, and there's a kind of celebration of new materials at any given time and that extends to virtual space, media space, I like to use it all. Many people have super computers in their pockets known as a smart phone: inside there is a photo lab, a film lab, recording studio and archive, it's a very powerful tool. We are doing many things why not art? The sooner we are able to convert these from capitalist tools into art making tools, the better it will be for all of us. I began working with projection a while back which really freed me up and opened up new territory. I see most art is Newtonian, that is how we see an object, depends on what light is reflected from the object to the eye, in other words all the colours of the spectrum or absorbed except for the one which is reflected, for example on an apple you see red. Now if I project onto that apple, I interrupt this process and there's a layering which is new to the mind, it opens up new readings and poetic possibilities. I was also able to build some characters which came directly out of the Uncanny Valley electronic effigies, which walked out of the screen space of cinema and television. Right now, I am very interested in projection into landscape as a way of creating a sort of palimpsest, a layered reading of space in history, personal and public. Recently in New York I was able to project directly into the Hudson River and use the surface of the water as a screen, which had a tremendously beautiful effect”.

  • 01 min watch Tony Oursler: Black Box at Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts | Tony Oursler: Black Box | Tony Oursler | STIRworld
    Tony Oursler: Black Box at Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts Video: Tony Oursler, Courtesy of Lisson Gallery
  • Tony Oursler at Black Box | Tony Oursler: Black Box | Tony Oursler | STIRworld
    Tony Oursler at Black Box Image: Courtesy of Tony Oursler and Lisson Gallery

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