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Instances of Crypto-Transgression #5: Tony Oursler
In Tony Oursler's art that pleads for us to look upon techno-society open to the possibility of magic, Adam Lehrer locates a crypto-transgressive sentiment
Last week, I forced myself away from my laptop and a looming deadline to go and see the Albert Oehlen and Paul McCarthy exhibition at good ol’ Larry Gagose. It was a good show, if a less than spectacular pairing. Some nice pieces that nevertheless demonstrated little thematic fluency between the two artists other than whiffs of humor and mastery of craft. On the same block, however, I saw that Lehmann Maupin was showing new work by Tony Oursler. Typically, I’d never walk into that gallery. Whether it’s the queer dyke photography of Catherine Opie, the low effort decorative painting of Nicholas Hlobo, or the oh my fucking god I’m so sick of this “black excellence” figuration of Calida Rawles, the vast majority of Lehmann’s roster is…. Well, let’s just say it’s not my thing.
These galleries always attempt to keep a firm grip on the last vestiges of their dignity, however, by holding onto intellectual and aesthetic pioneers like Oursler. Unaware that there was any Oursler show going on — I’ve not been keen on keeping up with the gallery schedules — I gleefully entered the gallery finding what is surely some of Oursler’s best work in years.
Oursler’s work, for me, has always been a fitting explanation for what “contemporary art” is and can be in relation to the modern art that came before it. What do I mean by this? Well, if modern art was the salon’s break away from the rigidity of the academy, then contemporary art is art freeing itself from the typical methods and techniques of historical art production. Contemporary art is instead a contained space for chaotic energy in which all ideas, forms, methods, and aesthetics that don’t make sense in other fields — design, entertainment, whatever — can come together and find cohesion. What is this shit? Well, it’s art. It’s contemporary art. What else do you want from me? Take it or leave it. It’s not for everybody. It just is.
Oursler’s practice is likewise a rectification of several dialectics: the material and the digital, the occult and the sciences, the institutional art world and the pop cultural underground, sculpture and new media, postmodernism and surrealism. Unlike so much of today’s bullshit art, one gets the sense that Oursler’s work is neither deliberately and obnoxiously obtuse nor is it needlessly explanatory. When Oursler hits it, he seems to be pointing his finger at and dismissing everything that I find to be vulgar about the art of today.
As a totem to his larger practice, I first want to point out Oursler’s semi-iconic “electronic effigies”. These works are sculptures that also incorporate elements of new media, with the artist typically creating a flat figurative sculpture and then allowing a pre-recorded video to be projected onto the figures where the face would be and literally giving the objects personalities and dialog through the video projections. These sculptures have always been, at risk of sounding like a hyperbolic fan boy, mind-blowing to me, because they seem to be the only works of figurative art that fully inhabit the nature of what it is to be alive now.
We are all electronic effigies, are we not? Half of our social lives, if not more, exist in the digital space. We post to social media in real time, and then that post becomes part of the database. We inject pieces of our spirit into the mainframe, and the mainframe itself becomes haunted by fragments of our ghosts. But what’s often left unstated is the manner in which perceptions of our digitally constructed personas actually start to impact how we behave in the real world. The avatar becomes an actual personae, and as much as we haunt the digital realm, the pieces that we leave behind in the digital realm come back and animate us in real time. This is, whether you believe it or not, the essence of magic. It’s the immaterial, or energy beyond rational understanding, having impact on the shaping of events in the material world. Despite this surreality, we seldom project this kind of imaginative thinking onto these dynamics, But, Tony Oursler does think about these dynamics.
Science and mysticism have always been in consort with one another, and Oursler’s work has remained forever fixed on this peculiarity. Every scientific discovery was preceded by what can only be described as magical thinking. Nikolai Tesla and electricity. Einstein and the fission of the atom. These men were scientists, yes, but they were also artists and alchemists.
I interviewed Oursler in 2016, when I was still a struggling loser of an art critic and artist taking freelance gigs wherever I could take them, after Oursler presented his massive collection of iconography and ephemera related to the intersection of science and the occult in both a book and an exhibition film at LUMA Westbau in Zurich. Entitled Imponderable, the film and the accompanying book display Oursler’s collection of photographs and objects that zone in on several fringe and scientific interests that date back to the early 19th Century: stage magic, thought photography, demonology, cryptozoology, optics, Mesmerism, automatic writing, hypnotism, fairies, cults, pareidolia, the occult, color theory, and UFOs among them. “The connection between the occult and technology becomes a metaphor for how we approach any new technology,” Oursler said to me during that conversation. “I discovered that from the camera obscura to the computer, people have used technology to speak to the dead.”
This quotation opened my mind towards the possibility that Oursler is, quite possibly, nothing short of a modern genius and has guided me philosophically in my engagement with his work. Oursler is among the very few contemporary artists whose work can send me into a kind of delirium of insight.
If Oursler’s show title for the exhibition at Lehmann Maupin, mAcHiNe E.L.F., is any indication, it appears that the artist’s enthusiasm for excavating the hidden magic of science and technology has only hardened. This observation is made concrete by the Arthur C. Clarke quote (2001: A Space Odyssey being of course one of the greatest works of pop art to address this existential quandary) used in the show’s press release: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
It’s a strange quote given how distinctly unmagical our culture seems, with all its depressing transparency and tendency towards over-sharing of our menial existences. And yet, it’s our disposition towards and engagement with our culture that has eroded the dimension of the unknown in our techno society, not necessarily techno society itself. Oursler’s insight here mirrors some of those made by Nick Land and the CCRU – Land pointed towards Persian mystic and military commander of the 12th Century Hassan-i Sabbah’s quote that “nothing is true, everything is permitted” while carefully distinguishing between the claim that nothing is true versus the postmodern piety that “nothing is real.”
“On the contrary: nothing is true because there is no single, authorized version of reality – instead, there is a superfluity, an excess, of realities,” writes CCRU.
So, what’s the issue? What has caused the collapse of our curiosity in the unknown and the occulted? Why do we accept something as strange as living on the Internet, literally in the immaterial, as something so unexceptional? These questions occupied my thoughts — admittedly, I had taken powerful edibles shortly after my workout just a couple hours before — while traversing the Oursler show.
The exhibition’s first space featured several ink-jet prints on aluminum mirror and wood cut in the shape of human figures and each animated by both paint and several video projections, in the lineage of the aforementioned electronic effigies. One particularly memorable piece, SpEcTrUm, appears as a figure in the classic buddha meditation pose while adorned in imagery related to the planet, the cosmos, and, possibly, the matrix. Evocative of a kind of inner peace achieved when the subject lets go of their alienation and allows the logic of sensory overload to possess them, Oursler again leaves just enough room for confusion in regards to his conceptual thesis.
But the showstopper of the exhibition is its namesake installation – mAcHiNe E.L.F. overwhelmed me with its techno-utopian approach to what I somewhat hesitate to refer to as the sublime. But if Kant was right about the sublime — that it is merely an object or scene that instigates a mental process that overwhelms and confuses the senses to the degree that we come into contact with the limits of our own knowledge — then I wouldn’t have a better term to describe what I felt during the 10 minutes that I let mAcHiNe E.L.F. pass through my sight and into my brain.
Now, consider this: I went into this show blind. I didn’t even know that Tony Oursler, one of my favorite living visual artists, had a new show. Let alone one as grandiose as this. Couple that with the fact that I was high as a fucking kite on the edibles I used to slow my heart rate after leg day, and I felt something akin to a small religious experience.
The installation is inspired by “the seven fundamental crystal sculptures that occur in nature”: the trigonal system, the hexagonal system, and on and on and I won’t belabor the essay by explaining all of this because it’s fucking boring, I know. But Oursler chose these forms because, for him, they contain two dialectical extremes: the mythical and that of the hard sciences, once more. Crystals are used in technology, like in computers and smartphones, to coordinate time. Oursler believes they are the heartbeat of modern technology. At the same time, crystals are said by former The Hills reality star Spencer Pratt and other recovering alcoholics turned new age hippies to have healing properties.
And in each of these massive crystal formations, Oursler projects moving images onto the actual sculptures. The videos aren’t composed of found footage, but of actually scripted scenarios with performers ranging from writer and performer Constance DeJong and new media artist Jim Fletcher. One sequence that indelibly imprinted unto my mind’s eye saw one sculpture animated by a floating jellyfish, the one next to it with a man dressed as a kind of mystic or sorcerer gesturing towards the audience, and to the right of him an assortment of colorful flowers. Watching it in that hazy, slightly paranoid state of mind was like taking heavy acid in a Gaspar Noé, flickering strobe lights set, closing my eyes, and allowing myself to ponder technology and the cosmos (ideas that should be mentally avoided during a powerful psychedelic trip.) It was, undeniably, a potent aesthetic experience.
One might accuse Oursler of an over-enthusiasm for or a lack of criticality towards modern science and technology, but I don’t think this is right. Instead what he bemoans is the absence of the the mythical wonderment that we had for scientific discovery during the 20th Century. The greatest scientists — Tesla, Einstein, Newton, and otherwise — didn’t just think like rigorous lab technicians. No, their world changing discoveries were jettisoned through a mental disposition that can only be described as artistic and even religious, in the leap of faith it required for them to do the work that would lead to their epiphanies. But how do we engage with science now? We don’t. And who can blame us? Science and tech have been utterly absorbed by the logic of our repugnant bureaucratic institutions. They demand we take everything that they tell us about our machines and our medicine and otherwise at face value, damning us for our criticality and, in the process, dulling our capacity for marvel and imagination in the face of such great concepts. When that rat fucker Fauci tells us to take the Pfizer vaccine, we take it. Why wouldn’t we? The scientific institutions already said that the virus was deadly. Who are we to question them? Who are we to question anything? Here we are, with laptops and smartphones that connect us to knowledge and information at its most limitless, and what do we do with these seismic tools? We upload TikTok videos and watch Youtube. That’s all very depressing. Where is our bewilderment? Where is the mystery? What Ourlser suggests with his work then is not a full-scale endorsement of science and technology, but instead he pleads for a return to the science as an occult discipline. Perhaps when we imagine the world as it could be, and not allow ourselves to be force-fed the world as it is by spineless, two-faced bureaucrats, could we possibly rectify the alienation wrought by techno-society and its spiritual abasement.
Yeats once said that the world is full of magic, “waiting for our senses to sharpen.” But we’ve allowed ourselves to be tricked into thinking that magic, otherwise known as science, is merely an assortment of cursed fucking “facts and logic.” Our senses have dulled to the point that not only do we not lust for the discovery of new forces and ideas beyond our understanding, but even to the extent that we have no ability to marvel at the occult energy that unfolds before us in our daily lives. Tony Oursler’s art isn’t dystopian, but instead offers a utopian vision. He imagines a world where we can, like the spiritualists, the explorers, the creators, and the scientists of earlier modernism, bring a sense of awe and the sublime to these powerful objects that we’ve stopped seeing as anything more than practical tools. By demanding we look back upon our strange and sensory loaded digital reality with new eyes open to the possibility of sorcery, Oursler locates a singular crypto-transgressive sentiment.
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