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Tony Ourlser

Updated: Feb 19, 2019


Tony Ourlser, Years/ Months/ Weeks/ Days/ Hours/ Minutes/ Seconds, 1996

Tony Oursler is one of the artist that, at the Frieze Art Fair, really fascinated me with his work. This interview comes from a little research I did on his work, it tells about the main concepts of his artistic poetic. The part that I underlined are those which I consider more interesting, also for my personal artistic research.

“Talking Back”A Conversation with Tony Oursler By Elizabeth Janus (personally chosen extracts, relevant to my work)

[Tony Oursel’s work] concentrate almost exclusively on more elaborate installations composed of human-like figures onto which he projected emoting or talking faces. We discussed, at length, larger questions about the evolution of video as an art form, especially the fact that more and more artists were turning to the medium and incorporating it as one means among many into their general output.


QUESTION: When I first saw your early videotapes, particularly Grand Mal (1981), I was struck by how familiar they seemed. This is partly because your early style was consciously childlike? using garishly hand-painted sets and body parts for characters? but also because the tapes typically revolve around simple stories about good and evil. I find these moral tales not at all didactic partly because of your use of irony, which is at the same time funny and unsettling. This lack of preachiness tends to make one focus less on what the stories can teach rather than how children’s stories, fairy tales, etc. (and children’s television!) are used as powerful instruments of moral and ethical instruction. I was hoping that you could talk about the source of these early narratives.

Tony Oursler: I am a bit defensive about the term “childlike”. There is a heavy reverence for the very male and very adult use of the tools of technology, and many people have categorized my work as childish, which to me is like saying that regression in psychoanalysis is childish, or that the shadow plays of Bali are childish because of the use of hands. But in retrospect, these early tapes do have a celebration of youth culture in them. Like a dramatic play that reveals large issues in broad strokes of black and white. This I still find profound. Like a kid who is constantly asking, “ Why? Why? Why?” over and over again. That’s profound. I was trying in this early work to create a mental space through the use of narratives and images.[…]


As you said, good and evil play a big part in my early work, and that may be because I tend to see things in black and white. This is, of course, a major aspect of the Catholic Church world view with which I grew up. The rules are intended to make life simple and “good” and to order one’s thoughts and, above all, to focus fears in a direction for the good of the countenance of the church. But I don’t know what happened with our generation: it just didn’t take. I do have a very active spiritual mind, but it seems to me that most people wanted to be “bad” when constrained by the foolish strictures of the church. I could see the hollow aspects of various rituals, the hypocrisy, the lies. […]


QUESTION: Several of your installations from the last few years have made direct references to identity formation, states of mind, empathy displacement, phobias, and multiple personality disorder. I was thinking specifically about your early installation Model Release/Par-Schizoid Position/Test from 1992, which was shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and the piece that you just mentioned, Phobic. Perhaps you could talk a little bit about your general interest in psychology and about these pieces in particular.

TO: What I enjoy about the attempts to codify the human mind, as in the MMPI [the Minneapolis Multi-Phasic Personality Inventory] a test used to determine personality disorders and the basis of Test ], is that it seems to offer an interesting, direct way to engage the viewer, which, in general, is always a goal of mine. I think of it as a trap, in a way, exploiting the nature of the mind, much like persistence of vision in film.


QUESTION: Your interest in MPD [multiple personality disorder], besides being a continuation of your psychology-directed works, seems a natural consequence of these investigations into the relationship between violence and the media and more specifically between the media and memory. As Pierre Janet first recognized in studying the symptoms of hysteria, multiple personalities are the result of a pathological fragmentation of memory, usually the memory of a violent trauma.

For the installation Judy (1994)at the Salzburger Kunstverein and later at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia [1997] you created a visual essay on MPD, incorporating its causes and effects, such as the dissociation and fragmentation of trauma and the development of alters, into an interactive environment. Perhaps you can describe how your ideas for this installation came about and how it relates to some of the recent emoting dummies and dolls, for example those that weep or have fits of hysteria or rage.

Tony Oursler, Switch director, 2011

TO: The emotive works came first? they are an attempt to distill mental states. For me these works became the embodiment of the link between the media and the psychological states it is capable of provoking: empathy, fear, arousal, anger. I have always wanted tobe able to cry at will; the idea has always fascinated me, but I could never do it. I work with actors, sometimes artists, writers, and performers to crystallize these states, like directing a movie consisting only of the most extreme psychodrama localized in a single figure. […] Dissociation is the unconscious mechanism in which a group of mental activities “ split off” from the main stream of consciousness and function as a separate unit. […]

In Judy she represents three alters/personalities: Horror, Boss, and Fuck You. A fourth, silent figure, performed by Catherine Dill, returns naked to the womb. The fifth is created by an interactive, or should I say symbiotic, situation where the participant enters into the work. Tracy and the flowers, which are everywhere? a sort of mock feminine camouflage or skin? are the unifying aspects of the installation. […]

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