By Gloria Moure
Published in Ediciones Poligrafa
Jan. 1, 2001
Lacking a historical perspective, we tend to be unaware that during the last third of the 20th century a number of remarkable changes were effected in people's cognitive relationship with their natural and cultural environment; changes which resulted in major inflections and breaks in the process of engaging with the creative phenomenon. Oursler was born in 1957, and emerged from his education at Cal Arts in 1979, so that his adolescence and his formative years thus coincided almost precisely with the first part of that interesting and volatile time. He was thus ideally placed to follow many of these changes at first hand, in a position to imbibe from exceptional aesthetic sources and to confront the challenges of configuration with very little doctrinal baggage on his back. He very soon entered his creative maturity, because although he first started out as an artist in the eighties, he did not hesitate to distance himself from the unequivocally commercial movement that perversely impregnated the visual art of those years. The generation that preceded his had broken with the rigidities of a way of seeing things founded on the isolation of objects and their internal structure, an approach succoured by a mechanistic and deterministic conception of the world. Such a vision tended to alienate the subject from their environment and subsume them in objectivity. That generation of radical artists had embraced instability and aligned themselves on the side of interactive phenomena, in opposition to the supposedly evident nature of things as such. This meant immersing themselves without restrictions in complexity, in a spirit of experimentation and starting from degree-zero, exploring not only the objects and phenomena perceived, but the way that perception itself came about. Dan Graham, Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman were among those artists for whom -- as I have reason to know -- Oursler avows a special respect.
If we bear in mind this transcending of the optimistic, mechanistic version of the modern model, it becomes clear why it was that artists in almost every sphere proceeded to adopt a deconstructive and not a destructive approach in the wake of the Gotterdammerung of the old secular idols. In effect, it was not so much a matter of replacing one rationality with another as of understanding the precarious condition of both and the relativity and partiality of all truth. At the same time, and as a consequence of this, many artists were turning to a circular or spiral idea of historical development, in explicit opposition to that other, linear progression so dear to the scientistic avant-garde. In turn, deconstruction and historical superposition meant eternalizing the interdependent coexistence of order and disorder, and of their ethical and moral correspondences, above all from the perspective of the western Christian tradition. On the other hand, this new creative context was not simply an inevitable response to the ideological vacuum that seemed to be giving ammunition to the most recalcitrant forces of reaction; far from constituting a purely mental construct to be used in confronting the unexpected instability afflicting the faith in progress of the positivists, it had a credible because visible parallel in an everyday reality dominated, not to say defined, by the mass media and in particular, and above all, by television. Beyond all doubt, the ubiquitous presence and power of the media promoted the fragmented and a-historical accumulation of messages, effectively illustrating the deconstruction of discourse and circularity of time. But that reciprocal redundancy between the analytical coherence of reason and the perception and processing of language and images proved dangerously ambivalent in its mixing of the reality accessible to active experience with that other reality, virtual, passively perceived and productive of alienating behaviours, by creating an endless confusion between the private and the public. Oursler was brought up amid that dangerous ambivalence and was in all probability influenced more by television, comics, the new communications technologies and science-fiction books and films than by the erudite reading to which he was exposed as a student or by pure intellectual curiosity, although -- fortunately for him -- there was no contradiction between the two but rather, as I suggested above, a timely coincidence. Added to all this is the fact that his preferences, his rejections and his configurative manners, too, were shaped in the desultory atmosphere of a post-hippie, post-pop generation, with all that this implies in aesthetic terms, in the sense of the crude manifestation of the violence, neomysticism, philistinism and vulgarity of the suburbs, the squalor of chemical addictions, the attraction of the demonic and the impotence in the face of the powers that were continually seeking to curtail the liberties of the individual.
With regard to the genesis of his creative approach, Oursler -- from a family with a strong literary tradition -- took careful note of the synthesis of genres that the generation of artists immediately prior to his had effected, and of the breaking of confines that his predecessors had so daringly achieved, in order to expand spatially the traditional concepts of painting and sculpture and give these a quality of interaction with the audience that had until then been only latent. In the end, however, the introduction of time and movement into the three-dimensional space made possible by the advances in image technology did not in fact transform things; it merely improved them, because our human vision, dynamic, sequential and multipositional, was and would continue to be pictorial, just as our bodily awareness and our tactility also led us to approach the essence of the sculptural dynamically. Perhaps this is why Oursler, in spite of his enthusiastic embracing of the possibilities of technical synthesis that video offered, has never ceased to value drawing, painting and sculpture, nor to privilege the manual element in the process of configuration. In fact, it seems to me that this is revealed in the expressive fragmentation and assemblage that are so evident in all his work, alongside a permitted and at times emphasized clumsiness in the composition, from the very first videos -- such as Diamond (Head) (1979), The Loner (1980), Grand Mal (1981) -- through to the interactive CD-ROM Fantastic Prayers (1999). This avoidance of unnecessary iconoclasm is also bound up with his own particular way of investigating the expressive possibilities of the technical medium he utilizes, in the sense that his use of it leads him not to a simple change of support, but to a transformation of the configuration on the basis of the revolutionary content embodied in the new technology itself, in so far as this results in an improvement in the concordance with the audience's perception of the world. No doubt the decision to dispense with monitors in favour of projecting directly onto the objects is further evidence of this flexible and libertarian process.
Each and every one of his works provokes an empathic attraction in the spectators, who can hardly help but feel an identification or even a complicity with it, but do not feel exposed, because the interaction to which Oursler impels them holds them back and allows them a protective distance. In other words, that inescapable empathy induces a sharing of objects, images, spaces, sounds and language, just as we find in our relations with the communications media, while the spirit remains solitary and never totally revealed, for good and for ill. The result would not be so potent if the works, habitually situated in the interstice between ingenuous humour and tragedy, did not underscore the disorder and the instability in such a recurrent manner, in that our lives -- and the whole universe -- evolve and remain active by way of successive entropic disorders which end up rearranging and transfiguring everything, including our most intimate experiences and relationships. Oursler thus underlines, emphasizes and localizes our ways of living, configuring a critical environment that makes them poetically apparent but in no way offers escape routes for the absurdities they inevitably contain, for the simple reason that our physical and mental disorders are ultimately necessary, even at the risk of their turning into irreversible pathologies. In this context, the world of objects constitutes a chance concretion of the inevitable entropy, and at the same time an alphabet of signs which mediates a communication that practically never turns out to be entirely possible.
For all of these reasons -- and in spite of the fact that Oursler's work tends to be multiple, intermixed and cumulative in terms of the diversity, collision and collusion of messages, visual, aural and linguistic -- I have a special predilection for those simple works, based on photographing collections of cast-off objects. The titles are themselves revealing, with the generic denomination trash being followed by the parenthetical qualifier empirical , probably connoting here the pure observation of nature. And as if that were not enough, a stress is placed on the random disposition of these discarded objects, set out in a more or less shameful way, with subtitles typical of the naming of paintings. And yet all this irony cannot conceal a clear affinity for the experiential and linguistic skin that covers the objects and separates them from the onward march of time. In relation to this, Oursler likes to quote Karl Marx, who, in his opposition to this ineradicable attribute of the galaxy of objects, abominated it and sought instead to manifest a simple alienating relation of the human subject with things, grounded in the reality of the conditions of production and consumption. In contrast, Oursler declares his conviction that every object carries within itself a text that is communicated every time the object is touched. What is more, obliged to keep a junk room full of odds and ends in limbo on account of his continuous moves, he shows that in that storeroom the whole is not the same as the sum of the parts and how much that place has ended up becoming his model of time. The photographs seem to be not so much the product of the idle curiosity of some casual passer-by as the work of an interested and almost obsessive voyeur, ready to hallow what he captures with the camera. Evidently, what the snapshots privilege are not only almost pornographic excrescences of moments no longer private, exposed in and to the public domain and condemned to the anonymity of objectivity and the loss of their empathic density. They are also the inevitable residua of the day-to-day continuum and as such a pristine metaphor of the disorder and the waste that inescapably accompany our lives, both physical and psychological. Oursler seems to want to reinstate them, opposing to the decontextualization that comes from disuse that typical other of the artistic procedure in order that these objects may express all their signal semiotic potency and extend their empathic aura, another of the reasons why this series of photographs seems to me to stand as a metaphor of Oursler's work as a whole. In relation to this highly concrete allusion, I think it would be appropriate here to consider a group of three much earlier works (1981), even though they are unpublished, because they constitute the reverse of the series Trash , in the sense that they have a similar content, but are resolved in visual terms in a diametrically opposite manner. This is the series of photographs Deadly Landscapes , the sub-titles of which ( Autoerotic Suicide ,Crash and Head Trauma ) have the anodyne quality of forensic files. Abounding in that coldness, the framings partialize the views, in order to define the specific site of the incident, in the way we might expect a police photographer to do. This compositional device, together with the absence of human figures, inevitably suggests a tragic or at least an unsettling message, that the eschatological nature of the photographic snap-shot as such emphasizes. The sub-titles serve to clarify what we have already intuited in the abstract, in referring as they do, without details and with typically bureaucratic insensitivity, to the accidents or crimes that took place there. Undoubtedly, the observer experiences the impact of a flash of empathy that borders on a shudder, on account of the very stillness of the scenarios that are shown without any attempt to recreate them. The total absence of objects here, the emptiness that by omission invokes disaster and accident as unforeseen discontinuities, was to make way several years later for the series Trash and its still-lives put together on the basis of abandoned belongings, in which the disorder proves to be continuous, cumulative and predictable. In both cases, however, Oursler seems to be stressing their inexorable naturalness.
Quantum mechanics tells us that matter has many possible states, all of them real, none of which can be excluded a priori . It is only when by some chance one of these states manifests itself that the other possibilities irretrievably collapse and disappear in the mysterious heart of the void. The physicist and mathematician Roger Penrose suggests in his book The Emperor's New Mind that the physical cost of that collapse is the entropy which is, however gradually, continually on the increase in our universe. In effect, Tony Oursler poeticizes on the basis of a similar intuition on the macroscopic level. We can be many things, all of them possible, but knowing what we are, what we want and where we are situated gives rise to a disorder that it may at times even be necessary to induce for the sake of our very survival; this is our condition in a world that only offers us indifference. Life, then, is entropy, and art, if it is authentic, cannot detach itself from either.