Tony Oursler, Imponderable, MoMA, New York
Tony Oursler: Imponderable The Museum of Modern Art, New York, June 18, 2016–January 8, 2017
Tony Oursler’s Imponderable is two things: an obsessive inventory of psychical, magical, and quasi-scientific ephemera beginning from the nineteenth century, collected by the artist over many years, and a feature-length film “in five dimensions” that turns theatrical guile into deserving homage to Harry Houdini, William Castle, Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, and Garth Marenghi in one fell swoop.
The beauty of Oursler’s archive is that there is little distance between its objects and the artist. These are not things that simply stir the artist’s imagination; they are clues to his biography––objects that burrow deep at his familial roots in the paranormal. Unlike his peers––Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Paul McCarthy––who draw on domestic tropes in ways that twist and turn the limits of our collective sensibilities, or sometimes reject sensibility altogether (McCarthy and Kelley’s Heidi, 1992, for example), Oursler grounds his preoccupations in family lore. Oursler’s grandfather, a friend of Houdini and a man who vacillated between the embrace and rejection of psychical research, whose commitment to the scientific spirit set nature against nature, lurks everywhere in the exhibit. Like a medium channelling his own kin, Oursler leaves his audience asking, “who’s speaking?” There is a sense of reincarnation here. UFO photographs, cryptozoology, mineral deposits, x-rays, comets, and automatic writing swirl together––are these objects of another’s past or is this Oursler in another form, in another time? The artist seems to insert himself into events, into moments that are in the past but tethered to the present by the germ plasma of memory, a self-portrait drawn through visual culture at the border of invisibility and immateriality. Oursler’s biography gets pulled into the fantastic orbit of these things. Not a history he has fashioned for himself but one he was born into: a history of things with which he must dwell.
And then there’s the film. Oursler’s film is wonderfully out of touch. The plot is not important; it is imponderable. It is a homemade haunted house. It is kitsch and eerie seduction. It is a film filled with séances, noise-rock, geishas, Kim Gordon, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. All bets are off. The mark of a good showman is that, after the performance, any effort to explain it falls flat. One has to see to believe, and Oursler tries to convince us of nothing. Still, Imponderable is a carnival act that, once you enter, you know the fun and games are over.
Photos 1, 2, 3 : Tony Oursler, installation view, Imponderable, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2016. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar, © The Museum of Modern Art
Photo 4 : Tony Oursler, Imponderable, video still, 2015-2016. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar, courtesy of the artist and The Museum of Modern Art
Photos 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10 : Tony Oursler, Imponderable, video still, 2015-2016. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar, courtesy of the artist and The Museum of Modern Art