Tony Oursler at the Lisson Gallery

Andy asked us all to go to see the Tony Oursler exhbition at the Lisson Gallery. I wasn’t that impressed by the show, but it did deal with a crucial thing regarding digital art, namely taking something that exists as digital bits on a disc and turning that into a real, viewable artwork in real space. Oursler does this by projecting looped film on to sculpted objects, like ears, or patchwork dolls.

My favourite piece there was the huge talking ten pound note. It was horrible. The mouth itself seemed to be really similar to how the Queen’s mouth looks on money. That in itself was unsettling. I didn’t catch many of the things she was saying but her voice sounded quite queen like. Money talks, huh. Here was the key thing that bothered me, though. Even with this piece that was quite effective, I still stood there wondering why I was being shown this grotesque thing. All of the work in the show was grotesque in some respect. It’s all about addiction and other things that tend to isolate people. At no point in the show did I think, ‘Oh, that’s made me look at that in a different way’. At no point was I asked to think about any assumptions I may have taken in to the gallery (of which, no doubt, there are/were plenty). If work is gruesome but doesn’t challenge me, why should I spend any time with it? I ended up walking through it thinking ‘Dammit, where’s all the fun? Why am I not having any fun?’ Fun is good. Why is there not more fun artwork? I don’t mind not having fun if I’m having something else. Here, I was having reminiscences of school education videos warning me of the dangers of smoking. I shouldn’t need to persuade anyone of the wrongness of feeling this in a gallery setting. Maybe he set out to achieve this, but it didn’t work for me.

My second issue was the simple fact that the painted elements looked underworked. To me, they looked like the daubings of a hungover first year BA degree student rushing for an end of term deadline. There was no love of paint there. There didn’t seem to have been much thought given to the surface of the finished product and how that would effect the reading of the work. The relationship between the video and painting seemed crude too. It didn’t look to me like there was much effort to integrate the two media.

The weird thing about this was the fact that, conversely, the best thing about the show was the way the artist dealt with projections. The use of prepared objects in combination with projected film felt like a good way of beginning to make digital art properly inhabit a space, instead of looking like it’s just a cold ghost. This is something we all have to think about. It’s been handy to see someone doing it in ways that I’ve liked and disliked.

A key problem that always seems to come up with digital art is the fact that it’s so cold. You could never love most digital art. It just doesn’t have the warmth, presence, or the raw traces of human engagement that you get with, say a Robert Rauschenberg piece. The point where I begin to question this, though, is the fact that I get similar warm fuzzy feelings about a beautiful photograph, and I’m getting to that stage with really wonderful web design. I think this issue of aura is really about the level of ease the viewer feels with the media in front of them. The aura is inside of me, in partnership with the work. I’ve just ordered a book featuring Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction I’m hoping this is going to help me think this aura thing through a bit further.

So often, digital art is cold because it offers precious few routes in to an understanding of the work. Or it consists of a film of a woman standing in an empty room wearing black t shirt, tights and white face paint saying ‘no’ over and over and over in a completely deadpan voice. That’s a cheap, outdated stereotype but seriously, I’m sure a lot of people will know where I’m coming from when I hold my head in my hands at the thought of it. There are plenty of highly intelligent, open minded people who get alienated by art with the image of that kind of thing in mind. I didn’t really feel this exhibition did that much to negate that common impression. The problem was that the routes in were there, they just didn’t lead that far. Boo. Now I feel like a bad, churlish person.

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