TONY OURSLERby Ann McCoy
The Imponderable Archive
THE CENTER FOR CURATORIAL STUDIES AT BARD COLLEGE
JUNE 25 – OCTOBER 30, 2016
THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART | JUNE 18, 2016 – JANUARY 8, 2017
Tony Oursler: The Imponderable Archive consists of 680 items culled from 2,500 photographs, news clippings, books, and assorted objects from the artist’s collection. It is an extension of the LUMA Arles archive, 4D film, and catalogue project Imponderable: The Archives of Tony Oursler (2015) curated by Tom Eccles, Beatrix Ruf, and the philanthropist Maja Hoffmann.. Imponderable, at MoMA, was commissioned by LUMA as part of a project to help artists realize art productions from archives. If Imponderable has a correspondence, it is perhaps LACMA’s current At Home with Monsters, an exhibition of the studio and archive of Guillermo del Toro. The New Museum’s The Keeper also contains personal archives of all sorts. Archives shown in a museum setting provide an invaluable window into an artist’s process. Oursler’s is expansive and shows a refreshing, boundless curiosity that encompasses the uncanny, kitsch, and the transgressive. One wonders if there are any areas of the paranormal Oursler has not explored, and the vitrines provide a lively half-day of viewing.
The curators went on a treasure hunt in the artist’s closets, culling items from boxes with labels like “Spaceships,” “Skeletons,” “Hypnotism,” and “Apparitions,” stored along with the family Christmas ornaments. Oursler’s family provided about twenty items, and Oursler gathered the rest through an impressive process of research; his selection, and sequencing for Arles and Bard represent another monumental undertaking.
At Bard, the actual objects are seen for the first time, arranged on thirty-three tables in vitrines with uniform black matting—Kenneth Anger may share a table with the Manson Family, Marshall Applewhite of the Heaven’s Gate cult, and Kentucky snake worshipers from “The Church of God.” Like a flattened cabinet of curiosities, Bard’s archive tables are laid out uniformly, acting as a great leveler. Does the artist regard the Manson Family cult as being roughly equivalent to the Catholics in Bayside witnessing Virgin Mary apparitions, or Tibetans performing ancient rituals? Every belief system is presented equally as simply another cult, which can be unsettling along with the odd cheek and jowl parings. Yet, the diverse range of topics, stunning historical material (like glass plate photographs), and sheer volume holds the viewer spellbound. Oursler has created one of the greatest artist archives.
The MoMA exhibition, along with Oursler’s LUMA catalogue conversation with the medium Margery Crandon’s great-granddaughter gives a sense of the artist’s skill in mining one interwoven history. The MoMA exhibition’s objects relate to his grandfather’s circle: Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Crandon, and his grandmother Grace Perkins. The artist is Charles Fulton Oursler III. His grandfather, Charles Fulton Oursler I, was an autodidact, polymath, editor, writer, and skeptic who, after a recovery from alcoholism in A.A., embraced Catholicism, and went on to write The Greatest Story Ever Told—a best-selling life of Christ and blockbuster film. Fulton Oursler II, the artist’s father, was a Reader’s Digest editor who later became editor-in-chief at the Christian magazine Guideposts—and went on to publish Angels on Earth, a magazine about angelic interventions—several copies of which rest in Bard’s vitrines with angelology memorabilia (like photographs of angel hair).
One thematic is evident from from the first catalogue essay, Peter Lamont’s “Secrets of Debunking,” which describes debunkers of all persuasions. The artist’s grandfather, along with his pal Harry Houdini, was a great debunker of spiritualist frauds. Adorno’s quote, “Occultism is the metaphysics of dopes”—associated with fraud, “rotten tricks,” and feeblemindedness—sums up much of the current theoretical establishment’s views on this topic. Any mention of mysticism or the occult was verboten in the old Whitney Program, and in classes taught by Frankfurters generally. This makes Bard and the LUMA Foundation’s decision to venture into this realm interesting. There’s no denying, occultism has generated some groundbreaking art. A group of the paintings by Hilma af Klint—featured in the The Keeper—are a testament to this. Klint’s pioneering abstraction came through her conversations with spirits, and her Theosophical meditations. Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, also inspired the painters like Piet Mondrian. Rudolf Steiner’s writings on field dynamics influenced Joseph Beuys, and the painter Francis Bacon collected books of ectoplasm photography.
Two films shown at Bard—Le Volcan (2015 – 16) and My Saturnian Lover(s) (2016)—and Imponderable (2015 – 16) shown at MoMA, rely on an early stage device called “Pepper’s ghost” which used rear projection and slanted glass planes to make “Pepper’s ghost” float in space. Like the phantasmagoria created by using a scrim and projector moving on rollers, these floating phantoms seemed so real men would rise from their seats to stab them with their canes. Yet, while the glass planes add to the viewing effect at MoMA and Bard, the viewer remains caught in the film’s black box frame. Even with the smells, butterfly, bouncing lights, and thumping at MoMA, the viewer does not reside in the imaginal, liminal and interactive third space hoped for; Oursler’s literalness keeps us stuck in this world.
Oursler gives us the impression he is just coming into the world of narrative film; his dialogue feels invasive and incessant—the words “script doctor” flashed through this reviewer’s head during viewing. Der Golem (1915), a silent horror film with a Frankenstein monster, damsels, and men in false beards, was able to tell a supernatural tale without spoken words. There are many times we wish Oursler’s characters could be silent. The artist has credited George Kuchar, along with Warhol and Brecht, as influences for using the actors as “language puppets.” Brecht had the iconic Lotte Lenya and Warhol had Viva vamping lines like “the fucks off”—Oursler’s actors disappoint. In Imponderable, Oursler takes it up a notch with dictionary definitions of words like ectoplasm and sympathetic magic and even more title cards, leaving the viewer hoping to be teleported out of MoMA and into a Roger Corman film with popcorn. Even though Oursler has expressed a desire to take his work beyond classical filmmaking, his theoretical approach doesn’t work.
Guillermo del Toro is a great film scholar; At Home with Monsters contains his collection of Edgar Allan Poe memorabilia, shrunken heads, H.P. Lovecraft publications, and fairytale books. In Oursler’s archive we see a parallel collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle material including the Cottingley Fairies photographs, and similar shrunken heads. In a recent interview,1 Oursler said he relies on outside stimulus rather than internal inspiration. Del Toro begins with notebook drawings before filming, and his fairies, monsters, and demons are all transmogrified before they spring from the depths of his psyche to enter into our unconscious. Oursler’s films force-feed us a deluge of unprocessed literal content and sit, like an elaborate collage, on the surface. Their didacticism holds the viewer at bay, and they can feel too much like a lecture when the subject requires flights of fancy.
The Quay Brothers’s 2003 film The Phantom Museum explores the storerooms of the Sir Henry Wellcome Medical Collection in London. In the film, the collection’s objects relating to the history of medicine for women, function like bit players. A birthing chair that comes alive, with gloved hands holding forceps, is especially creepy. In Imponderable we see Oursler’s grandmother Grace Perkins writhing on the floor of a mental hospital. Oursler could have animated Perkins’s straitjacket like an octopus to capture her terror; instead, the scene is bogged down with bad acting, awkward modern dance, and dialogue like, “I am a dipsomaniac.” We experience little of Perkins’s pain in this inappropriate slapstick—“looney bins” of that period were no laughing matter.
Among the endless archival vignettes crammed into Imponderable, are scenes of Margery Crandon’s debunking by Harry Houdini. The magician and escape artist was the medium’s match: a control box he built proved her undoing. When artists venture into film, they are standing on the shoulders of giants. In Noël Coward’s film Blithe Spirit (1945), Margaret Rutherford set the gold standard for lady mediums—and the dotty grand dame of British cinema was in on the joke. If only Oursler could have resurrected the old girl to play the part of Margery, instead of a contemporary-looking actress. The best sequence in Imponderable has Conan Doyle diving between Margery’s legs during a séance, bringing welcome comic relief from the flatness of her character.
Karen Beckman’s analysis in the Bard catalogue2 describes the mediums as early performance artists, in a day when women had few creative options: Madame Blavatsky married at sixteen, and ran off to join a circus as a bareback rider, before venturing into mediumship; Victoria Woodhull, a medium, free-love advocate, magnetic healer, and member of the stock exchange, even ran for U.S. President. Margery Crandon, with her nudity, phosphorescent body paint, and protoplasm oozing from every orifice, was quite the performer. Even Carl Jung picked up on this, as we see in his letter to Crandon in the archive at MoMA. These ladies give Karen Finley a run for the money. “Sui Genesis: Margery the Medium,” Oursler’s catalogue conversation with Crandon’s great-granddaughter Anna Thurlow, gives us a more nuanced feeling for the subject that does not come across in his films.
In My Saturian Lover(s), Oursler pulls from his UFO collection. UFOs have been seen by scholars as a continuation of the spiritualist’s impulse to speak to the dead and soul-travel through space. Jung felt they represented a modern man’s search for God in the heavens in a dying secular age. Here we witness the brilliance of Oursler’s archive: every pop-culture reference, George Adamski’s first UFO photographs, and material mapping parallel developments in optics, astronomy, and space exploration are visible. This genre has a long history, stretching from the iconic UFO films of the 1950s like War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still. If only Oursler had borrowed from those ’50s films’ camp aesthetic: we long for sequences like an alien gliding silently down the ramp out of the mother ship. Again, Oursler could have let the images do the talking.
Le Volcan is, for this critic, Oursler’s most successful film. Commander Darget, the first thought photographer, tries to record onto a photographic plate (miles away in Paris), the dreams and trauma relating to the 1902 eruption of Martinique’s Mount Pelée. The scenes showing the object appearing on the glass plate in the film tie in nicely with the slanted glass planes of the film’s projection box and the stunning glass plates in the archive. Thought photography has never been completely debunked, as we know from the Polaroid mind-photos produced by of Ted Serios at the Colorado Medical School in 1962. Serios was able to project his thoughts onto film, even if they were a bit blurry.
In both exhibitions, Oursler is his most brilliant in the role of mad archivist; the archives and collections are a real work of art. The LUMA Foundation should be applauded for this massive undertaking and catalogue containing an excellent collection of scholarly essays. Oursler’s films feel like a maiden voyage into narrative, more than a final product. When making the transition from installation art and video to film, you enter the ring with the likes of del Toro and Fellini, who have been communicating with the spirits for much longer. Oursler’s saturated color, high-definition imagery, literal scripts, and excessive dialogue unfortunately limit the possibility of real wizardry. In some of the best sequences Oursler plays a magician and a Catholic priest with a goofy sincerity. If only he could make a transformational move where his characters inhabit him and become part of his inner world. It is this move that made Meliès and Fellini real magicians. The internalization of the archive’s spirits could move the work to the next step as an art form, beyond didactic quotation.
- Lisson Gallery (February 2015).
- Karen Beckman, “Power from Elsewhere: Charismatic Authority in the American Female Medium,” in Imponderable: The Archive of Tony Oursler. Exhibition catalogue (2015).
ANN MCCOY is an artist, writer, and frequent contributor to The Brooklyn Rail. She teaches in the Yale School of Drama, graduate design.