“I’ve always been interested in thought systems, occult, magical thinking,” Tony Oursler said in an interview with artist-photographer Sarah Trigg for her book Studio Life: Rituals, Collections, Tools, and Observations on the Artistic Process. “How do certain people go from having a straight job to all of a sudden believing they’re going to fly on a comet tail, like the members of the Hale-Bopp cult? How does that happen? And somehow it’s connected to art — this belief in a system of transcendence.”
In Oursler’s latest installation, the feature-length video Imponderable, the artist takes on the subjects of art and magical thinking, weaving a story out of threads pulled from his own family history. The artist’s grandfather was the writer Fulton Oursler, who worked with magician and escape artist Harry Houdini in the Twenties to debunk spirit mediums — those who claimed they could speak to the dead — as charlatans. The plot thickens with the appearance of characters including his grandmother, the screenwriter Grace Perkins; author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; infamous spirit medium Mina “Margery” Crandon; and more. Over the course of ninety minutes, we watch Fulton and Houdini each take on popular pseudosciences — spirit photography and telekinesis among them — as Doyle and Crandon stump for the existence of supernatural realities that defy rational thought. Exhibited alongside selections from the artist’s formidable collection of dark-arts ephemera (including a letter from Doyle to Fulton Oursler; photographs of the author surrounded by an ectoplasm; the robe Crandon wore when holding séances; and an early-twentieth-century “spirit horn,” used to amplify voices of visiting souls), the video in essence pits believers and doubters against one another to see which side wins out — which side, one might say, transcends.
Imponderable is presented in “5-D,” a delightfully clever combination of screen projection with what Holmes might call more elementary illusions: a Pepper’s Ghost–inspired rig by which additional images are layered onto glass in front of the screen, and IRL theatrical tricks that playfully dissolve the lines between Oursler’s projected world and our own. (During the screening, fans occasionally turn on, blasting cool breezes into the theater; an overhead black light causes audience members to glow during a séance sequence; a loud banging shakes the seats as spirits rise onscreen.)
The push-pull between belief and doubt is also embedded in the uncool-cool art-world DIY style of the video itself, which is deliberately goofball and flat-footed, putting all its seams on view. Artifice is the real star of the show. The sets are built, or half-built, so that we sometimes catch glimpses of the world “offstage”; other scenes play out before backdrops constructed of composited images. The special effects (such as they are) are loose-handed and awkward, and the actors — some accomplished, some novices — all adopt a semi-self-conscious performance style (some even recite their lines from offscreen cue cards). In other words, all is to be seen, but not to be believed.
Which is too bad. For all the impish delight Oursler takes in devising his video and its installation — and for the staggering breadth and depth of his knowledge regarding his subjects — he ultimately debunks his own artwork right before our very eyes. Why? In part, perhaps, because he wishes to remind us of the simple facts of fiction. Or, as Fulton Oursler loudly declares in the video: “This image is a complete impostor!” But we in the 21st century are well aware that images are impostors, as are magicians and artists — and that this is part of their value, their presence. All dupe the eye into seeing things that aren’t there, boring portals in the real world for us to slip through to other dimensions, if only momentarily. Belief in an elsewhere is a strange thing, of course, slip-sliding between balm and delusion. What would it mean if Imponderable had suspended its audience in a transcendent moment between pure reason and a grand illusion, rather than settle in the safe space of artful knowingness? In the end, belief is a much more mysterious, more alluring experience. I myself would have preferred to see more magic, and fewer tricks of the trade.
Tony Oursler: Imponderable
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through January 8