Tony Oursler's Public Dilemma
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Tony Oursler’s Public Dilemma

The ten-day celebration of creativity that is Luminato effectively strives to turn the city’s cultural potential inside out. To engage the community, experiences that are typically relegated to the galleries and theatres are taken into the public realm—and conversely, the perceived barriers that keep the wider public from entering many cultural spaces are tackled through invitational and innovative programming.
Key to the first part of this strategy is the focus on art installations located in downtown streets, parks, and thoroughfares. Several unique projects, ranging in scale and complexity, are connecting art to the public during the festival. New York artist Tony Oursler, who was commissioned to create three new works for Luminato, may be missing this connection.

Detail from Void or, Everything Ever Wanted in Butterfield Park.

His two large outdoor pieces feature enclosed, transparent structures housing various visual elements that centre around several flat-panel screens. In his artist statement, Oursler explains, “I focus on the relationship between memory and architecture, video and language. I explore the practice of ‘method of loci,’ the use of a series of rooms to trigger or activate deep memories.” Taking in Void or, Everything Ever Wanted, situated in Butterfield Park (under the overhang of OCAD’s Sharp Centre), it’s almost impossible to extract any of this from the work alone.
Inside the structure’s clear walls, lamps, luggage, milk crates, and other semi-personal artifacts surround video screens that display awkward and frustrated exchanges between a man and a woman. It feels like you’ve happened upon someone’s terrible yard sale, and while you’re already beginning to regret looking over their belongings, the family starts arguing with each other. Immediately, you want to get away from there. You don’t want to know what they’re saying, and you certainly don’t want to look for layered meaning in the whole mess. It’s an overall negative output, emanating from a confusing display.

The public views Haze or Transparency with Friends and Colors outside the AGO.

The second house-like installation, Haze or Transparency with Friends and Colors, is located outside the Art Gallery of Ontario and doesn’t fare any better. It’s a more modern, cleaner, and less complete fabrication housing the same unintelligible situation.
Doubly prohibitive to the success of these pieces is the public context in which the works are installed. Viewers are not invested in understanding the depth. This is not a gallery, and when you can walk away quickly from a rather repellent experience, you do. Oursler’s tightly crafted scripts and allusions to memory will likely go undiscovered.
It’s arguable whether or not it’s necessary to understand the meaning of a work to connect with, and appreciate it as, art. How important is it that the subtle, and in this case, frankly indiscernible implications of the artists choices be evident to the viewer?

Seed (1996) in the AGO.

Oursler’s traditional body of work has an immediate visual hook, an impressive appeal that communicates on an instant, aesthetic level. This is evidenced in Seed, a 1996 piece borrowed by the AGO from a private collector for Luminato. This projected moving eye is undeniably effective. To simply behold his human and yet fabricated, animate and yet unreal creations is to feel something for them. More complex messages can then be layered onto that experience if you choose to dive deeper into the content of the work, searching out the creator’s intent. The calibre of this work reminds us that the artist statement should expand, expound, and always be an option—not a requirement—to appreciate the work.
With Oursler’s outdoor Luminato installations, there is almost no visceral impression, and while the AGO’s curatorial statement explains that the works “use the notion of the house to function as a metaphor for the human mind with its various chambers,” the disconnect between this description and the actual experience is irreconcilable.

Flood or Fear with Bugs in the AGO.

The most enjoyable of the three new works is Flood or Fear with Bugs, on display in the street-level Young Gallery space at the AGO (along with Seed). This doll-house sized domestic construction acts as the stage for tiny projected figures, who move about the rooms in a tense dialogue focused on the release from phobias. The unusual scale of the projection lends a mesmerizing, story-book quality to the piece.
While Luminato runs until June 14, Tony Oursler’s installations have been extended to June 26.
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.