A solo exhibition of the work of Tony Oursler is to be mounted by the Lisson Gallery in January. The artist’s first of new work in the UK for over five years centres around his study of techniques of facial recognition and their increasing ubiquity in daily life. The artist’s interest in the face as the locus of communication and identity, through features, movement and expression, is central to these works. A series of seven imposing photographic visages looms over the spectator in the main gallery, all but one punctured by video screens of eyes or mouths, the other is itself a projection of multiple faces morphing into one another. Each of these giant portrait heads bears the network of marks or nodes associated with different facial recognition systems, used by border controls, law enforcement agencies and even ATM machines. The images, staggered throughout the space in the manner of theatrical props, present themselves as potential police mug shots, closed-circuit camera stills or anonymous faces in the crowd, albeit magnified in scale and distorted by their mediation through surveillance technology.
While this main installation recalls an ongoing body of research into the 18th-century phantasmagoria shows of Jean-Gaspard Robertson – as first seen in Oursler’s iconic piece, The Influence Machine (2002) commissioned by Artangel and restaged at Tate Modern in 2013 – another new series situates these reconfigured faces squarely in the context of the 21st century. Nine wall-hung, stainless steel panels contain traces of now further abstracted facial features, with the latticeworks used to recognise people here transposed into etched silhouettes constituting the altered identities we are increasingly forced to assume by the strictures of modern life.
The pursuit of biometric data in facial scans, iris patterns and fingerprints all add to our burgeoning and invisible electronic profiles, amounting to a sinister accumulation of personal information on databases that capture and categorise humans according to outward appearance, unique bodily traits and even DNA sequencing. Oursler himself has studied and written about various methods of facial recognition, ways to circumvent such means of detection, as well as the phenomena of physiognomy, anthropometry and pareidolia (the mistaken appearance of faces in nature or everyday objects): “The illusory face triggers part of the brain that is used in pattern recognition – long thought to be important to the evolution of the species. Without it we would not learn from the stimuli around us. So keen is our ability to find patterns that it is more important to the species to make false positives than not.” Tony Oursler, On Chance and Face, from Vox Vernacular, 2013.
An accompanying display of drawings and a film programme also explore our struggle for individuality in the digital age, and includes the screening of a 1947 movie, Boomerang, written by Oursler’s grandfather, which was based on the true story of a wrongly convicted murder case, involving a mistaken identity.
Always rooted in the medium of film,Tony Oursler conjures sculptural and immersive experiences using technologies that hark back to magic lanterns, Victorian light shows, camera obscura and auratic parlour tricks, but that also look forward to the fully networked, digitally assisted future of image and identity production. As a pioneer of video art in early 1980s New York, Oursler specialised in hallucinogenic dramaturgy and radical formal experimentation, employing animation, montage and live action: “My early idea of what could be art for my generation was an exploded TV.” From performative and low-fi beginnings, Oursler has developed an ever-evolving multimedia and audio- visual practice utilising projections, video screens, sculptures and optical devices, which might take form as figurative puppets, ethereal talking automatons or immersive, cacophonous environments. His enduring fascination for the conjunctions between the diametrically opposed worlds of science and spiritualism have allowed him to explore all kinds of occult and mystical phenomena, employing not just smoke and mirrors, but playing the role of circus showman and extricating the sham from the shaman. Oursler’s aesthetic and interactive technomancy reveals not only the ghosts in the machine, but the psychological impact of humanity’s headlong dive into cyberspace.
Tony Oursler lives and works in New York. Born in 1957, he graduated from the California Institute of the Arts and collaborated on early works with artists such as Mike Kelley. His museum exhibitions include Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2014); Pinchuk Ar t Centre, Kiev (2013); ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Denmark (2012); Helsinki City Art Museum, Finland, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2005); Kunsthaus Bregenz (2001); Whitney Museum, New York (2000) and Kunstverein Hannover, Germany (1998). In addition to participating in prestigious group exhibitions such as DocumentaVIII and IX, Oursler’s work is included in many public collections worldwide, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Museum of Osaka, Japan; Tate Gallery, London; Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven and ZMK/Center for Art & Media, Karlsruhe, Germany.