I wasn’t sure up until the last minute what I wanted to fill the gap in my otherwise busy schedule for my weekend in Stockholm with. I knew I wanted to visit an art exhibition, but I wasn’t sure which. Browsing the web to make up my mind, I learned that Magasin III – a privately owned museum for contemporary art in Stockholm – just had premiered their flagship exhibition of the season: Tony Oursler’s M*r>0r. The name admittedly didn’t say much to me, but it peaked my interest, as did the advertising poster depicting a cardboard face inlayed with a colourful geometric pattern. From my previous visits to Magasin III I had learned that it is one of those art institutions where every visit is something of a gamble: the pieces shown might be anything from what appears to be the result of an uninspired arts and crafts project to absolutely amazing artworks. Well, I was in the mood for a gamble that day. It turned out I would not regret it.
Tony Oursler (1957-) is a U.S.-American multimedia and installation artist, currently living and working in New York. His art covers a range of mediums including video, sculpture, performance and painting. Works by Oursler have been exhibited in prestigious institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. As a fun fact it can be mentioned that Oursler has collaborated with David Bowie on several occasions, including on the music video for Bowie’s “Where Are We Now?”.
M*r>0r is the second Oursler exhibition hosted by Magasin III. The first was Station back in 2002. M*r>0r displays a selection of Oursler’s most recent works alongside pieces from his early career and the works he made especially for Station. Those inclined to be harsh could thus say that Magasin III in M*r>0r to a great extent serves up old remnants or presents a not very exhaustive retrospect of Oursler’s artistry, but such remarks, although not entirely untrue, wouldn’t be fair. M*r>0r is a finely curated exhibition that works well as a whole and provides the visitors with the opportunity to acquaint or reacquaint themselves with the unique artistry of Oursler.
Entering M*r>0r is like stepping into a somewhat sterile and quite surreal future. In an otherwise white and empty room, big and colourful head-shaped panels are dispersed. On some of the panels moving images of faces are projected. On others scattered nodes, numbers and/or baselines create patterns around built-in screens displaying recordings of blinking eyes or moving lips. I have never seen anything quite like it, and find myself looking at the pieces with wide eyes.
Almost as attention grabbing as the visual expression of M*r>0r is the audial expression of M*r>0r. Nearly all of Oursler’s works displayed – not just the head-shaped panels – include sound in the form of speech, mumblings, singing or chanting. Despite making an effort I do however find it hard to hear what each of the pieces are saying. The voices bleed together into a cacophony. If the visitors are supposed to be able to register exactly what the different works are uttering, Magasin III fails to provide the right prerequisites; I wasn’t the only one leaning in toward a piece to try to pick up the conversation. If the visitors instead are supposed to be flooded with voices and mumblings, the design of the exhibition is highly successful. Either way, the result is that the soundscape of M*r>0r brings to mind being on the verge of losing one’s mind. It’s quite powerful.
Exploring M*r>0r I seized upon a common element of many of Oursler’s works: they are supposed to say more than they convey. Caricature (2002), an installation in the form of three orbs onto which a pair of big eyes and a big mouth is projected that speaks in the silly way some adults talk to babies, is a case in point. For me it’s a fun and sleek looking installation that reminds me of “Humle och Dumle”, a Swedish television show for children from the late 1950s. For Oursler, according to the booklet handed out by the museum staff at the entrance, “it is a representation of the media attempting to draw us in using the most primitive means, but it is simultaneously rejected because it feels so incredibly unnatural and exaggerated.” The same goes for the head-shaped panels. Inspired by facial recognition, they are supposed to comment on data tracking and surveillance programs. In that regard they fall rather short. Despite literally chatting away, they don’t say much. They are however incredibly cool and awestrikingly well executed.
Failing to say much is not the case with Oursler’s video art. Still it is the part of the exhibition that impresses me the least. Even though the theme of the absurdity and futility of life – present in many of the clips – is rewarding, much comes across as youthful whims caught on camera, demos instead of full-fledged works of art. Admittedly I also have a problem with seeing fish being subjected to a high degree of stress when chased around a small tank by the hand of Oursler equipped with a fish dummy, even though it perfectly illustrates man’s fruitless attempts to connect with others.
My favorite part of the exhibition is the room inhabited by dolls with projected faces. The dolls are caught in absurd and/or vulnerable situations. One is, for example, lying under a tipped over armchair. Another is dangling on a chair frame. The expressions on the dolls’ faces vary from vacant to highly emotional. Some of them are silent, but most of them are babbling away, talking to themselves, conversing with other dolls or addressing the visitors. There is something Roy Andersson-esque about the lot, in the sense that Oursler sure-handedly stages the tragicomedy of the human existence, which greatly appeals to me. Without beating one over the head, these installations speak volumes.
Anyone keen on visiting M*r>0r should definitely make it happen; despite the shortcomings of some of Oursler’s pieces, the exhibition is well worth both your time and your money. If you furthermore have the option to choose freely when to go, I suggest you schedule your visit for October 20th. On that day, Magasin III, in collaboration with Stockholm University, will show Oursler’s outdoor work The Influence Machine (2000–2002) at Stockholm University. Involving projections on trees and buildings, an interactive feature connected to the Internet and music featuring a glass harmonica and found spirit voices, it is bound to be spectacular.
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