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Oursler's Moving Projections

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 1998


    video dolls A pair of Tony Oursler's video dolls. "I'm going to close my eyes and wait for you to leave," says one. "Shut your face," says the other. (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)
In conversation, Tony Oursler frequently drops such weighty buzzwords as "sublingual" and "hypnagogic" – deadly serious artspeak that identifies the video artist as a member of Manhattan's bleeding-edge hipoisie.

It is strange, therefore, that the first reaction you are likely to have upon entering the small, darkened exhibition space at the Hirshhorn Museum's "Directions" gallery is one of outright, simple mirth. There, mounted in the doorway at just above eye level, is the first of Oursler's six sculptural installations, "Let's Switch." It consists of two small, calico rag dolls with oversize cloth heads, one of whom poses with its arm draped around the shoulder of the other in an embrace that is a cross between the casual and the conspiratorial.

"I'd like to rip down the wall between us," chirps one of the dolls, in the blithe and earnest psychobable of a new-age guru. The declaration comes from the videotaped voice and face of performance artist and frequent Oursler collaborator Tracy Leipold, projected onto a blank fabric head that distorts her features like a nylon stocking mask. The compact video projector that is casting the eerily lifelike image is mounted on a tripod only inches away from the figure.

"I have parts of me I've never been introduced to," replies her companion (also Leipold).

But is she talking to you or to her puppet cohort? It is not clear, as the twin Leipolds roll their eyes from side to side and then directly at you. After a few seconds of further statements apropos of nothing ("I can't see it, but I know it," "Time means nothing to us."), comes this hissed announcement: "I hate you."

A disturbing message, no doubt, but also an uneasily humorous one, coming as it does from a sculpture that can't help but evoke Chucky, the sweet but murderous doll from the film "Child's Play." Nervous laughter is common, as museumgoers look from the art to each other to gauge their neighbor's reaction. In many, there is a hesitation, almost as if it would not be inappropriate to talk back.

Such a response would probably gratify the artist, who says he thinks of the audience as "participants in a conversation." If so, it is like listening to the one-sided conversation of a demented street person or to an argument between the various "alters" of someone with multiple personality disorder-a subject of enormous inspiration, admits Oursler. Eventually, people move on, but only when the sense of voyeurism becomes too great.

Unlike a movie or a television show, however, the pieces (created from tape loops of 15 minutes or so) are not so much consumable artifacts as they are individual identities of a sort. "They have a character that just exists," says Oursler. "You create a bond and then break it."

Just inside the gallery stands another one of Oursler's "characters." In "Submerged," Leipold's disembodied head is projected onto a lozenge-shaped lump inside a tank of water. This one is more disturbing. Due to the dramatic lighting of the actress's face, it's also much more realistic. Saying nothing, never opening her mouth as she squirms in agony, it is clear she is either drowning or has a very bad case of gas.

Again, the viewer connects with the artwork in an unusual way: Many have said they want to reach in and rescue her.

After some minutes, most people wander away, when Leipold's feigned distress becomes too unbearable to watch. Another bond created and then broken.

As you stand in front of these half-dozen peculiarly moving objects, animated yet inert, such emotions are common. Laughter and compassion vie with discomfort and impotence. In "Energy," Leipold appears to lie sideways on a row of chairs, her "body" a withered appendage in a slack nightgown. Like Steven Hawking, the mind appears to be functioning long after the flesh has atrophied. "Oh, Boy. That hurts," she/he/it complains. "Ahhhhhh."

As organized by curator Sidney Lawrence, the show-including examples of Oursler's work with Leipold from 1993 to 1998-follows a sci-fi evolution of sorts. In what Oursler calls "a metaphor for the technological age," there can be seen a gradual separation of the head from the body as the torsos first lose limbs and then their entire bodies. (Like "Energy," the figure in "I Want to Be You" lies as limp and helpless as a thalidomide baby in an antique steamer trunk.)

In the culminating "Side Effects," a brand-new construction made specifically for this exhibition, five of Leipold's heads-of varying sizes and now completely liberated from the body-declaim simultaneously, supported by nothing but a bare metal armature. Snatches of found poetry can be discerned from the swamp of voices. Its sound is reminiscent of a room full of TVs and radios, all tuned to different stations, which is where Oursler, a self-confessed channel surfer, often composes his text.

In the background, distracting you from its message, can be heard the soft, mumbling voices of the other art. You may want to lean in closer to hear what some of them are saying.

It is a subtle and telling measure of the success of Oursler's work, but you should not be surprised when you find yourself inclining your ear not in the direction of the tiny video speakers, but ever so gently in the vicinity of Leipold's visible, but immaterial lips.

TONY OURSLER: VIDEO DOLLS WITH TRACY LEIPOLD - Through September 7 in the Directions Gallery of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW (Metro: L'Enfant Plaza, Seventh Street exit). 202/357-2700. Open daily from 10 to 5:30.; open until 8 on Thursdays through Sept. 3. Free.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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