“I don’t even know myself,” one portrait whispers. “I’m just a face in the crowd,” another laments. Then they fall silent, their nervous eyes looking at each other across the room.
These talking portraits are the latest works by Tony Oursler, an American artist who is famous for his video-based installations featuring enlarged eyes and murmuring mouths, some of which are creepy, others of which are (by Oursler’s own admission) comical. This latest series veers closer to the former, though Oursler is adamant they’re not as disturbing as they could have been.
“I did hold back from going as dark as I could,” he claims, clutching his takeaway Starbucks. “But I do tend to go for a lot of dark subject matter and I’ve always felt that’s a little brutal on the audience.”
Unlike his earlier works, in which facial features were often swollen or stretched, these portraits hanging in Hong Kong’s Lehmann Maupin gallery are almost perfectly proportioned. Each of the wall-mounted pieces began as an aluminium sheet, which Oursler cut into the shape of a human head. He then made holes where the eyes and mouth would be, and filled the gaps with videos of those features.
The result is a little eerie, especially once the mouths start speaking, their words echoing around the gallery. But four of the portraits don’t talk at all – they simply stare blankly forward, occasionally blinking.
This series continues Oursler’s exploration of eyes and mouths, which he says intrigue him because of his interest in “streams of information, whether it’s coming in or going out”. But these works also have grooves running through them that mimic the lines generated by facial-recognition technology, something that has fascinated the artist for a while. “Technology is a general subtext to my work, so I keep up with whatever the new trends and advancements are,” he explains.
“I stumbled upon facial recognition some years ago and started studying it and looking into some of its ramifications. I see my work as a poetic interpretation of the atmosphere that we live in. At different points in time it was important for artists to do, for example, pointillism or cubism or pop art. In the same tradition, I’m looking at reacting to the environment in which we live, which is now saturated with these technologies.
“So now we’re at the forefront of the facial-recognition stuff, it’s good to just pick it up and look at it. With facial-recognition technology, the computer that we created is now making a portrait of us for the first time in history, maybe. And it’s an intelligent machine – it’s not a passive machine like a camera. It’s making us, it’s rendering us, the cold eye of the computer is looking back at us.”
But when pressed for his opinion on the impact of this role reversal of man and machine, Oursler is surprisingly upbeat. “It doesn’t scare me,” he says. “I think with all technology it’ll be corrected by the same desires that created it, but that won’t happen if people don’t understand it, so that could be scary. That’s my job – it’s not really to say, ‘this is bad’ or ‘this is good’, but just to bring it up and get a dialogue going.”
Oursler’s work is hard to categorise, and he has been described as everything from a conceptual artist to a pop artist to a surrealist. “I don’t know why my work would be called surrealist,” he demurs. “But I loved surrealism when I was a kid and I still really like it. I even met Salvador Dalí. On my 18th birthday my dad figured out that he was going to be at the St. Regis Hotel in New York and surprised me and took me there for my 18th birthday. It was fantastic to meet the master. That was just an incredible thrill.
“He was very nice – he signed a couple of books and invited us for a drink, which consisted of him sitting with two supermodels and turning his chair slightly, so that we could see his profile while we sat at another table. It was very stylish, he was like, ‘I’m not going to sit with you, but I won’t turn my back on you.’ So awesome.
“It suited me fine because I was so nervous meeting him. He had this incredible fur cape and a cane shaped like some kind of beast with jewels in the eyes. And of course the moustache. And he was ancient – you could practically see through his skin.”
After this exhibition closes, Lehmann Maupin will be showing Oursler’s work at its booth at Art Basel in Hong Kong at the end of March. But, after tonight’s opening party, Oursler himself is heading back to his hometown of New York, where he is preparing for a group show this summer. “It’s a project by the Luma Foundation and is going to be at Moma [Museum of Modern Art],” he reveals. “It’s done in conjunction with curators and other artists – Beatrix Ruf, Tom Eccles, Philippe Parreno, Liam Gillick, Hans Ulrich Obrist. It premiered in Arles, France last summer, where the Luma Foundation is building a kind of mini art city in a Frank Gehry building.”
“For the show I’ve made a feature film, which is a kind of installation space with a special screen, and a book.” The book is called Imponderable and is an extensive look inside Oursler’s personal archive of photographs, publications and ephemera to do with the occult, demonology and magic, a collection of more than 2,500 documents that inspired the whole exhibition. Although the subject matter is mystical, Oursler’s interest came from a very grounded place.
“It comes out of a small story, which is here in the book, and which involves relatives of mine,” he reveals. “They were magicians and writers back in the 1920s. My grandparents mixed it up with Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle.”
Some non-gallery-goers may know Oursler because he directed the music video Where Are We Now? for his friend David Bowie, who unexpectedly passed away just four days before we met. “As soon as I got off the airplane in Hong Kong, somebody texted me from Europe with the news, when it was still night-time in New York, within a couple of hours of him being dead,” he recalls.
“I didn’t know he was ill. He kept that secret, and I think he kept that secret from almost everybody. Apparently Brian [Eno] didn’t even know he was sick. Unfortunately I didn’t see much of him in the past two years, which sucks, but he was going through a lot I guess. We’d had a few emails back and forth, and we were threatening to get together and there was one thing we were working on. But it was strange, we would just plan it, then something would happen on his side, and it was strange but now it makes total sense – he must have been going through treatment.”
“On the way here I was thinking about Bowie because the last time I was here I met Sir David Tang and it was because Bowie introduced me to him. I told Bowie I was going to Hong Kong and I said, ‘What’s good to do there?’ And he said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to meet my friend, David Tang.’ So I was thinking about David, and David Tang, and then I landed and got the message. It was strange.”
“In a way, being in Hong Kong has probably spared me a lot because in New York and London it was insane, there was just solid media coverage,” Oursler says with a sigh. “Maybe that was in some way better, not to have to be submerged in the depressing stuff. But I guess it would’ve been good to see because it’s nice to see how many people he touched. I’m still mourning, and I will be for a while.”
There’s a moment of silence, then one of the portraits weeps, “Where are you?”