Local Industry

Vital Video in Williamstown

1 Sep , 1999  

Written by Devon Damonte | Posted by:

Reflections on video exhibits in Western Mass. at the new MassMOCA and the Williams College Museum of Art.
Independent media art turns up in the darndest places these days. Recently, an invitation to Northampton conveniently coincided with an outdoor film screening at the newly opened Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMOCA) in North Adams. So my mate and I made a weekend of it, camping amidst black bears and thunderstorms in between our cultural forays. We discovered the real treasure of the trip at Williams College Museum of Art, in exhibits of two New England-connected artists: William Wegman, a video pioneer best known for his dog photography; and Tony Oursler, known for "talking head" video installations. My advise for fellow travelers and media enthusiasts is to drive right past the hype of MassMOCA and devote your time to the excellent museum in Williamstown.

Dog’s best friend: A few more days of William Wegman
If you hurry over to the Williams Museum, you’ll find a comprehensive show of drawings, video, paintings, and photography by William Wegman. Wegman’s drawings and paintings are little more than mildly amusing diversions, while his well-known photographs of his Weimaraner dogs are fun and elegant, seen here in a new body of giant Polaroids moving in a more formal direction. But Wegman’s real masterworks are his videotapes, made since the 1970s and brilliantly making use of early video’s technical limitations toward revelations of simple and hilarious human (and dog) truths. In Wegman’s own words, "I think I am a very tech-sensitive artist in that I don’t overreach the media. In fact, I revel in it." This show presents the largest collection of these short videos (more than 100 works) I’ve ever seen, screened chronologically on a single monitor continuously. The Wegman show comes down September 6, but if you miss it, you can still order some of his best video work direct from Picture Ray video.

The big show: Tony Oursler on display
There’s more time to catch the Tony Oursler exhibit. Formerly of Jamaica Plain, MA, as well as a Mass Art faculty member, and now relocated to New York, Oursler has been getting lots of attention in recent years, which makes this perfect timing for his first comprehensive American survey. Immediately upon entering the art museum at Williams College, the presence of Oursler’s art announces something beyond the typical New England academic art collection here. There’s a giant video projection of burning flames catching the eye, and next to the stairs are giant glass pill capsules filled with old clothes ("Instant Dummies"). Scanning the entryway, one gradually realizes that in nearly every corner, from floor to ceiling, there’s some sort of weird, funky doll, many of which talk via projected video faces onto their lumpy fabric heads. Depending on what’s going on upstairs, there may even be a voice calling out directly to an unsuspecting visitor, responding to their movements, or commenting on their clothing in a real-time surveillance.

At the top of the stairs is what seems to be the central entrance to the Oursler exhibition. But what makes this show so wonderfully inspired is that different components of work are sprinkled all over the museum from the basement on up. So as you wind your way through the building’s architectural charms, the magic of discovering new facets of Oursler’s oeuvre follow along with you. But back to the top of the stairs — here there’s an overstuffed head dressed in a cacophonously bad suit that limply hangs on a music stand. Projected onto this pillowface is a hilariously creepy guy (who happens to be avant garde "flicker" filmmaker Tony Conrad, to provide another dimension of meaning) looking directly at you with wild bug eyes ranting directions as if on a movie set. He maniacally implores you to remember the script line "rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb," or commands a volcano to erupt in this 1995 piece titled "Keep Going." Maybe it helps to have some experience with film shoots and/or crazed small-time theater directors, but I quickly found myself reduced to tears of hysterical laughter, and suddenly felt the uneasy realization that I was now an active performer in this artwork.

This participatory sensation is not an unusual occurrence in the Oursler retrospective. We followed a couple into the gallery, and I saw one of them later taking great pains to get down on the ground to better see a piece consisting of a life-size doll whose head is underneath a mattress ("Getaway #2," 1994). The doll’s projected face is yelling, "Hey, you! Get outta here!," plus various obscenities and epithets; and the aforementioned viewer, upon a heroic struggle to get up again after that better look, exclaimed, "Whew! I almost became part of that piece!"

The wall text at this room entrance begins with the statement "No, you’re not in a mental hospital." This is the twisted and confrontational world of Oursler’s "Later Work" and contains a mind-boggling abundance of his most compelling creations. Each piece embodies (often literally!) its own consciousness and a self-contained sensibility, completed by the presence of the viewer, who is always the voyeur peeking in upon the drama and empathizing with the character’s foibles, frailties, and frenzy. In an effort to contextualize 23 years of somewhat disparate work, the museum interpretation clings to the psychological–the show is subtitled "Introjection"–and media commentary aspects of the work. But this analysis, and perhaps any intellectualization, simultaneously complicates and oversimplifies Oursler’s works unnecessarily. The beauty of Oursler’s work is that anybody can enjoy and "get" it, without being an art expert or psychologist or intellectual. Kids often seem to be getting the most out of these installations, and can be seen giggling and tugging at adults’ pant legs to watch for extended periods of time. An Oursler work never "talks down" to the viewer, but rather welcomes individuals as an equal and necessary participant. As evidence of this, the placement of these characters is almost always below eye level, and often requires the viewer to stoop down to fully see the piece.

Two further treats of the Oursler show are found on the fringes of this "later work" gallery. The first is a workstation with a TV monitor and joystick on a table, where visitors are encouraged to use the joystick to manipulate a camera mounted within the shirt of a doll in the museum entryway. This surreptitious surveillance of unsuspecting guests is taken a step further with a microphone and audio control box whereby the operator can actually talk to those being watched. A sign placed on the monitor requests discretion to only broadcast "respectfully," but the power and temptation for something else is palpable. In the next room is a computer station with a CD-ROM by Oursler, encouraging an interactive virtual tour. I won’t spoil the wonders to be discovered within, but its extensive multiple layers and juicy imagery will keep visitors busy and satisfied for hours.

Also on display in the museum as part of the Oursler show are early installations, drawings, paintings, and downstairs, single-channel video works spanning most of his career. I found each of these pales in comparison to the simple eloquence of his later installations, though each provides a piece to the puzzle of components and concerns that have formed the basis for his current work.

Up the road at MassMOCA: A calendar of film events
In addition, Oursler has new work on display at MassMOCA in a disjointed scattering of discrete objects, and evidently MOCA also collaborated on the superior Williams show. However, MassMOCA has scheduled an impressive calendar of events that include several excellent indie film-related shows. We saw an outdoor projection of a wonderfully quirky new film, "Judy Berlin," a winner at Sundance this year. Its stunning black-and-white cinematography was enhanced by the lightning show in the August sky (until the organizers moved us indoors during the last reel, although it didn’t end up raining until long after the show).

Other commendable recent events include Cambridge’s awesome Alloy Orchestra performing their fabulous original score for Eisenstein’s "Strike," and Philip Johnson’s Transparent Quartet performing their score for Tod Browning’s perverse and poignant early work "The Unknown," starring a young Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. MOCA’s series of animation screenings and seminars is also top-notch. In the galleries, a tape of a digitally manipulated Bill T. Jones dance seemed to be a favorite of many visitors left cold by the vast expanses filled with big-time old-school male art stars such as Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist. This newly opened complex of buildings is truly a wondrous display of state-of-the-art renovation and thoughtful design, and one can only hope that curators will soon install more recent, relevant, and courageous contemporary artists to fulfill the space’s potential. You can keep up with events at MassMOCA on their web site at www.massmoca.org.

But if it’s art you want, this month and next, I suggest passing up the $8 Mass MOCA admission and continue straight on to the free show at Williams Museum of Art (www.williams.edu/WCMA/), where through October 24 you will experience an incredible show of contemporary media wizard Tony Oursler.