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PriV%te: Tony Oursler
ArtAsiaPacific

By Siobah Bent

 

For nearly four decades, New York-based artist Tony Oursler has built a multimedia practice exploring the increasingly broad intersection between technology and human behavior. Seemingly nothing has been off-limits in his approach: painting, sculpture, video installation, performance, language, music and sound are among the myriad means through which the former protégé of John Baldessari tackles subjects ranging from government surveillance programs to big data.

 

For Oursler’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, entitled “PriV%te,” Lehmann Maupin gallery presents eight new multimedia wall works and sculptures offering the artist’s perspective on a particular slice of chaos erupting at the convergence of digital media and cultural identity: facial recognition technology. Employed widely across both private and public sectors, this technology uses algorithms to remember, track and identify human features, rendering “data portraits” whose use ranges from recognizing the familiar visages of friends on Facebook to spotting the mug of a wanted criminal. Under the digital gaze of such instruments, the single most inimitable of personal human traits—our face—is reduced to an algorithmically-determined set of code.

 

With his series of wall-mounted, head-shaped panels in “PriV%te,” Oursler asks viewers to consider the implications of face recognition technology. What does it mean for computers to have their own “vision” of us? Is recognition of other humans itself a human trait? And, above all, who is tracking whom?

 

In Cy3 (2015), a large, silver metal plate hangs on a gallery wall. Three holes reveal two eyes and a mouth, rendered as a moving image on a digital screen behind the metal enclosure. Like a grate or mask covering a face, the metal is, in places, gapped or carved with geometric shapes and text—such as “06,” or simply, “64%.” Painted in silver, the face vibrates with life. Eyes coated in thick mascara stare almost unblinkingly. Out of the lips tumble words and phrases: “Personal ID. Infringement. Blinking. Biometric. Vigilante. Tomorrow. And tomorrow.”

 

Each mask and face is different. Behind the map-like, colorful geometric pattern of 9_z (2015), a cloudy, tired eye struggles to stay open. Small circular holes in the metal reveal glowing blue, red, pink, orange and yellow orbs. There is no sound. In Xes (2015), an alert, clear eye meets our gaze, staring out at the viewer and darts around the room. Irises contract and expand. Like a DNA pattern, the lines and dots criss-crossing the features’ metal enclosure suggest diagrams or computer etchings—perhaps of the soundless face, as it is perceived by technology.

 

“I don’t even know myself,” says the gold-painted mouth revealed by a gap in the enclosure of eXc (2015). “Take my biometrics if you please. Sunset to sunrise,” it adds. An eerie smile turns to a grimace, the pixelated face pulsating with digital light. Above, a constellation-like web of nodes weave above the living expression trapped below.

 

Perhaps the most complex of Oursler’s offerings, EUC% (2015) presents a rotation of models on the digital screen covered by an inkjet print veneer. A square opening reveals three different mouths—possibly two belonging to women and one to a man—in silver, black and pink lipstick. “I’m tired,” the male mouth says. “Wherever I go they’re following me.” Best understood by humans, Oursler’s portraits convey a sense of exhaustion, fear and submission that machines won’t catch.