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Tony Oursler: PriV%te
Time Out Hong Kong

Human beings are stubbornly obsessed with faces. Artists have been intrigued for centuries, whether it be Tutankhamun’s stylised and iconic death mask, portraits painted with stunning realism on Roman coffins, Vermeer’s alluring Girl with a Pearl Earring or Picasso’s Cubist dissections and fragmentations of the face. We even locate faces in inanimate objects – think of the numerous times Jesus has been spotted on a piece of burnt toast and creepy faces spotted on the surface of Mars. Why the fascination? PriV%te, a new solo show at Lehmann Maupin, raises the question again, as Tony Oursler presents his modern interpretation of the face in the digital age.


A graduate of the California Institute for the Arts, Oursler has been a pioneer in multimedia and installation arts since the 1980s, often playing with and distorting faces using animation and video installation or projections. Rather than continuing with his cartoonish exaggeration of facial features, which border on hilarity, these new works are more polished and polite. Even before stepping into the gallery, one’s gaze is snared by a strange cycloptic eye staring out from a massive oval hanging on the wall. Within, there are six pieces on show, each one a glossy piece of head-shaped aluminium with video screens behind, projecting either a blinking eye or a talking mouth and, in some instances, both.


Based on Oursler’s research into facial recognition technology, consisting of digital media and complex algorithms, these faces do not depict a face, but the face. While traditional portraiture in art history existed with the sole purpose to identify its subject, often commissioned by royalty or the wealthy as a sign of status, Oursler’s new portraits contain no indication of a specific identity – the only hints of individuality are fragmented videos of eyes and mouths. With the frighteningly rapid development of technology, specifically facial recognition in CCTV cameras, ‘looking’ is no longer an action exclusive to living beings – we are also unwittingly scrutinised by the machines we create. Studying geometric designs, data points and various registration nodes, Oursler makes use of computer etchings to represent mapping techniques and baseline characteristics essential to facial recognition. The outcome is a mask from the uncanny valley. Emotionless like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, yet humane like David from AI: Artificial Intelligence, these unnameable faces become a symbol for life. Countless self-deceivingly unique lives merge into one collective life through processed data to reveal a universal truth – we are different but ultimately the same, whether you like it or not.


The uneasy yet conveniently overlooked fact that technology is consuming us and that our private lives are not that private after all, is presented with Oursler’s masterful lightness of touch. It’s not easy to make something disturbing and potentially sinister appear canivalesque. But if you stare longer into the disembodied, silent, blinking eye, you might start to feel rising panic as you realise that these are not faces wearing masks, but faces swallowed up by the mass.


PriV%te Until Mar 5, Lehmann Maupin, 407 Pedder Bldg, 12 Pedder St, Central, 2530 0025; Tue-Fri 10am-7pm, Sat 11am-7pm.