IN THE NEWS
Tony Oursler Spooks with Photograph and Film Collection at LUMA Foundation
The video artist Tony Oursler would like to clarify that he is not a hoarder, despite his Manhattan home and studio on the Lower East Side bursting at the seams with objects and photographs he has collected for the past 20 years.
His nearly 3,000-piece collection of spirit photographs and supernatural ephemera are the subject of his new show at the LUMA Foundation in Arles, France. “Collecting this stuff was a hermetic hobby for me,” Oursler said. “But this challenged me to look at the archive in a different way.”
Oursler's personal collection is cataloged in a 600-page book released at the annual photography festival Les Rencontres d'Arles alongside a two-hour film inspired by his archive.
Ourlser's “Imponderable” at the under-construction LUMA Foundation is the convergence of his paternal grandfather's interest in debunking the paranormal, and the artist's own obsession with the documentation of the supernatural, a fixation he seems to have inherited.
Fulton Oursler was a magician, writer, and detective story fanatic who, through his work, became friends with Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) and Harry Houdini. Oursler's grandfather came into his own fame as writer of the Jesus Christ biography-turned-biopic “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
Though Doyle's astute detective tales were grounded in logic, the writer was a great believer in the supernatural. Fulton challenged Doyle to validate a spirit photograph he sent him. As proof of otherworldly activity, Doyle sent several other spirit photographs to Fulton, which Tony Oursler inherited in 2000.
“This counterpoint between the two guys generates this show and was the kernel of this idea of how belief systems are constructed or deconstructed,” Oursler said.
Since the 1990s, Oursler has been amassing his own collection of objects related to what he calls the “shadow history” of mediums, camera obscura and phantasmagoria. “I felt like there wasn’t really a proper history of that as there was with sculpture, painting, even film history,” he said.
The hefty tome “Imponderable: The Archives of Tony Oursler” is a fluid slideshow of photos documenting various rituals, phantoms, paranormal phenomena, as well as objects like tarot cards, shrunken heads, and vintage e-meters. Academic essays on various occult topics — such as Branden W. Joseph pondering UFO photography — punctuate the meticulous log. The compendium also includes a transcript of Oursler's conversation with the great-granddaughter of famous 1920s medium Margery Crandon (“my favorite psychic,” the artist says).
Oursler's film is a sequence of campy scenes featuring Doyle, Houdini, and Crandon. The 3D-like projection using the 19th-century Pepper's Ghost reflective technique makes the images seem like they are coming from another world. The famous Cottingley fairy photographs are also brought to life, and the finale is a blue-eyed Frankenstein addressing his literary mother Mary Shelley with a forlorn tune lamenting the search for the “spark of life,” predicting his fiery end, and promising to absorb all the pain.
And if there is still a question that Oursler might be a hoarder, the artist reminds it's not hoarding if there is a purpose. “The coolest thing about having an archive is that you can make things out of it,” he said.