Tony Oursler and the Imponderable

Tony Oursler Parkett

This 1996 edition for Parkett is one of Tony Oursler’s “Talking Lights.” The light bulb fluctuates in response to a recording of the artist’s disembodied voice, in a sort of technological haunting.

The “Talking Lights” have a disquieting subtlety that is not entirely typical of Oursler’s elaborate multi-media practice, which often verges on formal absurdity. Oursler’s work recalls spirit photography of the 19th century, which promised an uncanny transgression, but offered results that were unintentionally comic (not only to modern eyes, but also to contemporary skeptics). Similarly, Oursler’s projects can seem preposterous: all bulging eyes and whispering mouths, gasping toward transcendence.

Tony Oursler 1sculptures with LCD screens, sound, and wood-mounted inkjet prints from Oursler’s 2015 exhibition at Lehmann Maupin

In a recent project, Oursler took a specific turn toward the history of spirit photography and other artifiacts of speculative belief. Over the years Oursler has amassed a substantial collection of ephemera related to humanity’s propensity toward the supernatural and toward “magical thinking.” The collection includes postcards, posters, prints, spirit photographs, even a piece of starched gauze used to stage the appearance of ectoplasmImponderable, Oursler’s creative investigation of this archive, includes a book and a film, and was commissioned by the LUMA Foundation:

The project’s title, Imponderable, suggests the idea of something that cannot be determined with accuracy. Eighteenth-century scientists used the word to describe magnetism, electricity, and other than unquantifiable energies, many of which are represented in Oursler’s archive. The imponderable also suggests an area of open speculation populated by numerous conflicting belief systems. But Oursler is also interested in how even the most incredible ideas can be presented in such a way that they convince the audience of their veracity…This initial research into these fringe practices of media histories and occult phenomenon led Oursler further into ideas of speculative thought, the boundaries of science, the use of the spectacular, which resonate with contemporary pop culture.

The artist’s grandfather Fulton Oursler was a stage magician, and like his contemporary Houdini, was interested in debunking the paranormal. The collection includes this poster:

Fulton Oursler

(“TBH, this seems fake” -Internet commenter)

The video preview of “Imponderable” captures a familiar absurdity that was common in early spirit photography:

Part of the message of this inquiry seems to be that it is too simplistic to ridicule the credulity of our ancestors. Indeed, in a recent article in ArtNews, Oursler described the contemporary relevance of this new project: “If you say that one third of the American public does not believe in evolution, or 50 percent of the American public has seen UFOs, or 40 percent of the American public believes in ghosts—these beliefs are not necessarily as far out as you think.”


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