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Mist opportunity: Water offers a flood of inspiration for artist's exhibit in East Hampton

Tony Oursler's "Phase / trans," a projection with

Tony Oursler's "Phase / trans," a projection with sound in high energy resonance optical cloud system. Credit: Tony Oursler Studio/Tony Oursler and Lehmann Maupin

Water is life. It's also a fascination, inspiration and means of expression for Tony Oursler, an artist who lives and works in Southold and Manhattan. His exhibition, "Water Memory," at Guild Hall in East Hampton presents a deep dive into ruminations on technology, science, pseudoscience, communication, spirituality and beliefs, and at the same time, a celebration of their potential, all through the lens of water.

To fully express ideas about water, Oursler, whose work has excited and engaged audiences from New York City to Paris and recently Tasmania, created a whole new way to see art. In "Water Memory," pictures don't appear on paper or canvas, but on mist. Ethereal, ephemeral images float on clouds of droplets before disappearing. Water is the message, the metaphor and the medium.

Oursler is renowned for projecting art onto buildings, walls, trees and rivers, but it took him close to 20 years to perfect the method for creating images on mist. "This is their first presentation," says museum director Christina Mossaides Strassfield. "Everyone's very excited about it, because it's something you haven't seen before."


In the late '90s, inspired by early filmmakers, Oursler projected images onto smoke for a public art installation in Manhattan. "The effect was wonderful, the combination of natural forces inherent in smoke," he says. "I talk a lot about ideas, but in the end I’m a visual artist and the images I was able to make with this technique were like nothing I’d ever seen." But water kept piquing his imagination, and Oursler kept experimenting.

"Artists are always looking for a medium for their expression, literally and figuratively. When it’s really working, art has a chance to open connections between the viewer and current dialogues," he says. "Today, art reflects what is in the air now — virtual imaging, identity formation, ecological concerns, digital politics, the stories that draw us in and feed us. . . . I’m always looking for ways to make that connection. Matching mediums with ideas is part of that." His breakthrough involves an ultra-high resonance transduction system, water, fans, video and sound.

The exhibition, which fills the entire museum, doesn't only include mist projections. There are sculptures, videos, paintings and mixed-media works, as well. Standing egg-like forms fill one gallery with portraits, spoken words and ideas about water. Another gallery pairs Rorschach ink-blot-style abstractions and Oursler's "Bot" series. Lanky, mechanical-looking figures topped with blown glass heads communicate with viewers in a different way. "A room of characters laden with transparencies of glass, I think of as information-saturated, swimming through a sea of data, melting, re-forming. Probably everyone can relate to this while reading the news over morning coffee," he says. Additionally, he's presenting musings about water in a zine being given out at the museum, filled with history, facts and theories.

"When you're looking through the whole exhibition, the idea is that there are memories and images and technological advances, and they're part of who we are and part of our memory," says Strassfield. "To me, that's the unifying idea. It washes over the whole exhibition."


Whether spoken, written, performed, concrete, vaporous or tactile, there's a message behind the works in "Water Memory." Says Oursler, "I believe in creativity and that everyone can share it through the transformative process of making something — anything. Generally, our culture has trended toward consumption, and I think people can see where that is going. If we don’t use the tools the way we want, they are going to be used against us." 

Oursler will be at the museum for a free gallery talk on July 6 from 3 to 4 p.m. He hopes what visitors take away from the exhibition is "a desire to doodle, take a photo, ring a bell, hum, build a portal to the stars, paint a masterpiece, put up that bird feeder,  program a non-shooting game, custom lights on the truck, make a scarecrow, decorate a cake, daydream, change that screen saver or write that book." 

WHAT "Tony Oursler: Water Memory"

WHEN | WHERE 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday, Friday and Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday, through July 21, Guild Hall, 158 Main St., East Hampton

INFO Free; 631-324-0806,


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