Sam Guerrero joined the museum in 2015 as a printmaker (you can see his piece Poi Dog in the Staff Exhibition through Feb. 5), but since then, the outreach program manager has gradually revealed his other love—video art.

His February 2016 installation in the Art School’s Nanogallery, Still Trying for a Breakthrough, featured a video of himself wearing a piñata on his head, bashing himself with a bat. So it wasn’t a surprise that he chose Tony Oursler’s Roman à Clef, which is currently on view in HoMA SELECT, when asked to name his favorite work of art in the museum collection. The assemblage of found tchotchkes acts as a three-dimensional screen for an intricate video projection of ghostly men, women, and psychedelic swirls and flashes of light, which are accompanied by an eerie recording of half-audible human voices running on a 15-minute loop.

Whenever the video sculpture is on view (it went to HoMA SELECT after a stint in American Array last year), Guerrero spends a lot of time with it. And here’s why:

“I’m drawn to Tony Oursler’s work for many of the same reasons that I am drawn to video work of artist’s like Paul Pfeiffer, Nam Jun Paik, and Kota Ezawa. They all push the boundaries of video being an object. In contemporary art, the artwork often becomes an object in order to be commodifiable or valuable. Video is an experience and is only commodifiable if it is an experience that the viewer deems valuable. When video tries to exist in the realm of art it battles the constructs of narrative that have already been assigned to film. People want an exciting narrative that has a beginning, middle, and end. The challenge for the video artist is to create an experience that grabs the viewer no matter what point of the narrative they come in at.

“We are used to experiencing video through a screen or projected on a flat white surface. Oursler’s work exists on a wide array of surfaces, none of which are flat or shown through a medium we are used to seeing. They are a magical specter that poses a three-dimensional form to convey their stories. This is especially true in Roman à Clef. Here the characters are sprite-like entities that reveal themselves at different points of the story and vanish to make room for the next.

“I really love walking into the space and hearing the indistinguishable dialogue that is happening in the space that Roman à Clef inhabits,” he said. “You get the sense you are eavesdropping on a conversation that you might not supposed to hear. Then to further the voyeuristic experience you get to explore this tiny work where all sorts of events are taking place simultaneously. I have spent long amounts of time trying to distinguish the conversations that are taking place, but with no success. That is the delight of the work. I don’t need to understand a set narrative. It changes for me every time I stop in to visit.

“I just love the way he composes things into these little planets. It’s amazing. You have the video, which isn’t just one single shot—there are tiny happenings all over the piece. Each of those videos has its own narrative, and you don’t necessarily know if it’s a cohesive narrative or a fractured narrative. Then the objects that he’s projecting on have their own narrative. There’s a Hulk Hogan head over here!”

Tony Oursler
 (American, born 1957)
Roman à Clef, 2012
Video projection, sound, assemblage of found objects, steel stand
Purchase with funds from a gift of Frumkin/Adams Gallery, New York, by exchange, 2013 (2013-3-01)