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The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Never Seen 1995 is a large installation comprised of a sofa, a puppet-like object and a video projector. The sofa is propped up at one end by a roughly hewn piece of wood so that it tilts upwards at an angle, while the large puppet form – its head made from a white pillow and its body from a brocade fabric similar to that which covers the sofa – lies in the space underneath the raised end of the sofa. Onto the ‘head’ of the puppet is projected a colour video of a woman’s smiling face, which repeatedly chants the words ‘It’s so beautiful’. Although the video only lasts for a total of six minutes and twenty-three seconds it is set to play on a constant loop. The video projector transmitting the image is placed approximately 70 cm from the pillow towards the centre of the gallery space, so that the projector and its power cables are clearly visible. Apart from the light from the projector and a small dim spotlight that shines onto the puppet’s face, the space in which the work is encountered is dark.
The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Never Seen was made by the American artist Tony Oursler in 1995 when he was living and working in Boston. The material components that make up the work have a low-grade, everyday appearance and were assembled by the artist in a way that appears unfinished or haphazard. For instance, the sofa is a mass-produced model upholstered with cheap-looking orange and brown brocade fabric that is badly stained and worn. Similarly, the puppet’s body is constructed from a gaudy and inexpensive synthetic material and is loosely sewn together, and tied around the puppet’s middle is a belt made by hand from the same fabric. The puppet’s head is fashioned from a shop-bought polyester pillow and attached to the bottom of the sofa using a household safety pin. Furthermore, the footage of the woman’s face was captured on Hi-8 videotape, a format readily available to amateur videographers in 1995 when Oursler’s work was executed.
Oursler’s first work incorporating the motif of the puppet was made in 1977, but it was not until 1993, two years before he made The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Never Seen, that he began producing the installations combining video projections, sculptural objects and humanoid or puppet-like forms for which he is most widely known (see for example Crying Doll 1993 and White/Trash Phobic 1993). Although the titles of many of these installations are enigmatic, in the case of The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Never Seen, the contrast between the shabby surroundings in which the puppet lies and the references to beauty in the title and sound recording suggest the work to be a reflection on the subjective nature of perception: the puppet’s voice describes something that is ‘so beautiful’, yet the viewer is presented with a worn-looking, shoddily constructed installation. The work’s title complicates this further by suggesting that the ‘beautiful thing’ to which the puppet refers has in fact ‘never’ been seen.
The artist’s decision to project his videos onto sculptural objects rather than display them on television monitors or video screens was prompted in part by newly available video projection technology, in particular the compact Fujix P40U LCD mini video projector with audio speakers, which was released in America in 1991 (see Lawrence, accessed 14 November 2014). The artist’s choice to begin recording actors in his studio and projecting their taped performances onto puppets was also triggered by his introduction to the American actor Tracy Leipold in 1993. Oursler stated in 1998 that when he met Leipold he had been looking for someone who could ‘cry upon command’, and in addition to appearing in The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Never Seen, Leipold was involved in over fifty of Oursler’s video-animated sculptures (quoted in Lawrence, accessed 14 November 2014).
Oursler’s interest in incorporating several types of media into a single artwork developed during his time studying at California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles, in 1976–9, where he attended the multimedia ‘post-studio’ class run by the artist John Baldessari. When Oursler moved from New York to Boston in 1988 he began to focus on the figure as a major element of his work, becoming fascinated, as the artist stated in a 1996 interview, with ‘how the average person might make a figure if they had to, for instance a farmer and a scarecrow, a kid on Halloween, a dummy, an angry crowd and an effigy’ (quoted in Lawrence, accessed 14 November 2014). It was at this stage that Oursler began to make dummies using cast-off clothing that had a homemade appearance.
Sidney Lawrence, Directions: Tony Oursler: Video Dolls with Tracy Leipold, exhibition brochure, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. 1998, http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Tony-Oursler-Directions-Brochure.pdf, accessed 14 November 2014.
Mike Kelly: The Uncanny, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool, and Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Vienna 2004, reproduced p.154.
Gregg M. Horowitz, ‘Absolute Bodies: The Video Puppets of Tony Oursler’, Parallax, vol.16, no.2, 2010, pp.95–106.
Supported by Christie’s.