Tony Oursler: Crossing Neptune
Curated by Tony Oursler and Kevin Moore
Michael Lowe Gallery, Cincinnati
September 29 – October 31, 2022
Water remains our most elemental unknown. It is a trans-cultural and historical symbol of mythologies ranging from childbirth, miracles, purification and healing rituals, to mysterious sea creatures, falling icicles, and invisible toxins. Belief in water is strong and its powers both benevolent and deadly. Water can wash away sins, cure disease, and offer eternal youth. Or it can harbor “blobsters,” freeze explorers, and swamp cities, depending on the teller and the listener, the fraudster and the rube.
Crossing Neptune is an exhibition featuring archival works on the theme of water from the personal collection of Tony Oursler—photographs, mostly anonymous, of baptisms, “blob monsters,” ice formations, and actual vessels of holy water—plus original installation works by Oursler on water as a transformative element embodying a long list of inherited, paranormal mythologies. The exhibition takes its name from a longstanding maritime tradition in which sailors, crossing the equator for the first time, were subjected to a hazing ritual, often involving someone dressed as the sea god Neptune and others as a variety of personae—women, most commonly, but also babies, policemen, or priests. “Crossing Neptune” became a cross-dressing rite of passage for younger sailors as well as a fantasy occasion for the more seasoned on the lonely, monotonous seas. The term is borrowed here to suggest the allure of passage to other realms and water as a conduit.
While general selections from Oursler’s 2,500+ archive have been shown previously, as a project titled Imponderable, exhibited at the LUMA Foundation in Arles, France, and at Bard CCS and MoMA, NY, Crossing Neptune is unique both in terms of focus and origin. Based on an unpublished text, “On Water and Magical Thinking,” a compilation of historic water mythologies created by Oursler over time, Crossing Neptune explores aquatic belief systems, ranging from the most common to the outlandishly bizarre, and their sustained echoes in contemporary culture, where historic tropes now morph into politicized commentary on evolution, climate science, and more. As water resources become scarcer, the challenges presented to scientists begin to rub against mass cultural fantasies, delivering us to a zone of magical thinking—a place of both political friction and potential generation.