For many years I’ve marveled at Tony Oursler’s unique and fantastical installations, living narratives in which people’s faces and bodies are projected onto sculptural works, either life-size versions of their bodies, miniature tableaux, or more abstract objects. The New York City native, who grew up on the banks of the Hudson River in Nyack, has now expanded his repertoire with “Tear of the Cloud,” a large-scale multimedia work on and around the landmarked 69th Street Transfer Bridge (Gantry), formerly a dock for car floats for the New York Central Railroad. (Previously, Oursler’s “The Influence Machine” took over Madison Square Park in 2000, in which he created a kind of giant séance; both that and “Tear of the Cloud” are Public Art Fund projects.) From seven to ten o’clock every night but Monday through Halloween, Oursler beams images onto the front and sides of the dock, on the base of the elevated West Side Highway, on a weeping willow tree, and onto the surface of the water itself. The visuals are supplemented by audio tracks of music, stories, and dialogue about the history of the area, dating from Lenape times and the Oneida community to the tech-heavy present and future.
Oursler incorporates a vast range of people, places, and things into the work, focusing on modes of communication, historical figures, and seminal eureka moments, including Samuel F. B. Morse painting his daughter for “Susan Walker Morse (The Muse),” hollow-face illusions, artificial intelligence bots, Haverstraw bricks used in city construction, IBM’s Deep Blue, the color guard, the Great West Point Chain, Thomas Edison’s Black Maria movie studio, the Headless Horseman, the Jacquard loom, molecular recorders, the telegraph, PCBs, Morse code, Indian Point, the Manhattan Project, Jimi Hendrix, Timothy Leary, LSD, Woodstock, Franz Mesmer, a viking-like Millerite, punch cards, actress and feminist Pearl White from The Perils of Pauline, the talking drum, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” the official seal of the City of New York, and Mary Rogers being fished out of the water after being murdered in Sibyl’s Cave in New Jersey, which inspired Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” Among the more than two dozen performers making appearances are costume and prop designer Enver Chakartash, assistant editor Jack Colton, Grandmaster Flash, Spencer Davis, Constance Dejong, Jim Fletcher, Holly Stanton, Jason Scott Henderson, animator Sakshi Jain, Kate Valk, and soundtrack composers MV Carbon, Corey Riddell, Idrissa Kone, and Oursler himself in addition to the Manhattan Project Chorus and the New Red Order collective.
One of the finest and most influential experimental artists of the last four decades, Oursler is not about to make it simple for viewers to figure out exactly what is happening. As you walk all around the area — make sure to go down the pier and to look and listen in all directions — you’ll take in abstract audio and visuals that might not form a complete narrative but are instead like the many tributaries that ultimately feed into the enormous Hudson River. Fortunately, the official website features a well-annotated glossary as well as a map identifying all of the figures and scenes. Oursler refers to the installation as a “visual palimpsest, depicting the layering of information associated with unforeseen legacies of the waterway [inspired by] the mnemonic effect of the river and the many intertwined tropes associated with the Hudson Valley region.” Oursler named the work after Lake Tear of the Clouds in Essex County, which is the highest source of the Hudson; the title of the work (the first word of which can be read as either teer or tayr) also evokes digital storage, acid rain, climate change, and even the “Keep America Beautiful” commercial in which an actor portraying a Native American sheds a lone tear after seeing how we shamelessly pollute the Earth. However, as Oursler makes clear in a long, projected, hard-to-read text, he is acknowledging what has been done to the environment but going far beyond merely apologizing. There are only two more nights to catch this fab installation; be sure to allow at least an hour in order to properly absorb its many facets.