Walking through the center of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s main level galleries, visitors often become aware of something out of place: a single, monotone voice echoing faintly through the spacious galleries. Those curious enough to follow the noise to its source will stumble upon an unexpected scene. Just around the corner from the central staircase, a small cloth doll lies on the museum floor, a bright yellow folding chair leaning precariously against its head. Projected onto the doll’s blank head is the expressionless face of an adult man, speaking a series of short phrases slowly and deliberately.
“Sometimes I just don’t get the jokes.”
“I get angry quickly, and let it go just as fast.”
“I have few regrets.”
“I’m a difficult person to get close to.”
“I like to watch television.”
“I would be much better off, if not for a family member.”
“I am a leader, not a follower.”
“Sometimes I can’t feel the top of my head.”
Children gather around him, asking timid questions in the hopes that this living doll will answer back. Adults stand back and ponder, trying to puzzle out the meanings of his seemingly unconnected phrases, and debating whether an assemblage of a toy and a chair can even be constituted as art. The little yellow doll has both critics and fans aplenty – he has even had his own Facebook group, as hundreds of art lovers banded together to implore the museum to keep the “guy with the chair on his head” out for public display after he was briefly moved into storage in 2007. Yet for all those who view him, the question remains: What is the meaning of this little man? What message are his statements attempting to convey?
The answer requires a bit of research into the artist. Tony Oursler was born in 1957 and came into prominence as a contemporary artist in the late twentieth century. His works tend to incorporate video projectors and inanimate, found objects. During the time that he created this work, entitled MMPI (Self-Portrait in Yellow), he was focusing on the conception of mental illness within American society. In this series, Oursler made himself a key part of his works, using his own experiences to reveal and reflect the questions and insecurities about our own psychological state, which are so often internalized and not discussed aloud.
How did he accomplish this? Well, Oursler was in many ways a typical American man, who had not been diagnosed with any specific mental illness. Yet he was aware of the large issues and harmful stigma associated with the perception of mental illness in today’s society. How can we make a division between those who are “normal” and those who are not? Isn’t everyone a bit troubled, a bit unusual, in their own way? To Oursler, the creation of this false division between those who are psychologically “healthy” and those who are not was symbolized by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI. This infamous series of yes/no questions, created by a team of psychologists in 1939, was used for decades as one of the main modes of psychological health assessment. Simply put, if you answered a certain way, you were “healthy” – if you did not, then you were diagnosed with one of a number of psychological illnesses. Oursler recognized the fallacy of the entire concept of such a test: How can there be simply one set of correct “normal” answers, for an entire diverse population? And how can we even say that there is any one person who is completely “sane”? What does “sane” even mean?
To come to terms with these questions, Oursler took the MMPI test himself. And then, he made a bold decision: Instead of trying to determine a diagnosis for himself, he left the interpretation of his results to the public. The image projected onto the doll in Oursler’s work is a video of the artist himself, emotionlessly reciting his own answers to the psychological test. Encountering these statements entirely without context, each viewer is left to interpret them individually, to decide if the little doll-man is truly sane – and in the process, we are led to question whether such a categorization can truly even exist.
The “guy with the chair on his head” is without question a polarizing work. Some visitors find him amusing and cute. Others see him as an oddity, and perhaps even a bit depressing. And some find the little doll disturbing, with his arbitrary, unfeeling statements – which somehow seem to be both entirely strange and unpredictable and, at the same time, a bit too familiar.
Yet after I learned the significance behind his phrases, I began to find this strange little doll to be, in a way, reassuring. The “guy with the chair on his head” does what so many of us are afraid to do: He reveals his own internal struggles, his own quirks and oddities, reassuring us that perhaps there is no such thing as perfect “sanity.” Oursler’s work reminds us that we are not alone in our oddities – that yes, everyone is a bit unusual, and that that’s okay.
So the next time you’re wandering through the galleries and hear an unusual monotone voice off in the distance, have no fear – it’s just Tony, bravely challenging society’s perception of psychological illness, one incongruous phrase at a time. And if you’re intrigued enough to stop by for a visit, most likely, you won’t be alone.