Review

Andra Ursuta’s (Anti-) Monumental Impulse

Andra Ursuta: Alps
New Museum, New York
April 27–June 19, 2016
Josephine Graf and Dana Kopel

Andra Ursuta has never been one for subtlety. Past works include, to give a brief sampling: a group of ass-shaped stools; a prostrate female figure, seemingly just flung from a nearby catapult; and a monumental inflatable fist made of patchwork fabric and held precariously erect by fans. She has consistently taken on, with sardonic and often masochistic wit, such grandiose themes as nationalism—informed particularly by her upbringing in communist Romania—desire, violence, and mortality. Yet her work doesn’t so much aim for discomfort (though this is often its initial impact) as it demands a good hard look at failure, genitalia, death—all those things that, like car crashes, we feel obliged to avert our eyes from but can’t help staring at. Alternately, Ursuta forces into plain sight those power structures so inescapable and symbolisms so ham-fisted as to have been normalized into invisibility. In either case, hers is not the oblique view.

This inclination toward the confrontational continued in Andra Ursuta: Alps, the artist’s solo exhibition at the New Museum in New York, which presented selected past works within a new installation. Part retrospective and part Gesamtkunstwerk, this hybrid exhibition format managed to be simultaneously more and less modest than a straightforward presentation of new or old work. Straightaway, the viewer was met with the stares of two nearly identical stone statues of women defiantly facing the elevator doors. Their blank eyes were directed toward the viewer, but seemed to scan an unknown horizon, calling to mind the art historical (and nationalist) trope of the heroic explorer. In this installation, however, the figures looked squarely at an unremarkable elevator bank.

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Andra Ursuta, Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental, 2012. Marble, nylon jacket, gaffer tape, coins; 70 x 18 x 24 inches each. Image courtesy the artist and Ramiken Crucible.

The reverse of a large wall—propped up by metal scaffolding and still bearing the spray-painted notes of its assembly—loomed just behind this pair of statues, shielding the rest of the exhibition from immediate view. Walking around this partition revealed a rock-climbing wall constructed from a patchwork of cast Aqua-resin panels tinted the tone of pale pink flesh and dotted with colorful phalluses doubling as handholds. Puffy skeletons in bas-relief—like raised scar tissue—and ambiguous bodily orifices intermittently embellished these structures. Rising in a craggy geometry from floor to ceiling and largely blocking the gallery walls, these sexualized rock-climbing structures comprised the installation Alps. Within this claustrophobic second architectural skin, Ursuta exhibited a grouping of past works: a series of seated obelisks, several overtly exoticized female busts, a large backboard bearing an eagle in place of its basketball hoop, mops with immense lolling tongues as heads, and a limp cast of the artist’s body.

Together, these works operate most instantaneously on the gut level of the easy joke: the penis as handle, the tongue that literally licks the floor. But Ursuta’s work is far more generous and insidious than the initial joke—and her jokes, admittedly, are often not that funny. Or rather, these witticisms offer entry into Ursuta’s deadly serious underlying concerns. Foremost amongst these are monuments: those death-defying, nation-building, and masculinity-affirming exercises intended to seduce and dominate vision, banishing absence by filling the frame and focusing the view. Ursuta’s works not only assume the form and confrontational posture of the monument, they simultaneously gesture toward the myriad ways in which monuments—and all they represent—can fail or be forcibly deflated, exhausted, and punctured.

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Andra Ursuta: Alps, installation view, New Museum, New York, April 27–June 19, 2016. Image courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio.

The stone statues that greet the viewer introduce this concern. The catalog essay explains that the statues, jointly titled Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental and originally presented at Ramiken Crucible, in 2012, depict Roma women who, at the time of the work’s fabrication, had recently been deported from France. Curator Natalie Bell recounts that their creation was prompted by the Romanian government’s announcement that witchcraft—a major source of income for many of that country’s Roma women—would be considered a legitimate profession, and thus subject to taxation. Building from this narrative, Bell draws attention to the illicit forms of labor through which the two women depicted—and the countless others they represent—have managed to survive.1 Indeed, the two statues wear brightly colored vests embroidered with copper Euro coins and US pennies; their amounts correspond to exchange rates between the two currencies and reference the relationships of value that underpin both the lives of migrants and the status of the artwork itself.2 Positioned at the gallery’s entrance, the work introduces the uneven mobility of capital, objects, and people as a thematic undercurrent in the exhibition.

Along with their forthright placement and gazes, the two stone women that constitute Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental strike the viewer for the simple fact that it is rare to see statues, as opposed to sculptures, in a museum of contemporary art. The distinction is pertinent to Ursuta’s practice: statues, unlike sculptures, have a specific function whose operative principle is to point beyond themselves; they commemorate a historical figure or event of importance, often denoting absence or death (though also victory). Ursuta’s use of traditional materials and her somber, even heavy-handed, portrayal of the two women emphasize the work’s memorializing role. Yet unlike most statues, Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental commemorates those typically forgotten, rather than those whose historical significance demands that we remember them. The work is a monument to the disenfranchised and unnoticed people—specifically women—who are most often subjects, rather than emblems, of state power.

Ursuta has disavowed biographical readings premised upon her Eastern European heritage, but the work’s glorification of capitalism’s anonymous undesirables makes clear reference to Socialist Realism.3 She resuscitates this aesthetic vocabulary and promptly sets it adrift amongst a multiplicity of meanings that vacillate between parody and solemnity. The work’s title, for instance, pejoratively references its own sentimentality, and the statues’ vests further frustrate their monumentalizing role. In an interview with curator Massimiliano Gioni, Ursuta claims that the figures “could be viewed as monuments, but also as mere mannequins,” intended primarily to display the coin vests they wear.4 More equivocal and less politically virtuous than its initial appearance or supporting narrative might suggest, the work is instead radically contingent upon viewers’ interactions and interpretations. This is a precarious position that traditional monuments, with their demand for clear historical consensus, tend to shun.5 Ursuta thus complicates a reading of the work as a reclamation of the monument toward new political ends, leaving her viewer unsure whether hers is a tactic of critique from within or a more generalized nihilism that seeks to disrupt any sociopolitical virtue or moral certainty. This semiotic swerve, though discursively rich, can admittedly leave the viewer feeling slightly uneasy in light of the very real stakes of the situation so many migrants currently face, which explains, perhaps, some of the apprehension around the exhibition’s reception.6

 

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Andra Ursuta, Whites, installation view, Kunsthalle Basel, Basel, September 4–November 1, 2015. Image courtesy the artist, Massimo de Carlo, Milan/London and Ramiken Crucible, New York. Photo: Philipp Hänger.

The sense of ambivalent or deflated monumentality that Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental suggests emerges even more starkly in a series known as the Whites (2014–15). Anthropomorphized, mostly four-sided obelisks with pointed tops—phallic, like the Washington Monument—the Whites bend to “sit” dejectedly in brightly colored wooden chairs. Their pale surfaces have been sanded down to a smooth marble sheen, interrupted by the negative space of a human (or occasionally animal) orifice: a toothy mouth, nostrils, eye sockets. Sometimes the surfaces are punctuated by human leg bones in relief, where the “legs” of the monument might be. Like the climbing walls that surround them, the Whites are made from Aqua-resin, which Ursuta casts in facets and fits together to form obelisks before incising orifices into their surface. In fact, the climbing walls might be understood as an expansion of these obelisks, unfolded and flattened out in space. Their construction involves parallel processes of addition and subtraction—adding material while asserting negative space, so that the material process itself marks an absence, much as a monument is designed to do.

Ursuta has been working with the Whites for several years. They first appeared in 2014, in Scytheseeing, at Kölnischer Kunstverein; the following year, she developed the series in a solo exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel. Also titled Whites, that exhibition was composed almost entirely of the seated, beleaguered monuments. Congregating in one of the Kunsthalle’s galleries, the Whites were described in the exhibition text as inhabiting “a geriatric clinic for Western Modernism,” and indeed the weariness of these human-like monuments suggests the exhaustion of Western modernity (and the hegemonic position of whiteness), though its formal structures and modes of power still cling, desperately, to life.7 As in much of Ursuta’s work, a base-level fatalism is here tempered by the undeniable and deeply relatable humor of these lazy monuments, at once imposing and depleted, half-assing their jobs.

If Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental and the Whites series ape the monument’s form—the latter presenting it as distilled, cartoon-like gestalt—the surrounding works in the New Museum exhibition unfurl it outwards into subtler territory, mining its connections to nationalism, sport, and desire. In Scarecrow (2015), for instance, a thick black steel base supports a grey concrete basketball backboard that features, instead of a hoop, a stylized inflatable eagle cast in concrete, its wings outstretched. The eagle instantly evokes nationalist imagery—most pertinently, the eagle that decorates the Romanian coat of arms—yet upon closer inspection appears slightly wilted, its concrete form evincing a loss of air and therefore body. In its entirety, the sculpture is imposing; its dark palette stands in marked contrast to the pale flesh tones and brightly colored accents of the rest of the exhibition. Yet Ursuta has titled the work Scarecrow, designating it a harmless if frightening object, and thus deflating its ostensible gravitas. Both a useless piece of sports equipment (there is quite literally nowhere to score) and an impotent symbol, the sculpture is all bravado and little real power.

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Andra Ursuta: Alps, installation view, New Museum, New York, April 27–June 19, 2016. Image courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio.

Alps, the climbing wall installation that dominates the New Museum exhibition, extends this sense of derailed athleticism and impotent monumentality. Like much fascist, religious, or propagandistic architecture similarly daunting in scale, Alps solicits an unsettling combination of subservience, empowerment, and awe—while simultaneously parodying this solicitation. The work’s title obviously references the European mountain range of the same name. This linguistic play merits attention, as the Alps mark the intersection of two pertinent historical phenomena: the rise of the sublime as an aesthetic category of anxious but pleasurable submission to nature—at the moment when the Alps became an object of contemplation—and the fraught history of borders and nationalist sentiment, insofar as the mountains act as a natural barrier between Eastern and Western Europe.8 In a sense, the installation serves as an ambivalent monument to that which divides, while suggesting an intention to ascend and overcome the limits of nature and one’s own body. One might also understand Ursuta’s work itself as a monumental barrier, but it doesn’t function like this within the exhibition. Instead, the viewer can experience the space of Alps fully, moving freely around it, rather than strenuously over it—a stark contrast to the regimented and restricted movements of vulnerable bodies confronted with geological barriers or the imposed boundaries of nation-states.

Though this disjuncture marks another moment of Ursuta’s appropriation of the monumental as a means of its negation, it also takes on particular weight considering the current migrant crisis—a convergence the exhibition text notes, but that gets somewhat lost. If in Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental the body of the migrant is forcibly imaged, in Alps it is noticeably absent.

Yet, the body does present itself in Alps, though it does so in fragments: penises in various shapes, sizes, and bright colors, and diverse stages of flaccidity and erection, serve as grips for the imaginary rock climber. Given their colorful urethane construction, we might also interpret these as dildos, yet somehow—perhaps because of their particularity; their lack of functionality, fastened to the walls; or their subservience to the larger representational schema of Ursuta’s Alpine landscape9 —they resist a reading as objects of self-directed pleasure. Nevertheless, a form of desire is at play here in the idea of the grip: each penis is made specifically to be held or handled—and the installation entices on this material level, almost asking to be grasped, though in practice museum policy forbids this interaction. In these cock-climbing walls, desire can never be satisfied; it is constantly détourned, derailed, intensified by the impossibility of its fulfillment. Human anatomy is collapsed into a series of relatively flat and almost pictorial planes that imply interaction—cooperation, competition, touch—between bodies without depicting or allowing it. In Alps, the penis is a means to climb upwards—implying, perhaps, that any ascent to power through the privileges of (an assumed) masculinity is inherently self-congratulatory, even masturbatory. This may seem overly literal, but for Ursuta, that’s part of the joke. The oversimplified punch line of the work—that dicks = masculinity = power without real value, going nowhere fast—is repeated over and over with each neon penis-grip, becoming so obvious that it intentionally falls flat. It’s not a new claim, but one worth reiterating almost to death, which Ursuta does with massive scale and gallows humor.

Of course, the presumption that the penis corresponds to male-ness or masculinity has undergone crucial challenges in recent years through the efforts of theorists in queer and trans studies. Yet Ursuta’s work takes as its subject the more commonplace position of phallic masculinity; instead of questioning this position through an obviously critical approach, she uses techniques of the joke—seriality, repetition, absurd juxtaposition—to poke holes in its logic. For her, the penis remains the most obvious, and culturally legible, representation of masculinity, and thus the dick joke serves as an effective tool in her work, precisely because it’s so simplistic. She notes: “It’s true, though, that the male presence in most of my works is evoked through an isolated part, almost like an amputation. I have made more complete female bodies, but the male presence is always a synecdoche— I don’t know if this is a sign of internalized reverence for the patriarchy, like when you pledge allegiance to the flag that stands for the country, or if it is an act of violence. Probably both.”10 In its enforced fragmentation and isolation—one might say its castration—the penis gathers symbolic force, even as it finds itself subject to manipulation (resurrected as a climbing grip, to take Ursuta’s example). This is, oddly, the same operation at work in the phallic quality of so many monuments. Ursuta seems to point to the absurdity of this ironic turn by which a symbolic castration becomes a means of desperately demanding both visibility and reverence.

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Andra Ursuta, Olympdicks, 2015. Dye on velvet, 77½ x 58 inches. Ο Νότος θα εγερθεί ξανα, installation view, Ramekin Crucible, New York, June 7–July 12, 2015. Image courtesy the artist and Ramiken Crucible, New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

In fact, images of penises are deployed to represent themes of nationalism and aesthetics—and by extension masculinity, that realm to which penises are culturally understood to correspond—regularly in Ursuta’s work. In her 2015 exhibition Ο Νότος θα εγερθεί ξανα at Ramiken Crucible in New York, Ursuta debuted her Olympdicks series, photograms on velvet depicting oversized anthropomorphic penises performing athletic feats (handstands, crunches) and suicidal ones (one hangs itself, while another holds a pickaxe and is split across the middle). With these works, Ursuta displays the trials and tribulations of violent masculinity, as embodied by the figure of the dick—not just any, but the best dicks, elite competitors in a global display of male dominance. And yet even these elite penises don’t have much going for them: they’re limp dicks, as Ursuta suggests with the titular pun, unable to adequately perform, isolated from the bodies that give them context and allow them to function. (Perhaps that’s why some of them are suicidal.) The exhibition’s title, Greek for “The south will rise again,” oddly appropriates the racist motto of the Confederacy, perhaps to signal historical confluences of power, violence, and hegemonic masculinity beyond the context of the United States. These anachronistic and anatopic allusions characterize Ursuta’s practice: from the reference to Iron Age bog bodies (the skeletons embedded in the surface of Alps) to the medieval catapult, from a US Civil War slogan offered in Greek to the Romanian folk tradition of making coin necklaces, enacted with conteCrmporary currency. Dismissing attempts to read these allusions as solemnly resonant, Ursuta herself says, “In reality, the faux-primitivism of my work makes a mockery of modernism and of the expectations of a cultivated audience; there is nothing authentic about it.”11 Her concern is not with historical or critical integrity but rather with the material and formal associations of the work itself and how these play around with—and sometimes bully—the conventions of contemporary art.

By contrast, Crush (2011) presents a more personal approach to themes of violence, desire, and death. Installed off in one corner of the gallery, Crush is a striking sculpture: a full cast, to scale, of the artist’s naked body in urethane resin the color of aged bronze. In this it seems to reference memorial statuary, while providing—in contrast to Alps’ large-scale brazenness and Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental’s unwavering solidity—a sense of the monument without monumentality, a body memorialized but left wholly unarmored. Indeed, in Crush the body is hollowed out, deflated; it sprawls limply on the museum floor, bony legs bent and crossed at the knees in a useless gesture towards modesty. Beyond its greasy wig and sneakers, the figure is completely exposed; it is covered in splatters of white wax that look like semen, intensifying its violent, vulnerable corporeality. The viewer is left to imagine a scene of rape and murder enacted upon the artist’s body even as she depicts it. The sculpture, the oldest of Ursuta’s works in the New Museum show, is by far the most emotionally intense.

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Andra Ursuta, Crush, 2011. Cast urethane, wax, sneakers, wig, silicone, 60 x 40 x 9 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Ramiken Crucible.

Read in the context of this exhibition, the work’s title, Crush, suggests that the woman’s body has been physically flattened under the weight of ideological forces of nationalist and patriarchal domination. Yet, the title also implies the one-sided desire of a romantic crush, with all the embarrassing vulnerability and masochism that can entail. The work’s protagonist (who doubles as the artist) is crushed by the things she does not desire, as well as by the things she does—and parsing the two can at times prove difficult. Ursuta’s work often muddies the line between the “good” and “bad,” the seductive and harmful, and it is her refusal to disentangle these threads—without resorting to a simplistic position of shocking immorality—that sets her apart. Her work does not reveal, from beneath a series of veiled gestures, a palliative to soothe intellectual or moral trepidation, as so much contemporary art does. Of all Ursuta’s defeated monuments, Crush most viscerally articulates this position. Throughout the exhibition, the monument surfaces as both target and tactic; this doubled stance allows Ursuta to trace the messy elision of death, violence, sex, and desire, and to picture them without resolving their contradictions. The resulting ambiguity of intention can be unnerving, with the monument marshaled toward vague political ends. But hers is an operation of radical leveling that offers its own form of politics, however nihilistic—a chipping away at any and all certainty through bombastic visual means. Like a suffocating embrace, she pushes the monument so far that its structure deflates: the drama of the monument is revealed as dramaturgy; its underlying supports buckle under their own ideological pressure.

Josephine Graf and Dana Kopel are curators and writers based in New York. They received their MAs from the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, where they began a practice of collaborative writing. Their collective writing has previously appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, and they have published individually in Mousse, Modern Painters, and Pelican Bomb.

Footnotes

  1. Natalie Bell, “Absurdity Aside,” in Andra Ursuta: Alps, ed. Massimiliano Gioni and Natalie Bell (New York: New Museum, 2016), 13.
  2. Massimiliano Gioni, “Interview with Andra Ursuta,” in Andra Ursuta: Alps, 24.
  3. Ibid., 19.
  4. Ibid., 24.
  5. See, for example, Ken Johnson’s rather vitriolic—and ultimately off the mark—review, “Sex, Death, and Little Subtlety,” The New York Times, April 28, 2016.
  6. Jonathan F. Vance, “Documents in Bronze and Stone: Memorials and Monuments as Historical Sources,” Building New Bridges: Sources, Methods and Interdisciplinarity, ed. Jeff Keshen and Sylvie Perrier (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2005), 194.
  7. “Andra Ursuta: Whites,” exhibition room sheet, Kunsthalle Basel, 2015.
  8. It should be noted that this crossing of nationalism and the sublime—with the Alps as one of its main points of intersection—took hold in the United Kingdom and Europe during the Romantic period of the mid to late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
  9. Ursuta explains that Alps “draws on a number of stylized representations of natural landscapes.” Gioni, “Interview with Andra Ursuta,” 23–24.
  10. Ibid., 26.
  11. Ibid., 19.