BY Karen Archey in Features | 23 AUG 16
Featured in
Issue 25

Anna Uddenberg's Girlfriend Experience

With their tribal tattoos facing the world, the sculptures of Anna Uddenberg shed a light on class and gender stereotypes

BY Karen Archey in Features | 23 AUG 16

It’s neither convenient nor cute to wake up at 5am to squeeze your entire life into a 10-kilo bag and schlep it to a regional airport for a budget airline flight. In fact, it’s pretty degrading, and often feels like some sort of contortion exercise at the hands of uniformed sadists. At this summer’s press preview for the 9th Berlin Biennale, it seemed hilarious and knowing that the first artworks you saw entering the Akademie der Künste were Anna Uddenberg’s recent sculptures of travelers who either collapse on their suitcases or writhe out of them – as if spawned by Samsonite. As part of the biennale, these sculptures (Transit Mode – Abenteuer [Transit Mode – Adventure], 2014-16) had an audience from all over the world, each making their way by plane, train or automobile to see humbling reality of modern travel reflected back at them. While mobility remains the utmost global privilege, privilege-with-a-capital-P is measured by hard cash and legroom within plane cabins. 

mixed media installation view sculpture carrying backpack Lady Unique 2015 Anna Uddenberg
Lady Unique, 2015, mixed media, 105 × 65 × 80 cm. Courtesy: the artist and the 9th Berlin Biennale/KW Institute for Contemporary Art; Photograph: Anne de Vries

The travelers that Uddenberg’s sculptures depict aren’t necessarily artists or curators but women with tribal tattoos who don Uggs, yoga pants, puffer jackets and complicated-looking camping backpacks. They’re women who were a few years ago colloquially called ‘basic’– the ultimate white-girl-on-white-girl insult (originating in hip-hop culture) which decries as naïve a woman’s identity, expressed through mainstream fashion and consumer options like Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Lattes and Crocs. The consumption patterns enacted by the work suggest aspirations to luxury: beige quilted fabric handbags and strollers are tilted at a weird angle, as if a sport utility vehicle popped out a baby.

mixed media installation view sculpture suitcase cutesy counts 2015 Anna Uddenberg
Cutesy Counts, 2015, mixed media, 75 x 95 x 85 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sandy Brown, Berlin; Photograph: Gunter Lepkowski

The sculptures of women travelers shown at BB9 – one of the most memorable series of works in the exhibition – were shown in various manifestations earlier, but perhaps in their ultimate form at Uddenberg’s 2015 exhibition at Sandy Brown, Berlin. Their aspirational character is expressed by Uddenberg’s press release for that show, titled ‘Mystique 881 RPH’, after a model of a yacht. It’s not necessarily a particularly special yacht – it’s just a fantastic name, and Uddenberg is attracted to the often made-up lexicon of luxury. Take for example the description of the yacht’s probably not-very-comfortable shower, as taken from Uddenberg’s press release: ‘IRIDIUM COLLECTION [Marigold 2], VIP HEAD SHOWER BOX WITH MOSAICO FINISHING.’ The work included in the exhibition are more of Uddenberg’s gonzo basics. For example, BFF Twin Torso (2015) perches a set of breasty humanoid conjoined twins atop a coffee table while their hands come together to form a heart shape. Cutesy Counts (2015) finds a beleaguered traveler collapsing upon her pink 360° roller suitcase. She’s wearing Crocs, mesh and camouflage yoga pants that are wedgied up her butt crack, making her rear end appear impossibly round and peach-like. Looking at a litany of Uddenberg’s sculptures, you’ll realize she locates the lower back, or ‘tramp stamp’ area, as a particularly charged space on a woman’s body – it’s hardly ever left blank. Rather, in Uddenberg’s oeuvre it’s a tabula rasa upon which to denote one’s tribal affiliation – through whale tails or tattoos. The Clip (2015) is a grey butterfly hair clip sculpted by Uddenberg to gigantic proportion, and looks like the desiccated rib cage of a dinosaur. She told me in a recent studio visit she was particularly interested in this work because it looked both scary and sexy and once. This vagina dentata vibe would befit most of her work. At Sandy Brown, Uddenberg fit the space with plastic laminate floor lit with blue LEDs at the edges, turning the gallery into a showroom booth that could be found in Manhattan’s Chinatown – the ground zero of faux finishes. 

mixed media installation view sculpture two people bff twin torso 2015 Anna Uddenberg
Bff Twin Torso, 2015, mixed media, 1.3 × 1.5 × 1.2 m, installation view, Sandy Brown, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and Sandy Brown; Photograph: Gunter Lepkowski

It was in Frankfurt, where Uddenberg studied at Städelschule for six months in 2009 (she later transferred to the Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm), that Uddenberg started looking at escort pages around the world and took note of the language used to describe intimacy. In Frankfurt – with its burgeoning sex industry following the 2002 legalization of prostitution – Uddenberg got hung up on the phrase ‘girlfriend experience’. In the sex industry, this phrase describes a woman hired to act like your girlfriend – privileging intimacy over sex – but to Uddenberg it stood also for the emotional labor required of her as a woman in a male-dominated art world. Notably, Uddenberg makes all of her work by hand herself, which is not the norm among her Berlin-based peers (many of whom out-source production to companies such as Mixed Media). Her new sculptures at BB9 are carved in clay and then cast in fibreglass. While sculpting the human form in clay is a conspicuously traditional method of artistic production, Uddenberg works to update the female form in a long lineage of sculpture that has so rarely been authored by women themselves. The performance-oriented products she highlights respond indirectly to a mass-market, sci-fi sense of precarity that is today universally relatable. Her work highlights that the existing vocabulary to express female identity and precarity often takes the form of celebratory, fantastical and conformist consumer options.

Karen Archey is Curator of Contemporary Art at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and a doctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam.