BY Summer Guthery in Features | 25 SEP 14
Featured in
Issue 166

Cultural Currency

How Andra Ursuta’s sculptures play with national stereotypes

BY Summer Guthery in Features | 25 SEP 14

Andra Ursuta is rarely written about without the modifier ‘Romanian artist’ being added to her name. No artist wants to be boxed in by demographics but, for Ursuta, these form the building materials for her work. Perceptions of her otherness, her foreignness and associated stereotypes are deflected with a sceptical laugh. To those in the West, the demarcation of Eastern Europe is often blurred.

Folk tales, gypsy culture and Ursuta’s own family history are the sieve through which her uniquely mordant and morbid perspective is filtered. Witchery and Roma culture were the spur for the artist’s 2012 exhibition, ‘Magical Terrorism’, at New York’s Ramiken Crucible gallery. According to the press release, the show was an act of solidarity with a group of protesting Romanian witches who, in 2011, had revolted against the country’s government for declaring witchcraft, along with astrology and fortune-telling, an officially recognized occupation and thereby liable to taxation. In response, the witches cast a spell on the high court, throwing mandrake, dog faeces and dead cats into the Danube.

The gallery was filled with Ursuta’s witches: life-sized marble sculptures, in a Social Realist style, which she had fabricated in China. All identical, they are based on a single reportage photograph of an unnamed Roma woman waiting to be deported from France during President François Hollande’s controversial evictions of Roma camps around Paris. The terrorism part of ‘Magical Terrorism’ was her memorable decision to break the large glass storefront of Ramiken Crucible. The gallery is known for encouraging artists not to be reverent of its Lower East Side space, but Ursuta’s action made an indelible impression, with broken shards of glass strewn on the floor amongst her sculptures. At the back of the gallery was what appeared to be a crashed moon rover (Cartwoman, 2012) – a sort of wheeled cart in silver urethane embedded with a pair of boots. It could have been a roving monument to the roaming women in the room. Crudely made busts of iron, aluminium, concrete and manure were placed on pedestals and the floor. They resembled large primitivist figures, headless torsos with sagging, triangular breasts adorned with long, bib-like necklaces of coins hanging in rows, sewn onto deconstructed windbreakers. 

Crush (detail), 2011, cast urethane, wax, trainers, wig, silicone, 152 × 102 × 23 cm

The elaborate coin necklaces looked as if they might operate with the logic of an abacus – maybe for cross-border trade, with their mix of European, us and Romanian coinage. Titled Commerce Exterieur (2012), their total value would barely buy a soft drink. According to Ursuta, the busts are ‘simply mannequins for the necklaces’. This sort of self-deprecation is typical of her strategy, and here served to accentuate the complicated play of value, economy and gender on display. Describing the works, Ursuta has said: ‘The use of currency as jewellery implies that the women are inherently worthless, that they need the added value of cash to literally cover their bodies in order to make them more attractive. It smacks of an archaic bait-and-switch marriage tactic: you think you’re just grabbing a pile of money but there’s a wife underneath. And you have already touched her, so it’s probably too late.’1

This idea of human value stated in economic terms calls to mind David Graeber’s concept of a ‘human economy’ from his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011). With her sculpture of a Roma woman, the artist magnifies her point in relation to both gender and caste – the Roma have been vilified throughout Europe for centuries. Ursuta’s work is like a monument to their predicament and outrage.

The artist also readily uses the Eastern European stereotype as a lens through which to present herself. This is most candid in the work Ethnic Bimbo (2012), a printed postcard of her naked and painted body in the style of a call-girl card. Dialling the number on the card, however, connected you to the Ramiken Crucible front desk – and so potentially to Ursuta’s husband, Mike Egan, co-director of the gallery – thereby equating Eastern Europe’s sex-trafficking associations with the artist’s place within the New York gallery system. Hyperbole for sure, but nonetheless provocative.

Ursuta often employs self-portraiture and her own body, most controversially in a series of stools titled ‘Waiting Area’ (2011) – a cast of her underwear-clad upturned butt. Connections have been drawn to Hannah Wilke’s S.O.S. – Stratification Object Series (1974), for which the artist photographed herself nude with small globs of chewing gum, shaped into eyes or vaginas, on her body. The project was controversial at the time and found itself in the thick of a feminist firestorm, as it was deemed by some as conventionally seductive. Ursuta is too irreverent to be quite so alluring, and a closer precedent for her work may found in the work of Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT. For Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969), EXPORT supposedly attended a cinema in Munich wearing crotchless pants, a tight leather jacket, with wildly teased hair and brandishing a machine gun. For export, the piece was about confronting the male-dominated Viennese Actionist scene with gendered rage. Ursuta’s feminism is tempered with a derisive irony, however; ultimately, ‘Waiting Area’ is the artist repeatedly mooning you. Her bawdiness quickly sidelines the pornographic, especially when you catch the titles of the individual stools: Sanitary Crash Pad, 4-Year-Old Virgin, Head Wife followed by Foot Wife.

Ursuta’s is a dark, even perverted, brand of humour. Crush (2011) is a full-sized resin cast of the artist’s body, slightly squashed. It references bog people: Iron Age corpses found preserved in peat, flattened by years of weight. Ursuta’s dark bog body is splashed with a translucent gelatinous goo, which refers, the artist says, to all the cum that has been shot onto her by past lovers. As here, where the title’s play on words suggests being ‘crushed by a crush’, Ursuta often uses confusions of slang or puns in English. Again, it seems to reference her feelings of being a stranger: she knows the language well enough to converse, yet doesn’t feel entirely natural when speaking it – and isn’t willing to respect it entirely. 

Orthodoctrinator, 2014, urethane plastic, urethane foam, wood, iron oxide, pigments, hairdryers, 3.5 × 4.8 × 1.6 m

With her taunting gestures, deliberately confused symbolism and wordplay, Ursuta’s closest Romanian analogue is perhaps her fellow countryman, the playwright Eugen Ionescu. As a major figure in 1930s French Avant-garde theatre and a member of the experimental writing group Oulipo, Ionescu critiqued the banal. There are clever turns in Ursuta’s exuberant embrace of stereotypes; Eastern European female tropes of the hyper-sexualized ‘hot young thing’ morphing immediately into the babushka – the wrinkled grandmother stooped over with her shawl. Ursuta uses this division to deal directly with the frumpy and domestic. Soft Power (2013) comprises a pair of three-metre-high inflatable knitted fists which, controlled by a timer, grow from flaccid pile to erect power symbol, before deflating again into a cosy lump. Ass to Mouth (2010) – a three-metre wooden stake, carved with undulating curves – echoes the Modernist touchstone, Endless Column (1938) by Romania’s most famous sculptor, Constantin Brânçusi. Here, though, it is coated in black rubber and sharpened to a bloody red point, as if either to impale or erotically pleasure.

Machines and tools have lately taken on a greater role in Ursuta’s work. Stoner, shown in 2013 at Venus Over Manhattan in New York and François Ghebaly in Los Angeles, makes aggressive use of them. The work is a baseball-pitching machine that hurls cement balls at a large-tiled wall nearly 12 metres away; the entire apparatus is housed in a huge cage. The wall target is the colour of a bruise, surrounded by flesh-toned tiles and seems to be caulked with human hair sprouting from the seams. Ursuta describes Stoner as stemming from an interesting misunderstanding: a friend had mentioned being ‘stoned’ to her, but the immediate image that came to mind was of violent capital punishment. It’s a dark picture whichever way you look at it, the victim seemingly disintegrating into the wall.

A recent work, Orthodoctrinator (2014), is less horrific and more profanely bizarre. A ruinous wall, seemingly from some long-forgotten castle, it towers threateningly over viewers. As Ursuta tells it, inspiration for the piece came while travelling through a small Romanian airport and seeing a little gem of a church tucked away in a corner of the terminal. Orthodoctrinator’s freestanding wall – on one side, crumbling brick; on the other, a wooden bench – is topped with tall spires, steep like a witch’s hat, which are common in Transylvania. In the sculpture, they have become hoods for a row of 1950s-style hair dryers, creating a pious little beauty parlour that she describes as ‘a machine for a quick brainwash’. 2 The sculpture is simple as well as practical, engaging the style of strange utilitarianism that Ursuta believes is resolutely Romanian.

This tendency towards a harshly realist – even fatalist – approach to art, coupled with the artist’s dark humour, more faithfully describes the attitude driving Ursuta’s work than the magic and spookiness with which it is often associated. Ursuta embraces this fatalistic temper, along with the rest of the cultural tropes handed to her, not with resignation but with an openness to failure. The most futile attempts and the most illogical solutions, for Ursuta, give a sort of anarchic pleasure – she finds joy in watching things fall apart, malfunction or fail to communicate. Summing up her attitude, Ursuta relayed this joke: ‘The pessimist says, “It can’t get any worse than this,” to which the optimist replies, “Oh, yes it can!”’

1 Cecilia Alemani, ‘Folklore is our Sci-Fi’, Mousse, December 2012
2 As told to the author

Summer Guthery is a curator and writer living in Los Angeles, USA. She is the co-founder and director of the non-profit visual art space, JOAN.