Andra Ursuţa

- Selected Press

As a few giant galleries absorb ever more market share, thank the muses of art and commerce for Ramiken. The young dealer Mike Egan has piloted this enigmatic, protean gallery through a choppy decade for both art and real estate, and presented its ambitious exhibitions in a crumbling basement, an Upper East Side penthouse, a cave in Puerto Rico—and, now, a 17,000-square-foot warehouse floor in industrial Bushwick, Brooklyn, with a view of both refulgent skyscrapers and an infernal scrap-metal recycling plant.

Ramiken’s first Brooklyn show, Nobodies, goes to Andra Ursuţa, whose six remarkable glass sculptures, resting on cinder-block plinths, create an arresting tableau of sex, stress and self-portraiture. Each conjoins the artist’s face and body to heaped clothing, B.D.S.M. gear and drink bottles; faces melt into bags, heads balloon like the beast’s from “Alien.”

Although Ms. Ursuţa uses 3-D scanners to prepare molds, these works are traditionally cast glass sculptures—in marbled amber or Perrier green—which (thanks to the bottle spouts) also function as vessels. That makes them different, and more contemporary, than similar sculptures by Louise Bourgeois and Alina Szapocznikow, who also imagined bodies as permeable bundles of pell-mell parts. These freakish personages, cinched by corsets or stretched out like yogis, cannot escape today’s always-on performativity; even in your most unsound form, you must still work.

Other versions of some sculptures here appeared at this year’s largely blah Venice Biennale. But Ms. Ursuţa’s exquisitely awkward glass feels far more urgent here in Bushwick, with a view out the windows to both capital and oblivion.

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Andra Ursuţa’s studio is sandwiched between a 3D-printing startup and a parking garage for New York City garbage trucks, making for a distinct set of smells wafting in and out. It’s an oddly fitting spot for the Romanian-born sculptor, whose work merges surreal techno-realities with the grotesquerie of everyday life.

Indeed, both neighbors played a part in Ursuţa’s newest body of work: a series of human-sized, semi-translucent vessels, which she considers self-portraits. Each is a kind of Frankensteinian monster—an amalgam of garbage and appendages from the artist’s own body which she 3D-scanned and cast into glass through a laborious process that mixes centuries-old techniques with of-the-moment technology. 

One of them, a reclining figure, has a bottle for an arm and feet that are made from the head of the titular creature from the 1987 movie Predator. Another positions a likeness of the artist’s own head—wearing a mask from Alien—atop what looks like the base of a blender. 

The works made their debut earlier this year at the Venice Biennale, where Ursuţa was included in Ralph Rugoff’s May You Live in Interesting Times exhibition. Now they’re on view as part of her show Nobodies at Ramiken gallery in Brooklyn, through December 21. (While the gallery is being renovated, Ursuţa’s show actually appears in a vacant raw space on a floor above.)

On a recent afternoon, Artnet News visited Ursuţa’s studio in Brooklyn to see her new works and talk about how she made them.

The setting for Nobodies, essentially a construction site, is non-traditional to say the least. But it also feels right for that reason.

I think that this particular situation is kind of perfect. It’s even better than Venice. It’s a very big, empty space. It’s so big that it almost feels like you’re outdoors, kind of like being in a park. So the works are bottles, but they’re also like statues and that’s more obvious this time around. And the show is on a construction site. To get to this building, you have to cross these train tracks. Across the street, there is a demolition site where they grind down construction materials day and night. So all the garbage we’re producing is being ground to dust directly across the street from the show—I couldn’t have wished for something better, honestly. 

I’m interested in how these rather ad-hoc assemblages of found items are transformed into your pristine glass sculptures. What does the process behind these sculptures entail?

They started out with trash that I had around the studio and old clothes of mine, or even, in some cases, fragments of props that I used in older works that I recycled. Then I filled them out with different kinds of foam and scanned them with a 3D-scanning program. I also scanned my body and face and with the 3D-modeling program we created this new hybrid between the scans of the physical sculptures and just the body as it is. So it’s kind of like drawing from nature. Once the form is finished in the program, we cut it into multiple pieces so that we could cast it in glass. Those pieces were then printed in nylon, and we made a mold of each part. We had to make waxes for each piece and then they were cast in glass. It’s a very old school process that’s similar to the lost wax casting technique—a very traditional way of making sculptures. So the work goes from being detritus to being very synthetic. It’s like going from analogue to digital back to analogue. It’s a process that confuses the moment in technology that created it, fusing both new and old techniques.

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In the opening frames of Nigel Dick’s video for Guns N’ Roses Welcome to the Jungle (1987) singer Axl Rose adopts the guise of a fresh-faced hayseed disembarking a Greyhound in Los Angeles. So beautiful, so androgynous is Rose, it’s tempting to imagine what might follow had the film been made 30 years later by a band of less testicular focus. This being a Guns N’ Roses video, we instead watch L.A. turn this child into a MAN: native of an urban jungle that will, he tells us, ‘bring you to your shannananananananan knees’.
 
Rose’s screeched, stuttering ‘shannananananananan’ appears scrawled like a prayer onto the surface of a pool float cast in resin in Andra Ursuţa’s Vanilla Isis. Like many works in the show, the float has received a doomy makeover in the style of the Black Standard of Islamic State, putting a morbid, religious spin on Rose’s prediction that this masculine environment will ‘bring you to your knees’.

Ursuţa has no time for current pieties, for liberal earnestness, for twitchy puritanical policing of the cultural sphere. Vanilla Isis swirls with piss-takes, sexual innuendo, brash references, contradiction and fury. Like its titular pun, the show is an extended exercise in bisociation. Jamming together diverse references—Guns N’ Roses, Kazimir Malevich, health cults, 1980s pop culture memes, Black Flag, body building, Richard Serra, The Sex Pistols, political radicalisation—Ursuţa traces an underlying theme in the tribal entrancement of young men.

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In the memorable opening sequence of Mission Impossible II (2000), Ethan Hunt (aka Tom Cruise), in a tank top exposing his statuesque muscles, free-climbs (no ropes) the face of a cliff above a breathtaking canyon scenario without a losing a single drop of sweat. Nothing could be more dramatic and impossible at the same time. In her upcoming show at the New Museum, Andra Ursuţa is approaching climbing from a very different and yet still startling perspective. What if the grips along the climbing surface, instead of representing safe anchors, become something repulsive and attractive at the same time? What if the body that is supposed to traverse that vertical path is actually evoked and provoked by holds that are disconcerting casts of sexual organs and bodily orifices? Instead of the bombastic macho of Cruise’s performance, Ursuţa’s climbing wall is sabotaging our safety and voyeuristic expectations in a deeper way. The title of the show, Alps, refers to the quintessential European landscape, with its iconic sublimity and pureness. It also references a specific approach to mountaineering developed there, called Alpinism. Early traversals of these mountains became parts of history, like the epic crossing of Hannibal and his herd of elephants in an effort to defeat the Romans. More pressing today, the same landscape is now one of the most arduous obstacles along the path of Syrian refugees who are making their way to European safety. Ursuţa’s landscape of climbing walls incorporating body parts developed—or rather devolved—from Whites (2015), a series of white obelisks presented on the occasion of her solo show at Kunsthalle Basel last year.

Their rigorous, geometric shapes and smooth surfaces are interrupted by casts of body parts such as eye sockets, teeth, and nostrils. Instead of imposing, austere, eminent peaks, these obelisks bend over colorful chairs scattered around the space, as if taking a weary, seated rest. Their anthropomorphic features add a presence of life, although fatigued, to monuments generally associated with the task of immortalizing the dead. Ursuţa’s work has dealt in the past with various sports, not just climbing. Rather than the sport in and of itself, however, she focuses on the idea of sport as a stylized and ritualized way to compete, following specific rules and restrictions—which is, in a way, similar to art practice. The title of her show “Solitary Fitness”, at Venus Over Manhattan in 2013, refers to an exercise book written by a British prison inmate about how to stay in shape behind bars. There is an ironic contradiction in the idea of a fit body in solitary confinement, worn by a person who has become unfit for society. Among the works on display at the New Museum will be Stoner (2013), a baseball pitching machine that is throwing imperfect balls against a tiled wall. The reference to a torture device is emphasized by hair tufts protruding from the broken tiles, which are flesh colored, with different shades of bruises. Interpreting this work solely as feminist critique would be restrictive: Ursuţa’s position is inevitably the point of view of a woman artist, but it’s more comprehensive than that. She takes an empathic approach to the specificity of each work, and what she can express and experience through it. The same applies to her origins in Romania: the place where she was born and where she lived until she was eighteen. This is her starting point, but limiting her identity and the interpretation of her work solely to this would of course be confining—and out of time as well, given our globalized age. Approaching English as something other than her mother language allows Ursuţa to maintain a playful approach to words, in particular literalness versus figurative meanings. Puns often appear in her titles, and misunderstandings become the starting points for the development of the works. Crush (2011) is a cast of Ursuţa’s body lying on the floor, literally crushed and covered with semen from all the men she has fallen in love with, as if those emotions were so intense she could not bear the weight. It’s a work about falling and failure, which is a recurring theme in Ursuţa’s oeuvre. We tend to associate failure with weakness and misery, but it might be wiser at times to read it as the possible outcome of a chance taken, a risk faced, a fear overcome. It’s the vision aiming ahead that makes the difference in the effort or attempt—the thrill of the jump, the joy of the ride, the sparkle of the explosion. It’s honest and real, and perhaps braver than an impossible Cruise climb.

Maurizio Cattelan: Your first solo exhibition in New York, at Ramiken Crucible in 2010, was titled The Management of Barbarism. What kind of barbarism were you managing?

Andra Ursuţa: My own. The Management of Barbarism is actually the loose translation of the title of an ‘Al-Qaeda playbook’ that describes tactics of fostering nationalist and religious resentments and violence as primers for Jihad. I wanted to reverse-hijack the concept and use it to funnel my own nationalist and religious resentments I feel towards my own country.

MC: That’s so strange—I’ve only heard good things about Romania.

AU: We take pride in our misery.

MC: Congratulations. Is it so miserable to be an artist?

AU: Not at the moment. But it is a little embarrassing.

MC: You’ve made works that would make most people want to go into hiding. Your self-portraits are so rude that I’ve heard people assuming you are a man, exploiting a model. How do you respond to this?

AU: They would be very offensive if made by a man, but I actually see them as very feminine exercises in extreme passive aggression.

MC: Crush (2011) is a very realistic full body cast of you, nude, as a flattened stone age peat bog mummy, covered in what appears to be an enormous amount of semen. Why put yourself in this position? And how did you make such a thing?

AU: It’s a very uncomfortable and slightly melodramatic description of an emotional state, of feelings of rejection and worthlessness. Like most of my works, it started with a very dumb, literal understanding of the word “crush.” Crush is the sum of all crushes that lead to heartbreak experienced over a lifetime, or over centuries, if you think of the female protagonist as an archetypal used and discarded woman.

MC: That seems like an incredibly negative statement—that women are essentially “cum dumpsters,” defined by their relationships to men, and literally crushed by the disappointment of their expectations.

AU: Yes, I’ve been there. Crush is a self-portrait that fulfills all those requirements. It’s made from a female perspective that tries to mimic macho detachment and fails, implying a violent and degrading self-annihilation. The female subject’s expectations are only part of it, there are also cultural expectations that go against them. I rejected the misogynistic culture I came from and at the same time, although it’s not cool to admit it, I don’t relate to the liberal sexual attitudes of the ultra-civilized society I now live in. They both lead to the sense of being interchangeable and therefore worthless. So Crush is really about a personal and somewhat neurotic failure to optimally function in the contemporary world.

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Arielle Bier: It's been a very productive year with your exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel and your solo at Massimo De Carlo. What are you working on at the moment?

Andra Ursuţa: I can't tell you because it's a big show for an institution and it's not public yet, but I've been looking at a lot of gym equipment and climbing walls.

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Andra Ursuţa 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 Ursuţa, 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 Ursuţa’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 Ursuţa’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 Ursuţa’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. 

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One of the gallery’s rooms was dangerously dark. Only the tapping sound of falling drops of water filled the void, marking time and drawing visitors toward a slightly more illuminated point located just off center in the space: a rectangular hole that looked out onto an abandoned lower floor of the building, which the artist had flooded for this exhibition. The water was so immobile and calm that it mirrored the space, reversing perspectives and drawing the viewer’s eye into a deceptive abyss. Specularity is what connects Giorgio Andreotta Calò’s site-specific environment Untitled (level), 2014, which uncovers a preexisting opening in the floor, to his sculpture Clessidra (Hourglass), 2014, which was made from a cast of a wooden mooring pole that has slowly been eroded by water—a typical element of the Venetian landscape. Both works were, in fact, inspired by the lagoon of Venice, the artist’s birthplace, and both refer to the passage of time, even as their emphasis on time’s fluid and transformative dimensions also conveys a sense of suspension. Reduplicated as a mirror image of itself, Clessidra resembles the device it is named for, one that, more than any other, is a metaphor for the ineluctability of time. The sculpture’s sense of suspended time served as a counterbalance to the thin layer of water in Untitled (level), which, though immobile, could easily have been rippled by undulations, ready to break the perfect abstraction of the image reflected on the surface. The material properties of the sculpture established a dialogue with the immateriality of the environmental intervention, which entrusted perception solely to the sense of sight. The two works created dialogic relationships between suspension and flow, abstraction and figure, tactility and visuality.

While Andreotta Calò’s installation had a distilled and measured compositional orderliness, Andra Ursuţa, exhibiting simultaneously in the gallery, manipulated irony and color to reduce symbols of authority. Soft Power 1 and Soft Power 2, both 2013, are shapeless aggregations of patchwork fabrics that unexpectedly swell up, assuming the iconography of the raised fist typical of Soviet imagery, then return to their original state. Wooden poles punctuate the two structures, bringing to mind the precariousness of monuments that have collapsed along with the ideologies they once promoted. In A Worm’s Dream Home 23, and 4, 2013, three small replicas of the same German bunker, softness is again a metaphor for the deflation of historical prerogatives. The models are made from cement, the same material as the original constructions, but Ursuţa has poured it into a sagging form, with the result that the miniatures seem like buildings without structure, innocuous and soft. The same fate touches Broken Obelisk, 2013, which sits flopped on a chair, transformed into an anthropomorphic suggestion. Ursuţa plays with materials and colors, scale and dimensions, but her parody has the bitter smile of the history it recounts. The title of her exhibition at Peep-Hole, Fartchitectures, is explicit in its reference to architecture that “farts”: symbols emptying themselves of content.

Despite their playful and preposterous tone, Ursuţa’s works have disturbing nuances: The raised fists can be threatening, the micro- bunkers are lairs, and the reclining obelisk has an ambiguous appearance. In the work of both artists, references to their respective places of origin shine through. Ursuţa explicitly extracts the fragmented history of Eastern Europe. Andreotta Calò’s Venetian allusions are more lyrical. But each artist succeeded in establishing a distinctive rhythm for the dialogue between work and viewer.

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The Romanian artist Andra Ursuţa, whose formative experiences included being part of the Gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello, reformulates the identity of the Balkans in a complex manner, mixing folklore and tradition with the conflictual visions of female identity, her own included. In a conversation with Cecilia Alemani, the artist talks about the hostility of her sculptures and how her background has profoundly shaped her approach to art and to the use of materials.

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With its windows shattered, seeming cadavers arranged for examination and a glittering space rover settled atop a collapsed wall, Ramiken Crucible appeared to be the excavation site for some distant disaster. In fact it was the venue for Andra Ursuţa’s third solo show in New York, Magical Terrorism. The Romanian-born, New York-based sculptor succeeded in dislocating the already hard-to-find Lower East Side gallery, laying bare its structure and opening it to its surroundings even as she projected it into another time and place altogether.

Consider the achievement an act of “conversion,” a term Ursuţa taps for its semantic suppleness with her Conversion Tables (all works 2012). The series comprises eight sculptures of female torsos, five of which wear elaborate necklaces crafted from fabrics traditionally used by Gypsies and covered in coins from the U.S., the EU and Romania. (Identical in their distorted shape and pockmarked condition, the torsos vary only in accoutrements, position and sheen.) Adorning figures that look long dead with currency in such small denominations as to be lost in exchange fees and market fluctuations, Ursuţa slyly undercuts precise fiscal conversion while hinting at long-forgotten foundations of finance.

In undermining the logic of financial value, Ursuţa also aimed to dismantle the criteria by which galleries and museums represent worth. The range of positions her torsos took-perched on poles, resting on bags filled with dirt or stretched out as if for an autopsy—situated the otherwise comparable sculptures at varying levels of cultural authority. Low on the scale was the shorn body that lay vulnerable on a stack of concrete panels, as if awaiting appraisal on an examining table; clearly dominant was the pair of torsos affixed to tall rods, effectively converted into totems. The iteration of these fundamentally similar bodies at different levels of recognition and implied worth left the question of how and why certain cultural objects come to be valued and preserved disturbingly open.

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An unusual news story emerged from debt-addled Eastern Europe last January: The Roma (or “Gypsy”) witches of Romania were facing a new, 16 percent income tax. Farewell, black-market magic. Although the new law gave some credibility to the much-maligned profession (the occupation “witch” was officially added to the government’s labor rolls), predictably, not all the enchantresses were pleased. Reports circulated that some covens planned to curse president Traian Ba˘sescu by throwing mandrake into the Danube River. To celebrate these “unknown psychic soldiers,” New York–based, Romanian-born Andra Ursuţa crafted Magical Terrorism, an exhibition that pointed out the ongoing discrimination the Roma population has faced. The show was an acerbic and alarming tribute.

At the heart of the array were three social-realist black-marble statues of women in babushkas. Modeled after a 2011 news image of a Roma woman awaiting her deportation from France, the sculptures are outfitted with colorful nylon jackets decorated with coins in three currencies—those of the US, Romania, and the EU. Part of the series Commerce Exterior, 2012–, these pieces paralleled a group of works from the series Conversion Table, 2012, installed nearby: large headless torsos with long, pointy breasts (a droopy version of the Madonna bullet bra) cast in aluminum, iron, or a concrete-manure blend and adorned, around their necks, with similarly decorative coin necklaces. The multi-currency jewelry points to the Roma’s nomadism, but it reads most forcefully as a comment on the population’s unstable relationship with capitalism. Marxists attribute a kind of “magic” to money and commodities—the mysterious value produced by circulation within systems of exchange. Here, dangling from Ursuţa’s sculptures, the coins are valued differently: for their aesthetic qualities and, perhaps, talismanic powers.

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Andra Ursuţa’s rambunctious, haunted shows sure don’t look like anyone else’s. Her second solo at Ramiken Crucible is partly an all-out assault on the gallery format, of which Ramiken is a small, rough, downscale approximation to begin with. She has opened the gallery’s interior to the outdoors simply by knocking out its immense plate-glass windows, a bit of institutional critique worthy of Michael Asher, if somewhat more violent. (Shards of shattered glass remain.)

Meanwhile, in a dioramalike display, the gallery’s back wall has been rammed and partly collapsed by a vehicle opulently encrusted with silver foam. This gleaming, quasi-comical thing-in-itself evokes both an ancient cart (a pair of boots embedded in it suggest that it once carried a ceremonial figure) and NASA’s moon rover.

In between these two acts of possible terrorism are three life-size Social Realist marble sculptures. The news release provides salient facts and political motivation: the sculptures are based on a news photograph of an unknown Romanian Gypsy woman awaiting deportation from France that Ms. Ursuţa, who is Romanian, contracted to have made in China.

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Andra Ursuţa, who was born in Romania in 1979 and has lived and worked in New York since 2000, operates in several modes, all cheerfully dark. There are the fine little nature studies of decomposing human forms and crawling insects framed in cast dirt that she has exhibited at White Columns, and the cutely sinister dollhouselike rendition of the modest one-room house she grew up in that can be seen, along with more drawings, in Ostalgia, an exhibition of art inspired by life in Eastern Europe at the New Museum. This little chamber is overseen by a white phantom made of the soap that her parents produced for a living.

For her second solo at Ramiken Crucible, Ms. Ursuţa has created a life-size tableau titled Vandal Lust that was partly inspired by The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, Ilya Kabakov’s 1984 installation piece about escape from Soviet Russia. Vandal Lust centers on a crudely made catapult that has apparently been used in an attempt to launch the artist into space from the gallery. That she didn’t get very far is suggested by a large dent in the back wall and a babushka-wearing female mannequin (with a face resembling Ms. Ursuţa’s) that lies, slightly flattened by the impact, crumpled on the floor.

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