Hammer Projects: Andra Ursuta
Hammer Projects: Andra Ursuta is organized by Hammer curator Ali Subotnick and Emily Gonzalez, curatorial assistant.
By Ali Subotnick
Andra Ursuta likens herself to “a village idiot who gets prescribed behavior wrong and, in perverting it, undermines the authority that commands it.” But in this statement, Ursuta downplays her sharp intuition and intelligence. More idiot savant than naive dolt, she sees through the bullshit and gets straight to the point, tackling real-world issues, imbued with a dash of existentialism and a bitingly dark sense of humor. Memory, death, the human condition, and the absurdity and irony of life are all inspirations for the artist. Her work is ripe with emotion and contradictions—pathos and humor, melancholy and hope, raw and refined, hard and soft, aggressive and tender. It’s at times vulgar and political, poignant and wry, exotic and familiar. Often she makes severe gestures that aggressively confront viewers, placing them in uncomfortable positions so that they must reevaluate their roles in society and acknowledge “the discrepancies between subjectivity and the structures provided by society, culture, and science (especially psychology) for articulating it.”
Ursuta often draws inspiration from the folklore of her homeland, Romania. An early sculpture, the irreverent Ass to Mouth (2010), features a wooden stake soaked in iodine. On the one hand, it refers to Transylvania’s (the region from which she hails) most infamous antihero, the brutal ruler Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula), and on the other, it’s a scaled-down replica of the Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column (1918), which was a tribute to Romanian soldiers who died fighting Germany in World War I. Ursuta twists things even further by covering the stake’s surface with black rubber rhomboid modules, turning it into a sex toy and thereby both eroticizing the act of impalement and defiling Brancusi’s modernist masterpiece. Taking on the absurdity of folklore and historical narratives and “the trauma that lies at the core of the nation-founding myths,” When Father Passed through Town on Business—A Dramatization (2010) features a mass of broken eggshells, brightly painted in a traditional Eastern European folk style. The eggshells are arranged in a wide pile, referencing mass graves and archaeological digs. The painted eggs—representing an established culture with traditions, rituals, and a visual style—have been aggressively pierced by arrows from unknown assailants (the fathers who pass through town on business), the potential life within them destroyed before they could hatch. This work exemplifies Ursuta’s contradictory interests: it’s violent and traumatic yet decorative, theatrical, and exceptionally (and darkly) humorous.
Confronting our (more and more frequent) tendency toward obsession, Stoner (2012), created for an exhibition titled Solitary Fitness (2013), features a baseball-throwing machine, hijacked by the artist and turned into a torture device. Ursuta says the piece is about “imposing one’s mad vision onto the world, in the way Don Quixote mistook the windmill for a giant. It’s not about America, not even so much a comment about stoning, but about psychosis, the real ‘solitary fitness.’” Ursuta’s handcrafted clumsy fake rocks made out of urethane-bonded concrete dust spew violently out of the machine, smacking into two walls with crumbling tiles, causing them to shed more tiles and eventually to resemble a leftover ruin from a war-torn country. The lower portions of the walls feature flesh-colored tiles in a range of bruised hues with pieces of human hair protruding from under some of them. The floor is littered with used “stones,” and one can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a human target missing from this medieval torture exercise. The body-like indentations or impressions in the panels allude to the would-be victims, possibly buried behind the tiles. For Ursuta, the show was “about [the] convulsive pairing of common objects with violent current events, not as a protest but as a symptom of depression.” Her works are often demonstrations of frustration or aggression, an attempt to escape some sort of confinement (perhaps that of depression).
Ursuta says that she has a paralyzing fear of death—a subject she thinks about constantly. Yet however afraid of death one is, when deep in depression, it often presents itself as the ultimate escape. The sculpture Vandal Lust (2011)—its title derived from a mispronunciation or heavily accented version of the word wanderlust—depicts the artist flattened like a pancake, as if, like an animated cartoon character, she had tried to walk through a wall but didn’t succeed. Another work incorporating a self-portrait, this one mummified and covered in semen, Crush (2011) was partly inspired by an absurd news item about a young Romanian man who flew to London hidden in the wheel compartment of a plane. The story appeared just a few years ago, long after the fall of the Iron Curtain and at a time when Romanians are permitted to travel to England without a visa. The man in the story was born after the fall of communism, and Ursuta saw his act as “a reflexive gesture of escape (maybe passed down through cultural memory) that no longer had meaning yet was perpetuated endlessly, long after the interdictions that made escape attempts meaningful had ended.” The title of the work refers to a love crush—the figure of the artist has literally fallen in love so hard that her passion is self-destructive and she is crushed to death. Ursuta says, “The idea is that over a lifetime of ‘crushes,’ and the sex they presumably lead to, the sort of ideal sum of spilled semen flattens the recipient.
Because of her fear of death, Ursuta avoids cemeteries and instead takes imaginary visits to graveyards in her mind. For her commissioned project for the 2013 Frieze New York art fair, she installed a cemetery (titled Would It Were Closing Time, and All Well, 2013) on the lush green lawn outside the fair tent. The marble grave markers feature seemingly abstract, generic shapes, which were actually inspired by the icon that shows up when a digital image file is distorted or broken. Her tombstones (each titled Zombie and numbered 1 to 6; all 2013) memorialize “all of the disappeared images, forgotten art that can no longer be seen and only exists as an absence.”
With her exhibition at the Hammer Museum, Ursuta continues her exploration of death, crafting another cemetery but also attempting to “make something out of nothing.” In the same way that Seinfeld was a show about nothing (i.e., everything, especially neuroses), Ursuta’s cemetery encapsulates her obsession with death (nothingness). Visiting imaginary graveyards in her mind, she built a model of a graveyard with miniature tombstones and grave markers in her studio. She then lit the model so that each marker cast a particular shadow, as if she were visiting in the late afternoon before sunset. She literally cast the shadows of the headstones, turning the gallery into a graveyard of implications and memories. Generating shadows of objects that don’t exist in the real world, Ursuta takes space and light (more nothingness) and transforms them into three-dimensional representations. She refers to the gesture as a “desperate attempt to go to the cemetery and not see a single grave, the visual equivalent of trying to eat only the holes of a pretzel.” A penchant for undertaking impossible feats, like attempting to escape death, is at the crux of Ursuta’s work and its universal appeal.
Ali Subotnick is curator at the Hammer Museum.
1. All quotations from the artist are from an interview with the author on October 9, 2013, and/or from e-mail correspondence with the author on January 8 and 10, 2014.
Hammer Projects is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; Maurice Marciano and Paul Marciano; Susan Bay Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy; and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.
Additional support is provided by Good Works Foundation and Laura Donnelley; the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs; the Decade Fund; and the David Teiger Curatorial Travel Fund.