Andra Ursuta “Alps” at New Museum, New York
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 Ursuta 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, Ursuta’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.
Ursuta’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.
Ursuta’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: Ursuta’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 Ursuta 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 Ursuta’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 Ursuta’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.
at New Museum, New York
until 19 June 2016
Andra Ursuta “Alps” installation views at New Museum, New York, 2016
Courtesy: New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio