There’s a bit in one of Deborah Eisenberg’s recent stories, Your Duck Is My Duck (2018), where an artist goes to the doctor for help with her insomnia. After she rejects the doctor’s suggestion to take sleeping pills, he tells her she just needs to figure out what is bothering her. “What’s to figure out?” says the artist, “I’m hurtling through time, strapped to an explosive device, my life. Plus, it’s beginning to look like a photo finish—me first, or the world. It’s not so hard to figure out why I’m not sleeping. What I can’t figure out is why everybody else is sleeping.” The doctor flippantly replies: “Everybody else is sleeping, because everybody else is taking pills.”
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Clearly we are caught in a trap: our brains are locked in the prisons of our dying bodies; we watch the fires on the TV rage, cartoonish hells coughed up by a dying planet; Tweet by tweet the bulwark of democracy crumbles, and the demons worm their lithe fingers through the cracks. Andra Ursuta told me her new works are about containment—either being penned in, or trying to hold it together. Or both.
The sculptures, which are produced using an elaborate, five-step process that includes both cutting edge 3-D printing and ancient lost wax casting, resemble menacing idols destined for worship in our fast-approaching Mad Max future. They start out mostly as cobbled-together trash, swept out of the corners of her studio and salvaged from the production scraps of previous shows, but end up as monumental glass vessels, some of which hold shallow pools of alcohol at the bottom. It seems we have come late to the party.
Like a scavenger picking over the terminal moraine of history, Ursuta appears to have yanked these works out of the timeline haphazardly, encrusting them with references both old and new, high and low.
An elegant green bust, Impersonal Growth (all works 2019), recalls Queen Nefertiti, but is in fact a ham-fisted construction of soda bottles topped with a scan of Ursuta’s head, which sports a crown made of the back half of a rubber mask of the creature from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Similarly, the lounging figure in Predators ‘R Us is redolent of the Roman marble known as The Dying Gaul, though its upper torso is mangled, and its feet entombed in chunky slippers that resemble the head of the titular extraterrestrial trophy hunter from the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Predator (1987). True to Ursuta’s stated intent, many of the pieces contain nods to constricting fetish gear: a corset, a gimp mask, a suffocation suit.
These implements of exquisite torture imply the possibility of a pleasurable relationship to the pain of our fate. When Ursuta told me that her conflicted feelings about her own studio practice were lurking somewhere in the background of this new work, it made sense. We can all be slaves to our own grind.
Self-expression isn’t cheap, after all, and the international art Moloch demands to be fed. And yet: here are these gorgeously hideous creatures, which have been birthed with such tender care.
Of course, most of the feeling behind the work is unambiguous. Fear of death and disease, of the unruliness of the body, is pervasive, whether through the nod to cinematic body-horror classics like Alien or in the stomach-turning swamps of flesh that seem to bubble and squirm in works like Yoga Don’t Help. Here, the title says it all. Though we strive and stretch and sweat our way towards a more perfect body, and a calmer, clearer mind, the undertow of decay will always be too strong for us to fight. Our bodies and our histories will vanish, like raindrops in an ocean squall. All of this might be for nothing, all of us might be nobodies. No wonder everybody is taking pills.
Courtesy of Ramiken, New York
Photos by Dario Lasagni