in conversation with David Lê
DAVID LÊ: You know there was that one review of the Berlin Biennial that someone made a meme of…
ANNA UDDENBERG: Yeah, that had a picture of the Pergamon and then a picture of Journey of Self-Discovery.
DL: And it said, “When did this [the Pergamon]… become hotter than this… [Journey of Self-Discovery].” And that review was, I thought, facile in exactly the way that meme recognized. But the generous version of the criticism would be that there’s an ambiguity that people don’t always know how to make sense of between the matter that you’re drawing on, and the work you’re producing. So sometimes it seems like the criticisms leveled at your work are properly addressed to what the work is about. What did you think about that criticism?
AU: So I took the critique of the Biennial to be that art that has a certain visual vocabulary is viewed as superficial or less political just because it operates within the framework of visual codes that are associated with consumer culture and capitalism. My response is that it’s exactly that the notion of “surface” operating there that’s interesting. It’s exactly that field that’s politically charged, in the perception of that visual language. That’s how you perceive a kind of reality, and that’s where I want to stay. That’s where I think you can articulate problems that you would be otherwise unable to express. So I found that critique itself very superficial. I don’t see anything wrong in taking these aesthetic strategies seriously. And really looking at what is happening, seeing what is at stake, what we are dealing with right now, how that can potentially be reformulated, and how we can elaborate with those visual codes instead of just calling it “tacky” or “vulgar” or “tasteless,” or not being grounded in any “urgent political matter.”
DL: Yeah, there was a kind of knee-jerk hostility that I found kind of interesting. Not in the sense that you were trying to antagonize viewers and succeeded – I don’t mean that at all. I mean that there was exactly that kind of superficial engagement.
AU: I mean let’s come clean, engaging with the surfaces of things is not to be mistaken with being superficial. There is a great essay written on this by Ulrika Dalh called Surface Tensions: Femininities, Feminisms, Femme Figurations. She uses the idea of a surface tension to describe the constitutive tension between an “inside” that’s supposed to be authentic and an outside that’s read as superficial. She uses that to talk about femininity. Accusing something of being superficial, reveals some sort of disappointment or need for the “authentic” or “the genuine” (the performative genuine) or the “real deal.” There is something very disturbing and idealistic about that, which reminds me of when people talk about women wearing “too much” make up, that they prefer the “natural look.” And just as the “natural woman” is a construction, there are certain aesthetics for coming across as “socially and politically engaged.” It’s a bit sad and potentially also conformist, when one asks art to fulfill one’s own ideas about one’s self as somebody who cares about politically urgent matters.
DL: I actually really like this idea that implicitly what these critics want is for the work to facilitate a self-serving delusion of themselves as connected to urgent political matters. And I think you do play with viewers’ expectations, but the mistake is to think that you’re a cynic just because you want to upend some of those expectations. I see that a lot in how your works address the social spaces in which viewing is, in a sense, performed. Can you talk about how this relates to your work for Kiasma, Swirl Lounge [a space with figurative works arranged in a lounge-like setting]?
AU: I see Swirl Lounge as this kind of apparently neutral, but in fact socially-programmed space. What I’m trying to do is to develop a vocabulary of those spaces by extracting elements and elaborating them. I used to be somewhat of a mall rat in my early twenties, spending a lot of time in malls, breathing the air-conditioned oxygen. I still find it fascinating how outdated architectural ideas about what the future looks like – spaces like duty-free zones, with reflective surfaces, glass and chrome – as exhausted as they might be, still have such a strong impact. These environments functions as triggers, almost like a physical reaction. I guess in my work I am trying to pin down and frame these triggers.
DL: And it seems like rather than concepts or themes, it’s the materiality of those vocabularies that’s primary.
AU: Right, or maybe the textures. The thematic content is more or less embedded in these textures, somehow, so you get those connotations through the materials. The figures that I am making want to kind of embody these stories. Very often my sculptures are referred to as mannequins, but in fact they aren’t. They come out of a very classical sculpting process where I sculpt in clay and then cast the works as hollow aqua resin/fiber glass sculptures. I am very much concerned with their bodily expressions, the tensions and so on, which is very different from a mannequin. The latest series of works that I am working on at the moment are entitled Savage. They’re nine figures in nude, slippery clay/mud colors, with their thighs locked on to suitcases as if they’re riding on a mechanical bull, very wild and sexy. On their bodies there are a lot of padded surfaces; it speaks about functionality and safety, high tech materials, wildlife.
DL: I see these [Savage] as having a “high street aesthetic,” with those weird Kylie Jenner lip kit colors. They’re meant to be slightly off, because that off-ness conveys a sense of exclusivity. With the lip kits, there’s definitely a fantasy of high-class life that organizes it, but I question whether anyone cares that it’s a purely fantasy space. So it makes you wonder how class is being mediated as these imperfectly overlapping, recursive fantasies – fantasies of exclusion.
AU: I find it interesting, how that works. How the original and the copy, the hierarchies, and the authorities who are meant to deliver “the originals” are dependent upon the people they aim to exclude. And maybe that process has been sped up through social media and these feedback loops of exclusivity. Those feedback loops are as valid as the “real deal.” It’s also the real deal. If it exists on its own it’s no longer a copy.
DL: It’s not anchored. You no longer arrive at “it.”
AU: It’s more about the fantasy than it is about “it.” Yeah, in the past I’ve thought of femininity or femininities in terms of their “it.” I saw that in terms of expected flexibility – wanting to be filled with meaning. Back in 2009, when I did the Girlfriend Experience piece where I copied and pasted part of ads from these escort sites about the “perfect girlfriend experience,” I started to think of femininity as a kind of software or an app because of how it can serve any purpose. Through the figure of this manipulative service character.
DL: So it sounds like you’re thinking of how femininity functions as a kind of form as opposed to a kind of content, so it primarily gives structure to a certain kind of desire. But it can also be a kind of coercive form to structure desire in a certain way. Which has a resonance with what you said earlier about socially programmed space that implicitly structures activity and self-understanding. And it’s implicit, so you just encounter, phenomenally “open space,” in the same way that you encounter “woman” – as a kind of cipher, or better, a schema. And what I like is it’s not neutral.
AU: Exactly, it’s not neutral. It’s a performed neutrality. I also find it interesting how it’s some kind of self-control involved, but in the same way, a lack of self-control that’s involved.
DL: Yeah, I do think there’s a constant imperative, “Be wild!” As in, “Be wild, be sexy, be wild!” But there’s a way that because the faces of the figures are inert in this way, they thematically speaks to that. The figures are in the grips of the norms of the performance, but they’re not in this ecstatic moment.
AU: And if you want to talk about whether they’re really ecstatic or performing being ecstatic – the performed-ecstatic is the only one we know, given that we have this way of knowing what ecstasy looks like, that we have some reference point to grab on to. So maybe that just is what it’s like. Or being wild, might actually just be that. Like what is being really wild. Do we want that? Maybe we would see that and say, “No, thank you.” Maybe that is wild. We just have to agree then that that’s what it’s like. We have to find a way we can all agree. Especially in this lounge situation, there has to be a framework for how to relax.
DL: Right, if people actually relaxed in the lounge it would be obscene.
AU: Exactly. The way I’ve been working with these figures now for a while, they’re becoming more and more… wild. In this head-banging way. I want to speed them up, the way they’re overly flexible, riding in this way. Hopefully when they’re all together it’ll look like one sequence of movements, just wrestling these mechanical bulls/suitcases. It’s a late hour and they’re going for it.
All Images Courtesy: the artist and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler