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 Ursuta’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 Ursuta 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, Ursuta slyly undercuts precise fiscal conversion while hinting at long-forgotten foundations of finance.
In undermining the logic of financial value, Ursuta 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.
Ursuta’s sculptures set up analytic sequences that can veer toward the universal; but her materials and, one ventures, her anarchic sensibility, are rooted in Romanian history. Born in the Transylvanian town of Salonta, by the border of Hungary and Romania, she grew up near a slaughterhouse during the final decade of Nicolae Ceausescu’s repressive regime and the tumultuous inauguration of the country’s market economy. In developing this show, the press release noted, Ursuta was inspired by more recent history. Last year, when self-proclaimed witches living in Romania found their profession legalized, and thus rendered taxable by a cash-strapped government, they fought back, naturally, by casting spells on politicians. “Magical Terrorism” represented Ursuta’s act of solidarity with the witches: a radical challenge to the stability of “positions”—whether economic, cultural or spatial—articulated in an esthetic language unrecognizable to the state.
Paradoxically, then, for three works titled Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental, Ursuta reportedly hired Chinese workers to fabricate life-size marble sculptures of stoic Gypsies in a socialist realist style. Though these finely wrought bodies appeared at odds with the more jagged torsos of the “Conversion Tables,” the artist likewise decorated them with necklaces of coins. Wearing bright nylon emergency vests, two stood by the door on wheels, as if set to be shipped away to another excavation site, nuclear bunker, museum basement or perhaps, with the aforementioned space rover, another planet altogether. Ursuta’s sculptures remained on the verge of a new disruption, ready to enter another liminal space, occupy other positions, and carry on the artist’s nomadic inquiries.
Photo: Andra Ursuta: Conversion Table, 2012, concrete, wire mesh, manure, coins and mixed mediums, 37 by 8 by 8 inches; at Ramiken Crucible.