For the student of contemporary art, there is always that moment of pleasure when you go to a gallery and recognize an artist before reading the label on the wall. I imagine this is something that you get over as you become more experienced. Or possibly it just happens more often.
Anyway it happened to me last week at the Saatchi Gallery. I had not gone along to see anything in particular, rather to see what was there and was delighted to find that there was an exhibition entitled Body Language which of course chimes with my current area of interest.
Rather than starting on the ground floor and working my way up, I had started at the top floor and was walking down when, from above, I noticed a kind of siege engine, some fallen plaster on the floor and nearby the lifeless body of a woman. The installation suggested a narrative – the woman had been catapulted through the air, though we did not know who would have used her in this cruel way, or why. She had hit the wall and fallen to the ground. Looking down on this work it reminded me, in the near realism of the body and the supine position of the woman, of a work I had seen back in 2011 at Frieze. Not surprisingly, after such a long time, the name of the work had escaped me as had the name of the artist. Nonetheless, I was sure they were by the same person.
I remembered the work I had seen at Frieze quite clearly; it had involved a different fallen woman. I remembered that it was a cast and portrayed the artist, lying crushed and naked except for her trainers. The blurb explained that she had portrayed herself as iron-age mummy, preserved by being buried in a Northern European peat bog and weighed down by a large quantity of fake semen.
At the time I wasn’t at all sure about the underlying message, presumably something to do with male oppression and self-worth. The fake semen had seemed a bit gratuitous; though at least one could be grateful it wasn’t the real thing. But despite the rather ridiculous description I had really liked the work, though I found it hard to tell why, possibly it was something to do with the youth and vulnerability of the figure, which were particularly emphasised by the shoes.
I went down to the next floor where you can enter the room and there lying in the corner was the very work that I had remembered. It was entitled Crush by the Romanian artist Andra Ursuta, who currently works in New York. I had not noticed it from above. There was no mention of the fake semen, though it was still there; it was made of cast urethane wax, wig, sneakers and silicone. The title Crush is, I now see, a play on words; the crushing effect of the peat bog on her body coupled with the more idiomatic meaning of the word to have a crush on someone, which she clearly felt can have a crushing effect on the psyche. So the semen made a bit more sense.
Seeing it again, I liked the work just as much as I had three years earlier. The reason this piece works so well, is, I think partly because of the distortion of the body as though it had indeed been crushed and was old; the arms are unnaturally naturally thin, the chest is partially caved in. Then the way that the hair and the shoes are the same colour as the body adds to the impression that it has existed perhaps for hundreds of years, rather than has been constructed. The fact that the hair is still clearly hair is reminiscent of real mummified remains, when disturbingly skin or bits of hair can indeed survive, albeit it in rather a less luxuriant fashion.While it is moving to see the woman in such a pitiful state, it is also a humorous piece for the apparent antiquity is belied by the anachronism of the modern sneakers.
While I enjoyed the shape and the textures achieved in the trebuchet, and loved the way that the plaster from the wall had apparently fallen to the floor, I was less intrigued by the other fallen woman, though her face was also modelled on that of the artist. It was possibly because by being dressed in the coloured clothing of a Babushka, she perversely appeared more artificial. Remembering one work after three years from all the hundreds on show at Frieze is of course an exceptionally high hurdle to beat. Vandal Lust was still a remarkable piece but somehow not quite so remarkable, or so I think at the moment. But then last week I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of coming across it again.