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Anna Uddenberg

Words by
Anna Gritz
From Issue 32 — SS 2018

In the work of the Berlin-based artist, ergonomic figure/object hybrids oscillate between performative armature and gaudy narco-architecture, questioning function, style, sexuality, and the tropes of female identity as medicated by consumer culture.

The space is demarcated by ropes. The kind used to cattle fans during autograph signings in malls, or to section off the VIP section at exclusive clubs. Here, they separate a portion of the gallery space, equipped with a shiny silver backdrop in front of which a large head hovers up in space, covered in long, lavish Rapunzel-like blonde hair that extends to the ground and softly blows in the whiff of an invisible ventilator. It should be immediately apparent that not everyone is welcome on the other side of the rope—heightened social anxiety and a lifetime of being conditioned by invisible group dynamics has taught you that much—but if there had been any remaining doubts, they would have been diminished by the presence of a group of beautiful young women, gyrating and posing in slow motion beside the shiny poles that hold the ropes. Like a fair and ancient species, sparsely clad and heavily done up, they present themselves in front of the blonde-haired totem, occasionally adulating it by slowing dancing in its long mane, rubbing against the golden streaks and gauchely bobbing along to the rhythmic techno beats that echo in the space. Their existence is both endlessly jaded and instantly dated, their vein and self-absorbed looks a sign of a desperate clinging to the assurance of exclusivity and luxury promised by the ropes. As with most stylistic indicators of exclusivity, you know the promise of being in on something that not everybody is privy to is part and parcel of the attraction—but you also know that the attraction is fleeting, as most things aspirational, once worn in, trickled down, and appropriated by the mainstream, tend to lose their spell.

Entitled It, the blonde-haired sculpture originated as part of the 2011 performance “Truly Yours” by the Swedish-born, Berlin-based artist Anna Uddenberg. The piece set the scene for a body of work that Uddenberg would develop over the next years, questioning the tropes of female identification, belonging and self worth and how they are conditioned and mediated though the feedback loop of consumer culture. “The early performative works where all about looking at how social contracts can act as implied manuscripts with specific roles, depending on context, and interpreting these scriptures, changing the role of characters in relation to each other,” Uddenberg explains. “I was interested in testing where the breakpoints lie between the personal versus the professional, and especially how performed authenticity and genuineness can feel and look.”

“I wanted to use the logic and aesthetics of what one recognizes as functional and bend the meaning of function while suggesting new modes of being.”

Departing from the performances, Uddenberg began working on a series of hand-cast mannequin-cum-commodity-object sculptures. The series found the artist merging aqua resin/fiber glass cast female bodies with objects that had been selected by the industry as the accessories to define them. Jealous Jasmine (2014), for example, takes a decisive plunge into a Graco pram, raising one of her legs to an exaggerated yoga pose in the process. In the full force of the collision, the figure and pram almost appear to merge, leaving it unclear if she’s attempting to destroy the pram (and the associated status of motherhood) or trying to become one with an object that promises the supposed ultimate female fulfillment. Either way, her sexy attire—her tramp stamp, the Ugg boots, the long blonde highlighted hair—leave no doubt that if she were to be a mother she would surely register as what has misogynistically been identified as a MIL*. Other women arch lasciviousness out of wheelie suitcases or ride them like electric bulls, breasts pushed out and half exposed. Dressed in a combination of luxurious work-out clothes and high-end accessories, topped off with a taste for excessively groomed hair extensions, Jasmine and her friends embody the style of the ubiquitous It-Girl, a media sensation that demands reverence merely for its presence and which is often associated with the nouveau riche—a perfect subject for Uddenberg’s study of misogyny and class divisions. Her figures appear torn by the sheer impossibility of reconciling the trusts of self-improvement, spirituality, sexual attraction and personal and professional fulfillment, leaving them lost in tangled contortions not unlike the grand arc that early-20th-century hysterics would resort to in efforts to escape the limiting and exploitative conditions for women of the time.

In an interview with Radar magazine, Uddenberg once stated: “As soon as you pass that level of effortlessness and drive things to the extreme, people find it tacky. The surface can be there, as long as no one can see it. It needs to be transparent. So if you take that surface and push it forward, making it more visible, people will find it awkward. That’s something I like to work with.” In her latest series of sculptures, recently shown at Berlin’s Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler gallery, the surface of the previous body of works has been pushed to the extreme. Here, the figure/object hybrids have become one, now occupying the terrain of performative armature. Rendered in a palette of beige, grey and mauve pastels, the piece, entitled Cuddle Clamp (2017), finds Uddenberg’s women now amalgamated with the furniture, assembling a curious cast in mesh, quilts and fake leathers and furs that evokes massage chairs in transit spas, SUV limousine interiors, first class lounges and dentistry examination chairs. In creating the series, Uddenberg says, “I wanted the works to have a lot of body/presence, to be buff and femme simultaneously while suggesting/inviting for various ways of imaginary interactions on and with them.” While some vague idea of the former human figure can still be recognized in the object’s curves, its ergonomic shape invites interaction for whatever the cryptic usage may be that the object promotes. There is something machine-like about them, something functional but also quite sexual; one would not be surprised to see them strap in users for a variety of horny exercising games. “I wanted to use the logic and aesthetics of what one recognizes as functional and bend the meaning of function while suggesting new modes of being,” says Uddenberg. The works adopt a futuristic appearance, reminiscent of 1970s sci-fi films like Barbarella and Outland, or the pods in which James Bond would inevitably end up to get of with his Bond Girl du jour. Yet the machine logic of her creations also recalls Tomi Ungerer’s drawings for “Fornicon,” a series of titillating illustrations displaying people in various forms of interactions with masturbatory machines. While Uddenberg’s pieces are not interactive (yet), they provoke a plethora of possible imaginative interactions under the pretense of functionality.

The pod is an interesting intermediate here: somewhere between temporary dwelling and medical armature, at a scale of being almost architectural, as explored in the modular abodes of the American artist Andrea Zittel. Uddenberg’s new series, meanwhile, is more akin to what has been coined “narco-architecture,” describing the gaudy, extravagant McMansions of drug lords whose designs bastardize the Taj Mahal, medieval fortresses, classical Roman architecture, and the US Capitol Building, at no expense spared and with little regard for function, tradition or the architectural style guide. Just like our cherished It-Girls, the pleasure of excessive comfort, coziness and luxury these spaces exude is at  once mesmerizing and repelling, looked down upon as tacky and vulgar—leaving you once more with the question of how one can be both at once.

You think back to the blonde-maned and faceless It and its otherworldly resemblance to the evanescent figure of the Guide in Jen George’s 2017 short story “Guidance / The Party.” An ethereal being with illuminated skin and long, flowing hair down to their ankles, a cross-breed between the angel out of Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future and Oprah. In George’s story, the Guide is assigned to the case of the female protagonist, who at 33 years old had failed to transition properly, with the objective of changing her trajectory and helping her host the mandatory celebration of her long-overdue onset of adulthood. The Guide reprimands her: “We find you at the point of early decay. Decay sets in with the loss of possibility, not having children, having children, a string of failures over the years, memories, jobs, aging, falling out of shape, losing your looks, realizing you’re a one-trick pony or a fraud or nothing special, and understanding things too late.” Equipped with a never-ending list of advice for self-improvement, from beauty and fashion tips to manuals for conversation practice, the Guide matches the level of spiritual guidance of women’s magazines and self-help books. All the while, they make themselves at home, taking long baths, naps and getting drunk whilst postulating her on her life choices. What had she been doing all this time, the Guide inquires? “Looking around. Watching stuff on TV. Having weird dreams. Eating sandwiches.” They advocate: “Take up yoga, Pilates, or Zumba. Wear a sauna suit at all times when not in public. Make a lot of money to buy expensive beauty treatments and more sauna suits, preferably in a creative career that is high-paying, smart-dressing, and jet-setting. Once you’re wealthy enough, a sparse diet will become second nature.” Unsurprisingly, she falls in love with the Guide. You know you would have too. “The thing to worry about now is not being broke and toothless at 70.”

Anna Uddenberg (Swedish, b. 1982) lives and works in Berlin. Recent exhibitions include solo shows at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin, and House of Gaga, Mexico City.
Anna Gritz is Curator at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin.
All images courtesy of the artist and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin.
Photography by Lukas Wassmann

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