Art

The Dicks We Grope to Get Ahead

Andra Ursata, "Alps" (2016) (photo by Maris Hutchinson / EPW, image courtesy of the New Museum)
Andra Ursuta, “Alps” (2016) (all photos by Maris Hutchinson / EPW, all images courtesy the New Museum unless otherwise noted)

A rock-climbing wall is covered with penises at the New Museum. Andra Ursuta’s “Alps” (2016) is a macabre metaphor for the walls we must climb to get ahead, or plainly just survive in a man’s world. If it doesn’t look easy or entirely possible to latch onto all those dicks to reach the top, that’s the point. In today’s rigged game, our chances perch precariously on the whims of a few dicks with power.

Direct, explicit prose does more justice to Ursuta’s “Alps” than the empty euphemisms some critics have offered. Don’t be surprised that Ken Johnson chastised the artist for “over-intellectualizing,” and found the wall lacks “an emotional authenticity.” How can men at the top understand this wall’s meaning? Johnson has written for the New York Times since 1997. Nineteen years on that throne makes him one of the dicks so many people in the art world must please on their way up. He would bristle at that statement, which is why he bristled at Ursuta’s work, and panned the show.

Andra Ursata, "Alps" (2016) (photo by Maris Hutchinson / EPW, image courtesy of the New Museum)
Andra Ursuta, “Alps” (2016)

As a teenager, Ursuta’s first sculpture was of a fat, armless woman sitting on a pile of buildings. The poor town in that sculpture found a big, fat butt in its face. Her oeuvre is a love affair with in-your-face corporeal metaphors, which admittedly aren’t for everyone. But this is New York. This wall of dicks you must grope to climb has a blunt, crass edge reminiscent of when a New Yorker tells it like it is.

Let the prudes condemn Ursuta’s installation as vulgar. Let the ideologues chide her as politically incorrect. Let the powerful bash her as heavy-handed. She is gold to viewers who loathe sugarcoated lies, polite fictions, and the constant stream of aspirational success stories for self-improvement. Her biting, tough-as-nails honesty is for other tried and true New Yorkers. It’s not for shrinking violets.

Andra Ursata, "Alps" (2016) (photo by Maris Hutchinson / EPW, image courtesy of the New Museum)
Andra Ursuta, “Alps” (2016) (click to enlarge)

The Alps is not about sleeping your way to the top. That’s too literal. (Though it would’ve been nice to have actually been able to climb the wall.)

First, you must figure out the dicks in your life. Usually, these are men in power like your landlord, your boss, and your bank, to name a few. Dicks list rules to follow, tell you they are objective, and promise rewards if you play fair and work hard. But, it’s a lie — they give breaks to those they like, to those who stroke their beloved egos, who get them hard metaphorically.

Such ego stroking requires a master’s degrees in “psycho-dick-ology.” Each dick has his own psyche, his own subconscious, which you have to decipher, understand, and then manipulate and grope. It’s an elaborate process like decoding hieroglyphics or solving the riddle of the Sphinx, so how appropriate that the space is filled with some cryptic Egyptian obelisk sculptures.

Also, most dicks are damaged and the victims of their own crumbling imperial ambitions, so the obelisk is a rich symbol of the dicks you have to make hard to support your climb up. (If getting dicks off is what it takes to get on top, maybe that’s why so few people in power seem fulfilled.)

Be honest about what happens when dicks like you. Your landlord never jacks up the rent and let’s you pay late. Your boss gives you a raise or gets you a better job. Your banker shows how to bend the rules. Your connections get you into Europe or the US. Some things are earned but some fortune isn’t about earning it, sometimes it’s about doing the gruesome things it takes to get the dick to like you.

In another component of “Alps,” statues of Roma women near the wall are meant to remind us of the immigrant crisis affecting Europe; the title of “Alps” alludes to the mountain range that divides Europe’s rich west from its poor, war-ravaged east. While this may seem like a stretch at first, the dynamics of the dick wall play out everywhere — who get’s in and who’s left out comes down to when dicks get hard enough to offer some support.

Natalie Bell, who curated the show with Massimiliano Gioni, wrote in the catalogue how Ursuta champions the trickster, who “cleverly subverts her troubled or downtrodden circumstances by harnessing unorthodox tactics to gain an advantage.” All of us can be tricksters. When faced with walls that block us, the trickster figures out which dicks to grope to get what she needs. Understanding other people’s craziness, and mastering how to get them off, counts.

Andra Ursata, "Crush" (2011) (photo by author for Hyperallergic)
Andra Ursuta, “Crush” (2011) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

These supposed winners, however, can end up covered in jizz, as in the statue “Crush” (2011). Ursuta once explained it was the accumulation of the semen of all her romantic crushes. And the figure is physically crushed to literalize the metaphor. But the sculpture takes on new twisted meanings next to “Alps.” It begs sardonic questions. Is success the extent to which you’re willing to be defiled while pleasing all the dicks? Is it an irrational game of hitting walls and then doing what it takes with the dicks to surmount, survive, and thrive? Are these metaphors too jaded?

Lighten up and take on the wall with humor. Laugh at life as a shit show, instead of pretending it’s just about meritocracy and that fastidious protestant work ethic. If it’s all a joke, why get angry or feel inferior if we aren’t on top today? Someone else groped better than us yesterday, we may grope better tomorrow. I left the New Museum giggling with a twisted sense of hope and dark optimism.

Andra Ursuta: Alps continues at the New Museum of Contemporary Art (235 Bowery, Lower Manhattan) through June 19.

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