On ViewMeredith Rosen Gallery
March 18–April 29, 2023
Descending the stairs and dirty brown hallway to the two-room Upper East Side basement dwelling that is Meredith Rosen Gallery engenders an air of willing abjection before even entering Anna Uddenberg’s solo exhibition, Continental Breakfast, that features three pseudo-functional contraptions in a white-walled, blue-carpeted, drop ceiling-adorned space with florescent lights that feels like the prelude to a high-class murder.
During the exhibition opening, performers Sally von Rosen and Mădălina Stănescu, dressed in pencil-skirt suits with slicked-back hair, corralled the crowd and took turns mounting and dismounting Uddenberg’s sculptures. Despite their indiscernible use, these objects look like they would be at home in airplanes, hotels, or hospitals, as they possess a certain anesthetic and thus foreboding quality that suggests contractual consent and the abdication of liability. I was not present for this event, but Uddenberg told Cultured that “it was dead silent. I was kind of shocked at how obedient everybody was.” The crowd consequently submitted to the performers, and the performers to the sculptures, much like a stewardess demonstrating the use of an airplane seatbelt and oxygen mask. She may tell us what to do, and we may cower under her gaze, but she’s ultimately beholden to the same strictures of our shared environment, and there’s something perversely arousing about watching her—our symbol of authority—also submit to the inanimate objects that, however briefly, structure our existence.
Perhaps this reflects a certain ingrained patriarchal thinking, but while I bristle at the idea that propriety should dictate the appropriateness of our fantasies, I also can’t help but think that there’s something deeply perverse (and less fun) about, for example, a work like Jordan Wolfson’s animatronic (Female figure) (2014). Who am I, though, to make such a judgment, between normal and abnormal fetishization? Colin Wilson writes in The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders that “in human beings sexuality has evolved to a higher level, a ‘symbolic’ level”1 beyond such binaries, whereby it is rather an idea or a product of the imagination that truly stimulates desire. Somehow the crude physicality of Wolfson’s robotic woman betrays the less-than-sexy mechanics of copulation in a degradation of fantasy—do you not also feel a sort of shame watching this poor blighted figure, or perhaps guilt in your enjoyment of it?
Much of Uddenberg’s past work is, indeed, far more overt in its hyper-sexualization of the female body, arranging it in contorted positions on, or perhaps even as, furniture. But by replacing the mannequins of earlier projects with either a live performer or an absence, the three sculptures on view at Meredith Rosen incite a far more visceral excitement and fear. Uddenberg has thus evaded such obvious pitfalls into which Wolfson falls, leaving viewers not guilt-ridden but instead caught between the conflicting feelings of empowerment and an unabashed desire to be dominated by these devices and the people that operate them.
Titled T-Top Tummy Tuck, Premium Economy I, and Premium Economy II (all 2023), Uddenberg’s three sculptures possess an aspirational aesthetic of the nineties, wherein the technological abilities of the present hadn’t caught up with the hyper-mechanized futurity that airplanes and medical facilities wished to convey. So in essence they pretend: a veritable Easy-Bake Oven for consumers of a maligned industry—was I the only child eternally frustrated by the performance of functionality, who despised toys that mimicked adulthood while withholding it, and who simultaneously believed that if I imagined hard enough such mute objects might come to life in a real way? They could not, and I quickly abandoned the attempt.
If I wasn’t to be fooled then, why should Uddenberg’s sculptures—which I can neither touch nor “use”—prove so relentlessly captivating?
I’ll never be a supermodel with a metal exoskeleton, assless chaps, platform Crocs, and a pompom-adorned selfie stick, but I can easily imagine being buckled into Premium Economy I or II. It is thus the very banal nature of these contraptions, the vague plausibility that you could one day encounter them without the distance that art prescribes, that makes them so believable and, let’s say, distracting. Is this a future we’re fated to manifest?
In one sense, Uddenberg’s sculptures may suggest that we’re on a path to enacting a sci-fi dystopia like the lair of Dune's perverse Harkonnen family or a stage for Mortensen and Seydoux’s performances in Cronenberg's Crimes of the Future (2022), with these contraptions serving as the lo-fi prelude to a future-space where pleasure and pain blur in a body-horror spectacle that's impossible to ignore. And yet, their lo-fi, almost analog mechanisms recall the aesthetic simplicity of a far less tortured future, like that found in Star Trek. The medical bay of Star Trek: Voyager—that, for whatever reason, so often served as the stage for my adolescent fantasies featuring Tom Paris and a range of deviant behavior—is tonally perhaps more in line with Uddenberg’s work, a simple mixture of utility and comfort in beige and blue. Even a cursory search proved that “star trek porn” pales in comparison to the daydreams that defined much of my unconscious youth, a fact which would support assertions about sexuality’s “symbolic level”—reality can’t compete with fantasy.
“The basic paradox about sex is that it always seems to be offering more than it can deliver,”2 Wilson also observed, and Uddenberg seems to know this too, providing just enough to keep us coming back for more.
- Colin Wilson, The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders (New York, NY: Carroll & Graff Publishers, 1989), 19.
- Wilson, The Misfits, 16.