In the opening frames of Nigel Dick’s video for Guns N’ Roses ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ (1987) singer Axl Rose adopts the guise of a fresh-faced hayseed disembarking a Greyhound in Los Angeles. So beautiful, so androgynous is Rose, it’s tempting to imagine what might follow had the film been made 30 years later by a band of less testicular focus. This being a Guns N’ Roses video, we instead watch L.A. turn this child into a MAN: native of an urban jungle that will, he tells us, ‘bring you to your shannananananananan knees’.
Rose’s screeched, stuttering ‘shannananananananan’ appears scrawled like a prayer onto the surface of a pool float cast in resin in Andra Ursuta’s ‘Vanilla Isis’. Like many works in the show, the float has received a doomy makeover in the style of the Black Standard of Islamic State, putting a morbid, religious spin on Rose’s prediction that this masculine environment will ‘bring you to your knees’.
Ursuta has no time for current pieties, for liberal earnestness, for twitchy puritanical policing of the cultural sphere. ‘Vanilla Isis’ swirls with piss-takes, sexual innuendo, brash references, contradiction and fury. Like its titular pun, the show is an extended exercise in bisociation. Jamming together diverse references – Guns N’ Roses, Kazimir Malevich, health cults, 1980s pop culture memes, Black Flag, body building, Richard Serra, The Sex Pistols, political radicalisation – Ursuta traces an underlying theme in the tribal entrancement of young men.
The gallery is dominated by Stoner (2013), a fenced-off pitching machine that occasionally lobs a rock – hard – at a tiled wall from which protrudes strands of long black hair, as if women (including, perhaps the artist herself) were walled up inside.
Stoner’s overtones of organised misogyny, jock culture and competitive aggression (as well as the laddishness of the title) is grimly reminiscent of the tribal cruelty of online discussion. There’s nothing subtle about throwing stones, but then there’s not much space for nuance in the current atmosphere of permanent, hair-trigger outrage.
Alongside the occasional thwack of a launched projectile, the show is sound-tracked by a floaty, generic piece of Middle Eastern-sounding electronic music that turns out to be a cover of the Sex Pistols song Anarchy in the UK (1976) recorded in the audio style of an ISIS recruitment video. This is nominally the work of Vanilla Isis, a trio of teenage jihadis who appear on the cover of a mocked-up LP sleeve seated on a sofa holding rifle barrels.
In one corner of the gallery, the black flag of ISIS appears sliced up and re-hung like Raymond Pettibon’s logo for the hardcore band Black Flag. (A nod to the original positioning of Malevich’s 1915 Black Square: in turn a reference to the ‘icon corner’ of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.) On the floor, two aluminium seats Zombie Flying Carpet Chair 1 and 2 (2018) have a splatty shape that recalls molten-lead-throwing-era Richard Serra, should the muscular American artist have decided to diversify into home furnishing.
This is not the first time Ursuta has addressed aggressive masculinity and radical politics. ‘Ο Νότος θα εγερθεί ξανα’ (The South Will Rise Again), her 2015 show at Ramiken Crucible in New York, took on the cocktail of flexing and nationalism that occurs under the banner of the Olympic Games. Born in Romania in 1979, the artist grew up under the brutal regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu. It would be a mistake to read her pop cultural references as flippancy: instead they reflect a video-sharing culture in which sport, entertainment and wellness have become enmeshed with both political populism and religious radicalism.
The mixed bag of masculine heroics – from right and left, music, sports and art – drawn into ‘Vanilla Isis’, suggests how radicalisation (political as well as religious) has emerged as the teenage rebellion of choice in the meme era. Like both music and art, it invites endless participatory commentary. Obsession with personal purity edges into the territory of sports culture as the route to physical ‘manliness’. And like the hard music of earlier generations, it’s guaranteed to horrify the older generation.
Andra Ursuta, ‘Vanilla Isis‘ runs at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, until 30 March 2018.
Main image: Andra Ursuta, Vanilla Isis (Dog Days), 2018. Courtesy: Fondazione Sandrettto Re Rebaudengo, Turin; photograph: Giorgio Perottino