Erosion: Works by Leonard Ursachi
On view July 15, 2018–January 6, 2019
Emily O’Leary, Associate Curator
In 2008, the Hebrew Home acquired Leonard Ursachi’s work Hiding Place, an outdoor sculpture created for the New York City Parks in 2007 that was temporarily installed in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The eight-foot-tall sculpture is formed from woven willow branches and contains three windows fitted with mirrors. Its meaning is a constant source of curiosity for visitors, as is What a Wonderful World (2018), the large-scale outdoor sculpture carved in the form of an egg-shaped globe that was created for this exhibition. When offered an explanation about the sculptures, visitors often walk away with more questions than they first had. Posing questions, rather than offering answers, is central to Ursachi’s oeuvre.
Form and its function—both literal and reimagined—is essential to Ursachi’s work. Hiding Place is part of the Bunkers series. In Ursachi’s native Romania, bunkers were so common in the Communist period that they were nearly innocuous. These bunkers functioned as beacons of the militancy and fear that permeated life under the brutal dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Since 1998, Ursachi has been creating his own bunkers in various materials and sizes, often with recessed windows that echo the bunker embrasures from which soldiers would shoot. His bunkers are psychologically ambivalent, evoking feelings of fear and refuge simultaneously. Ursachi explores what he terms the “bunker ideology” by re-inventing the form according to his own artistic vision, yet the result is never didactic. He has done the same with egg-shaped globes in the What a Wonderful World series, utilizing the egg form to delve into the complexity of a severely damaged, but possibly reparable, world.
Both the egg and bunker forms contain the tension of contradictory ideas. Ursachi investigates these ideas by creating many iterations of the same object and by using diverse materials. The What a Wonderful World maquettes included in this exhibition, for example, are rendered in aluminum, concrete, acrylic resin, marble, Hydrostone, and Styrofoam, with Ursachi using such techniques as casting, carving, and incising to achieve different surface effects. The egg and bunker forms are also sometimes combined, as in the case of two maquettes that contain windows, and another that references a window shape with a rectangular recess. The repetition involved in making these objects isn’t an attempt to reach a final truth, but to ceaselessly ponder questions that have no definitive answers. The outdoor sculpture is also rendered in varied materials. After carving the egg-shaped globe from Styrofoam and covering it in pigmented Styrocrete, Ursachi applied layers of non-toxic tar paint and 23-karat gold leaf to the oceans and created an incised relief of a world map. The “wonderful world,” with its oceans of oil and gold, and its bruised continents, is a reference to wealth-driven disregard for the environment and destruction of culture.
Although Ursachi’s work addresses major socio-political issues, by using these forms—whether an egg or a bunker—the personal is placed at the core of their meaning. What a Wonderful World isn’t an outright protest piece, but an interpretation of the world and its critical issues as Ursachi sees them. The way in which the individual viewer engages with this damaged world is at the heart of the What a Wonderful World series, addressing questions which are ever-present in Ursachi’s work: the meaning of home, shifting definitions and impact of borders, personal and cultural history, and identity.
Also included in the exhibition is the installation Rise and Shine (2010), a multi-media piece that documents the disappearance of the Romanian island of Ada Kaleh, a popular vacation destination in Communist Romania before it was submerged in the Danube River in 1970 for a hydroelectric dam. A seven-foot-long aquarium-like tank sits on a rusted oval base and contains a resin relief of the island’s topography inside. Water is pumped into the tank periodically until the island is submerged, and then it slowly drains. This process is repeated over and over on a timed cycle, an event that continues indefinitely whether anyone is present to bear witness or not.
Ursachi’s work raises some bleak though necessary questions, but there is also room for hope: the potential of finding a nest-home in Hiding Place; an opportunity to literally Rise and Shine and realize that intervention is needed to combat unchecked power and prevent endless cycles of destruction; and an egg-shaped Wonderful World that could hatch with new life instead of breaking.
Land of the Lost
Throughout history, there have been any number and variety of disasters that have lodged themselves in the collective consciousness. But few have had as mythic a hold on the imagination as the fate of those cities and settlements that have slipped under the waves in their entirety. Atlantis is the most obvious, if fictional, example.
For such calamities, there’s no recession of the waters or chance for rebuilding, only consignment to an abyssal grave. They represent not only destroyed lives and property, but also an abrupt break with time and place, a catastrophe so immense that it can only be comprehended as legend. And yet, in the short term, there are people who can attest to the reality of these drowned cities. One such witness is Leonard Ursachi, who has made his brush with an Atlantean cataclysm the focal point of his installation Rise and Shine.
In his native Romania, Ursachi, whose sculptures often dwell upon themes of trauma and loss, visited Ada Kaleh, a small island in the Danube between Romania and Yugoslavia. In the 1970s, Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, submerged Ada Kaleh to build a hydroelectric dam; its inhabitants were displaced.
Ada Kaleh’s community comprised mostly Muslims whose ancestors had settled there during the Ottoman Empire. To Ursachi, everything on Ada-Kaleh—streets, homes, markets—seemed slightly miniaturized, to suit the island’s scale. The island’s submersion coincided with Ceausescu’s “centralization” program, when family homes were razed and replaced with monolithic apartment blocks, and vast swaths of the population were relocated from the countryside into cities, where they could be more easily controlled. Ursachi’s own home, built by his father and grandfather, was bulldozed with two weeks’ notice.
In his first attempt to escape Romania, Ursachi boarded a boat to the narrow point in the Danube where Ada Kaleh had stood, intending to swim to Yugoslavia, through which he would run to Italy. Instead, he landed in a Romanian jail. He eventually escaped and received political asylum in France.
In 2010, Ursachi re-envisioned Ada Kaleh as Rise and Shine. Inside a long, aquarium-like container set on a rusted steel base, he lay a translucent, aqua resin model of the island, lit from below. Ada Kaleh alternately drowns and surfaces, as water rises and falls in fifteen-minute cycles. When it is emergent, water gurgles from under it, rising until it is submerged. Then the water recedes, until the final drops disappear. In seconds, the cycle restarts. Crystalline and ghostly, Ada Kaleh appears both present and not, much as its remains under the Danube are, in fact. But Ursachi hasn’t fashioned an exacting replica here, as many of its features are indistinct—more like topographical elements than buildings. Are we looking at Ada Kaleh as it exists today, eroded and buried underneath the river? Or are we seeing it through the mind’s eye, a recollection of the site as opposed to an image of it? The dreamlike quality of the accompanying drawings, with their fragmentary snatches of village life, re-enforces the ambiguity of the sculpture’s mise en scène, though both the renderings and the sculpture display the distinctive shape of a minaret that once rose from the town’s mosque, a structure that speaks to Ada Kaleh’s patrimony, and, perhaps, to the seeds of its destruction.
Among the issues it evokes, Rise and Shine suggests that the island suffered a kind of de facto ethnic cleansing. More pertinently, the episode illustrates the capricious nature of dictatorial power. (A point that seems acutely relevant now.)
Rise and Shine is a strangely upbeat title, which seems to be at odds with the story it tells. It isn’t unusual for Ursachi to confer buoyant names on works that are dark in tone and appearance, so it’s easy to assume that he is trafficking in irony. But in fact, the sentiment behind Rise and Shine reflects a genuine, if cockeyed, optimism that underscores all of the artist’s work: a belief that by mining the tragedies of the past, you restore hope for the future. In that respect, Rise and Shine isn’t a title but a command—a call, as it were, for Ada Kaleh to stir itself from its watery sleep and come back to life, if only for a moment: an impossible feat, of course, except in art or memory.
What a Wonderful World
In addition to examining the impact of borders on individuals and societies, Ursachi’s art has long addressed human impact on nature, as evidenced in his recent What a Wonderful World series.
Central to Erosion is a new outdoor sculpture, Ursachi’s latest iteration of What a Wonderful World, created expressly for the exhibition. This large, ovoid “globe” touches on the inevitable nexus between politics, money, and the environment. The expanses of 23-karat gold leaf that the artist applied to the roughly textured, “tarred” oceans may evoke profit-driven disregard for the impact of environmental choices. The continents, loosely rendered in grey cement, appear vast and devoid of life—signifiers of depleted natural resources. Still, Ursachi’s vision implies hope: the sculpture’s egg shape may portend the enduring, if fragile, potential for life.
Inside the Museum is a complementary display of drawings and small-scale sculptures in a variety of materials, including gold, urethane resin, Styrofoam, concrete, cast aluminum and marble. For Ursachi, each material lends its unique character to contemplation of the theme.
Rise and Shine
Ursachi’s Rise and Shine is an oval “aquarium” that contains a seven-foot-long, translucent acrylic model of an island and rests on a rusted steel base. The island, lit from below, is alternately drowned and resuscitated as water repeatedly rises and falls. Its form is based on the island Ada Kaleh, submerged by Romania’s dictator, Ceausescu, decades ago for a hydro-electric project. Says Ursachi, “In contrast to the Communist grayness that muffled the rest of Romania, Ada Kaleh was an explosion of color and noise, and home to a Muslim community that had settled there during the Ottoman Empire. I visited Ada Kaleh as a child and, after it had disappeared, I returned to that area of the Danube River to attempt—unsuccessfully—to escape Romania by swimming to Yugoslavia.”
Rise and Shine addresses myriad issues—loss of home, erasure of culture, the social and environment impact of energy choices—while evoking the mythic deluge from Atlantis to Noah’s Ark and beyond, and channeling international ghosts.
“In contrast to the Communist grayness that muffled the rest of Romania, Ada Kaleh was an explosion of color and noise, and home to an active Muslim community that had settled there during the Ottoman Empire.”
About the Artist
Leonard Ursachi is a Romanian-born artist. He grew up under a dictatorship, from which he defected, and spent years border-hopping before settling in New York. Says Ursachi, “My work reflects our contemporary world of porous borders, vulnerable shelters, and mutating identities. I’m interested in the impact of boundaries on societies and individuals, and how those boundaries can be transgressed.”
Bunkers dotted the Romanian landscape of the artist’s youth, many of which were erected under Communism, when it was illegal to leave the country. The true intention of these small, Cold War bunkers squatting just inside Romania’s borders was not combat use, but to promote fear of the Other. Many of Ursachi’s sculptures are in the form of bunkers, or contain recesses that reference the embrasures in bunkers from which soldiers shoot. But Ursachi’s bunkers—human scale, woven of willow or covered in feathers—allude not to war, but to a longing for refuge from a bunker mentality that knows no borders.
A core issue in Ursachi’s art is our relationship with natural and built environments; a recurring leitmotif is human impact on nature. Water is an important element—physical or metaphoric—in much of his work. The oil-slick oceans in What a Wonderful World, the island drowning and resurfacing in Rise and Shine, and the “embrasures” in several of the sculptures in Erosion, are manifestations of the artist’s essential passions and concerns.
About Howard Halle
Howard Halle is an artist and writer who lives in Brooklyn. Since 1995, he has been the chief art critic for Time Out New York magazine, and Editor-at-Large there since 2005.
Checklist of the Exhibition
What a Wonderful World, 2018, carved Styrofoam covered with Styrocrete, pigments, non-toxic tar paint and 23-karat gold leaf, mounted on painted steel base, 108 inches high x 48 inches diameter
What a Wonderful World, 2018, pigmented acrylic resin and 23-karat gold leaf mounted on steel base, 16 1/2 inches high x 8 3/8 inches diameter
What a Wonderful World, 2018, pigmented acrylic resin and 23-karat gold leaf mounted on steel base, 18 inches high x 8 3/8 inches diameter
What a Wonderful World, 2017, aluminum with stainless steel mirrors mounted on marble base, 13 1/2 inches high x 8 1/4 inches diameter
What a Wonderful World, 2015, marble mounted on steel base, 21 inches high x 9 1/2 inches diameter
What a Wonderful World, 2015, Hydrostone and gold paint mounted on steel base, 17 1/4 inches high x 8 5/8 inches diameter
What a Wonderful World, 2015, concrete, Styrofoam and mirrors mounted on steel base, 62 1/2 inches high x 19 3/8 inches diameter
What a Wonderful World, 2018, pigment and charcoal on rice paper, 20 1/2 x 15 1/2 inches
What a Wonderful World, 2018, pigment and charcoal on rice paper, 23 1/2 x 17 1/8 inches
What a Wonderful World, 2015, pastel, pigment and charcoal on rice paper, 23 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches
What a Wonderful World, 2017, pigment, charcoal and gold paint on rice paper, 23 3/4 x 19 3/4 inches
What a Wonderful World, 2018, pigment and charcoal on rice paper, 22 x 15 1/4 inches
What a Wonderful World, 2018, acrylic on mixed natural fiber paper, 30 1/4 x 20 1/4 inches
Rise and Shine, 2010, acrylic container, water, light, pumps, rusted steel base and cast resin, 60 x 72 x 24 inches
Rise and Shine, 2018, pigment and charcoal on rice paper, 27 1/2 x 37 1/2 inches
Rise and Shine, 2018, pigment and charcoal on rice paper, 28 x 36 inches
Rise and Shine, 2010, pigment and charcoal on rice paper, 18 x 22 1/4 inches
Rise and Shine, 2010, cast resin mounted on wood base, 24 1/2 x 8 x 3 1/4 inches
This text originally appeared in the catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition Erosion: Works by Leonard Ursachi on view at the Derfner Judaica Museum from July 15, 2018–January 6, 2019.
Images © 2018 Leonard Ursachi | Ursachi.com
About the Hebrew Home at Riverdale
As a member of the American Alliance of Museums, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale by RiverSpring Health is committed to publicly exhibiting its art collection throughout its 32-acre campus, including the Derfner Judaica Museum and a sculpture garden overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. The Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection provides educational and cultural programming for residents of the Hebrew Home, their families and the general public from throughout New York City, its surrounding suburbs and visitors from elsewhere. RiverSpring Health is a nonprofit, non-sectarian geriatric organization serving more than 18,000 older adults in greater New York through its resources and community service programs. Museum hours: Sunday–Thursday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Art Collection and grounds open daily, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Hebrew Home at Riverdale
5901 Palisade Avenue
Riverdale, New York 10471
This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.