BY Tom Morton in Features | 10 OCT 04
Featured in
Issue 86

Roll With It

Urs Fischer’s work is characterized by happy accidents – slips of the hand and mind that can transform even the ugliest of ducklings into a weirdly beautiful swan

BY Tom Morton in Features | 10 OCT 04

Of all the remarks attributed to Michelangelo, perhaps the most beguiling is his comment that ‘a great sculpture can roll down a hill without breaking’. These words might be read, of course, as a straightforward call for careful facture, but they admit other readings, too. A sculpture that rolls down a hill is one that’s willing to let go a little, to get down and dirty with the physical world for the sheer, exhilarating thrill of it. It’s a sculpture that knows that grass stains aren’t enough to ruin its good looks (indeed, it suspects that they may even enhance them). It’s a sculpture that can take its knocks. It’s a sculpture that comes up smiling.

I’m not sure that I agree fully with Michelangelo’s argument, but it articulates robustness, a rough and tumble outlook, that’s an important part of the sculpture même. It’s present, certainly, in the sculptures of Swiss artist Urs Fischer. Consider his Stühle (Chairs, 2002), in which one reproduction polyurethane foam and faux snakeskin chair mounts another, its back leg penetrating its counterpart’s base, as though an attempt at rational, Charles Eames-like stacking had deteriorated into a bout of inelegant and rather regrettable sex. As if to further underline their distance from clean-limbed Modernist design objects, these rutting pieces of furniture are impastoed with cloacal brown paint. The stress, in Stühle, is all on particularity, physicality and failure (failure of universality, functionality, continence, even of ‘chairness’). If Fischer’s chairs are anthropomorphic, this is nothing if not fitting. Humans fail all the time.

The chair is a recurring motif in Fischer’s work, and in wider art history. It takes only a moment to think-up an André Malraux-like ‘imaginary museum’ of chairs in art, from Vincent Van Gogh’s Van Gogh’s Chair of 1888 (the chair as self-portrait), through Marcel Duchamp’s stool-mounted Bicycle Wheel of 1913 (the chair as found object) and Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs of 1965 (the chair as tautology) to Martin Kippenberger’s The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s America of 1994 (the chair as surrogate everyman, attempting to differentiate himself within an indifferent bureaucracy). In each of these works, it’s furniture’s ordinariness, or rather the idea of its ordinariness, that makes things tick, and Fischer follows their lead, at least up to a point. Yet, despite his chairs’ quotidian appearance (all cowboy carpentry and coagulated paint), they keep getting caught up in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Take You Can Not Win (2003), whose base is run through with a gigantic cigarette lighter, or Chair for a Ghost (Thomas) (2003), whose surface seems to have been partially eroded by the ectoplasmic farts of a phantom bottom. What are we to make of this? Perhaps that ordinariness is under constant threat, or (more persuasively) that it is a false philosophical category. What constitutes what’s ordinary, what’s standard, depends upon perspective, a fact exemplified by Fischer’s Chair For a Table That Was Too Tall (1994), a piece of one-size-fits-all office furniture propped up on wooden supports and hastily upholstered with a phone book. While these modifications provide a humourous lesson in relativity, the work’s best joke is in its title’s insistence that the table it tells of is ‘too tall’. Logically, objects are not ‘too tall’ in and of themselves (dimensions are just dimensions), but they might appear to be so if one believes oneself to be the universal yardstick, the entity against which all other entities are measured. It’s a common human fantasy (and human failing), fuelled by misplaced self-confidence. Such moxie, though, is not always a bad thing. Sometimes – and as Fischer’s work shows – self-confidence is enough to transform even the ugliest of ducklings into a weirdly beautiful swan.

Back, for a moment, to the proclamations of Michelangelo, specifically that ‘In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.’ Fischer isn’t this type of sculptor. His shows are commonly produced mere weeks before they open, which is why, I guess, his works so often feel flushed with new-born self-awareness (‘So that’s what I look like’), with the panting, glow-y freshness of a sprinter crossing the finishing line. Working down to the wire like this leads, almost inevitably, to a practice that’s characterized by errors, corrections and happy accidents, slips of the hand and mind that point to new possibilities. Looking at the cast-wax female figure What If The Phone Rings (2003), it’s hard to imagine Fischer saw, Michelangelo-style, her flat, unlovely features in the block of polystyrene from which she was originally carved. Rather, her pan-face is the result of a wobbly, too powerful saw-stroke, a blunder that the artist accepted and then responded to by giving the figure flattened flanks and a planar peach of an arse. The piece, as the inertia of its title ironically suggests, is about losing control and then gaining it again, about being OK with things going wrong because you’re confident that you can fix them, or that they’ll work themselves out over time. Perhaps oddly, the final proof of this is that whenever one of What If The Phone Rings’ several editions is exhibited, Fischer transforms it into a candle by lighting the wicks set into its head, right heel and buttocks, which stay aflame throughout the exhibition’s duration. While in one sense the melting sculpture is a clock, and in another a meditation on the impossibility of ever experiencing a work of art in a meaningfully ‘final’ way (how can we, if its form changes the moment we turn our backs?), it’s also an affirmation that there are other forces at work in the world aside from the artist’s hand, and that these, too, play a part in the art-making process. What If The Phone Rings, then, sees Fischer cede total control, but this is a megalomaniac’s dream, and megalomaniacs know nothing of the buzz of tumbling down a hillside, of the giddy enlightenment it bestows.

Sometimes when we have a problem we find that the solution’s been with us all along, chinking unnoticed in our pockets. So it was with Fischer’s Geldschale (1999), a sculpture of an giant upturned oyster shell that didn’t seem quite ‘right’ to him until he flung a fistful of loose change into it’s craggy depressions. It’s a gesture that implies a comfortable, almost homely attitude to art as something to be lived with as much as it’s lived (heroically) for, an anti-preciousness that produces that most precious of things, a work that really works. We can detect this attitude, too, in Fischer’s Hausgeist (April 20) (2004), a pill transformed into a smiling face with a few quick pen strokes, and Untitled (2002), half a pear screwed to half an apple in what appears to be an experiment in DIY gene splicing. This is art that’s born of thinking about art all the time, of being open to art thoughts when you’re rummaging through the medicine cabinet, or hovering indecisively over the fruit bowl.

To domesticate something is to defuse its wildness, making it safe, livable-with. Walt Disney famously did this with animals (think of the difference between a mouse scurrying across your kitchen floor and the white-gloved, kid-hugging Mickey), and it’s useful to compare the animator’s work with the way Fischer, who often riffs on cartoon aesthetics, un-domesticates that which has been domesticated, whether it be bourgeois implements and the social practices they imply, exhausted images from myth, or icons of modern art. Disney presents us with an essentially Platonic world in which, say, Donald, Huey, Duey and Luey all conform to the ‘form of the duck’, or every tree in a scrolling backdrop has the same perfectly calibrated number of leaves. In contrast, Fischer shows us what this world might look like when the rot sets in. In ‘Kir Royal’, his recent retrospective at Kunsthaus Zürich, the artist presented a group of works that included the purposely cack-handed Tea Set (2002), trimmed hopefully, and a little heartbreakingly, in gold paint; Untitled (2003), a sword set in a fibreglass stone that looked like it’d been plucked from the grounds of a forgotten Arthurian theme park; Horses Dream of Horses (2004), a flurry of sculpted, cartoonish raindrops whose form fluctuated between tears and cum, and a Donald Judd-like mirrored box filled with a stinking mixture of cigarette butts and cold black coffee. Looking at these pieces, each of them, it seemed to me, took a fantasy, a familiar gleaming thought, and made it grimly, specifically physical, and therefore strange again. They are, in a way, the kissing cousins of the stone famously kicked by Samuel Johnson in refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s theory that the corporeal world was nothing but a dream. This, most philosophers agree, was no refutation at all, but I’m not sure that matters. It was an act of gruff self-confidence, and as Fischer’s work shows, self-confidence goes a long way. Self-confidence is sexy. Self-confidence gets things done.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.