Installation view of “Urs Fischer” at MOCA LA, with (foreground) Untitled (Soft Bed), 2011. Cast alumi­num, epoxy primer, polyester filler, one-component acrylic putty, urethane primer, polyester paint, and acrylic polyurethane matte clear coat, 64 x 74.75 x 101 in.

Competing Against Reality: A Conversation with Urs Fischer

On a March afternoon, while preparing for a mid-career retrospective, Swiss artist Urs Fischer is modeling a bust at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MOCA) Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles. Assorted clay sculptures—crocodiles, hands, ships—cover the floor. These works are being made over a two-week period by 1,500 volunteers participating in Fischer’s YES, an installation of hundreds of unfired works. By the spring opening of the show, these galleries, as well as MOCA’s Grand Avenue space a mile away, would be filled with new works made for the retrospective and past works dating back to 1995. In the new work, Fischer continues to push forward with great originality, strength, and fearlessness, pursuing themes of scale, instability, and tension with selected and manufactured objects. Two books were created for the retrospective, the Urs Fischer catalogue and The Making of YES, a photo essay by Fischer’s partner Cassandra MacLeod. Fischer also has solo shows this year at the Deste Foundation in Hydra, Greece (through September 30), at the Modern Institute in Glasgow, and at venues in Rome and London.

Sandra Wagner: What do you think about having a mid-career retrospective now?

Urs Fischer: I don’t know if it’s a retrospective, though parts of it are. Grand Avenue yes, but what we are doing here—the clay project—no. There is one older piece, the candles (Untitled, 2011), but everything else is new. At Grand Avenue, it’s all old stuff.

SW: Had you ever thought about what would be the right time for you to have a retrospective?

UF: No, I don’t really think about this too much, it’s really just another exhibition. You open a crate and pull out a piece—it’s not so complicated. I’ve done shows in large institutions before, like the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. But this is a different kind of show, with a different ambition. Why should one think too much about all this? It doesn’t really make a difference. The only thing that could be interesting is that you leave certain things behind you. I don’t have to think about the old work anymore. I just edited a very big book to accompany this show—only sculpture, no painting. You look through the old work again, every image, edit it out, and back again—it’s tiring.

SW: What were you thinking as you looked back at the older work? You were a different person then.

UF: Yeah, but I look at art in different ways, sometimes to learn, then just to look at it.

Urs Fischer and various artists, Untitled, 2011–ongoing. Unfired clay (sculptures modeled on-site by participants following artist’s specifications), view of installation at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia.

SW: You studied photography initially. How does that factor into your sculptures?

UF: There are pieces made with screen printing, and the wallpaper piece (Josh Smith, 2013) is direct photography. We’ve also printed on sheets and made objects out of them, like the mirror boxes. In the wallpapers, we meticulously photograph everything, hundreds of photos. It’s not about individual photographs; it’s about mixing them together. All these photographs are interwoven digitally to make a flat image. We pull it together into a texture of almost a real thing, to life size. The mirror boxes are sometimes hundreds or thousands of photos, because we eradicate all perspective. In order to do that, we have to cheat and take photos from many different points and rebuild one image. We do this still-life photography in the studio. It’s all light and objects—not so far from sculpture or one element of sculpture, because without light, you have nothing. Light makes the object. When you think of an object or a photograph, there’s some understanding there. A sculpture is an image, a photograph is an image. I also think that photography deals with reality in some form—you don’t deal with fiction, and in sculpture you don’t deal with fiction either. You compete against reality, you don’t immerse yourself in an image.

SW: You work with the perception of space, scale, and materials. How did you realize these concepts in Untitled (Giambologna) and Untitled (Big Clay No. 7)?

UF: I enjoy a certain kind of imagery. I’m more interested in imagery as an impact, a punch, but I also like very calm things.

SW: Your work is known for its strength, with unusual combinations and collisions of objects. The mirrored boxes, however, are quiet. What happened?

UF: You’re right, same with the wallpapers, but I don’t know. Age?

SW: Your works often include holes as in Portrait of a Single Raindrop, chairs as in Frozen and Untitled (Giambologna), and tables as in You Can Only Lose and Untitled (Nude on a Table). What do these objects and elements signify for you?

UF: They signify different things. Holes are great, even a hole in the floor as in You. Cast holes, too. I see so many things and nothing. It’s not, “This is this thing, this is that thing.” I don’t care. You know what’s good about a hole? Usually there’s less in the gallery than there was before. It’s true. There’s absence.

SW: Some of the chairs are placed in the distance.

UF: I could tell you many stories about this chair, but it’s just another element. With the Giambologna piece, I looked at so many sculptures that it’s kind of random I ended up with this one. I needed it for a certain scale of the body—I wanted a certain height for the sculpture. It didn’t start with this sculpture; it came from a totally different thought process. At some point, I thought I’d add a classical sculpture. The other things fell away, and the classical sculpture became bigger and bigger. So it’s not, “Oh, I have to do this sculpture next.” It comes from the past. For me, the chair is nice to see. It’s a very different mindset; it comes out of a now, out of ergonomic thinking, and has a different kind of beauty. I like to have it there to counter that big thing, to give a different air to it all. In this exhibition, we are going to take the three elements apart in different rooms. Why not have a different mix?

You Can Only Lose, 2003. Polystyrene, acrylic paint, aqua-resin, screws, and fiberglass, 123 x 44 x 42 in.

SW: You use tables in different ways. In You Can Only Lose, there is a collision of objects, while the table in Untitled (Nude on a Table) supports the figure.

UF: You don’t have to go far to find a table. Tables and chairs are useful, they look good, they have something to do with humans. What else would you use? Cars? They’re complicated. Ultimately, there are not many really basic things. Tables are in every culture, and there’s nothing complicated about them.

SW: Do you still believe that sculpture is ultimately about replacing something that was once alive? How do you see that idea in Untitled (Bread House) and your skeleton series?

UF: A replacement—you could think that. When you say it’s a replacement, you try to recapture. The same goes for music, painting, and writing. You always try to capture a moment that feels very much alive, you want to capture a certain immediacy, however you get to that moment. You want to capture something that has life to it. When you replace something that has actually lived, it’s like a tombstone. With Bread House and the skeletons, that’s too literal; I am speaking abstractly. You can look at it this way: there is a replacement for a tombstone, like a sculpture; you replace an actual living thing with something that resembles or reminds you of this thing, like a monument. You always aim, as a sculptor, to capture something that feels like it is alive, you want it to resemble something that’s living. The skeletons are not actually about death, for me, though I don’t care what people want to make out of it. But they are very much alive, they are characters, they’re funny.

SW: Do you ever walk around a gallery when there are visitors?

UF: No, it makes me feel uncomfortable.

SW: Instability and tension are important themes in your work. Untitled (Soft Bed) caves in, and the wax nudes, which have burning wicks, melt.

UF: These are different things. The wax nudes are handed over from manmade nature to physical nature. They aren’t destroyed, they create new images. You can never make anything as graceful as wax dripping because it’s nature—a drop is beautiful. Anything from nature is always better than what we do.

SW: With the melting figures and sagging objects, are you intentionally creating a transitional state?

UF: I don’t know, there are so many narratives I could give you. I don’t know if any one of them would be true. It usually comes from multiple ends to somewhere, to some point, between thought and doing and looking and feeling and seeing and trying and making. It’s like a sum of things. But you could say that it’s a form to animate something—a life, and it goes from here to there, and maybe that’s it.

YES, 2013. Clay, view of sculptural collaboration with 1500 Southern California residents over 10 days at Geffen Contemporary, MOCA LA.

SW: For YES, you have asked hundreds of people to create sculptures in the gallery over a two-week period. You apply a wide range of control in your work—for instance, you go from painstakingly manipulating images for the mirrored boxes to relinquishing all control over form as fruit decays. Here, you give control to other people. What do you want to see happen, and what actually does happen?

UF: What am I doing? I don’t know yet, we’ll see. I’ve done two other clay projects, one in Paris, one in Venice, each one completed outside in a day. This is a different scenario, because it’s inside and goes over multiple days. So, it accumulates in more layers, and we go more and more into what’s already existing. Everything is made out of the same material by a variety of people. I don’t know what it will become, but everything becomes one thing. It’s an installation.

SW: What are you looking for?

UF: I like all the ideas, all the variety, profane things. I like that people take it very seriously, it’s all parallel, it coexists as it does in the world. I want them to do whatever they want to do. The form is clay and space and time—that comes from me. That will be the image you see, and in this image, there are many other images—from all the different people who participated. They are not my outbursts, they are the sub-layer, and each person is his or her own artist. Each thing is its own thing, with its own life. I enjoy doing that. There is something so different about all these people and the layout and the decisions they make and where it gets. You are in ultimate control in an empty, clean way. Once the people are gone, you look at an extremely disciplined work of art. And that’s what interests me about the project.

SW: What can you tell me about Horse / Bed, another new work in the show?

UF: It started a while ago. There are many different elements and parts hooked together. This is meticulously perfect, it’s all milled out of aluminum. We basically carved the entire piece. It is a calm thing, just one material, one thing.

SW: What were you going for with the combination of the horse and the hospital bed?

UF: It came out of a much more complicated assemblage of things, which came out of another thought process, and so on. It’s an abstraction of some other stuff that I’m working on. These objects coexist simultaneously in the same space. There are many other things to think and say about it, but technically that’s what happens here.

SW: What do you want viewers to see?

UF: Whatever they want—form or content or association. They say an artwork is not there if you are not in the room. It’s true. When people try to control how something is seen, I see them as control freaks. When you look at the art, that’s all you see. So, their control doesn’t do what you think it does, because you read the art emotionally, and you think, “Wow, that’s intense.” Maybe you like it or not, it’s not a judgmental thing. You cannot lie with art. I mean, you can lie in many ways, but you cannot get away with the lie. Ultimately, truth to one’s nature is what works. When you ask what I want from the viewer, I don’t know. It’s hard to say, because whatever you do, you will not be in control of it.

SW: Do you read about art and artists?

UF: Sometimes. I hardly ever read about art, but I like to read about artists. I’m reading a book about Aldo Rossi, the Italian architect. I like architecture. I like pictures and images.

Horse / Bed, 2013. Milled aluminum, galvanized steel, screws, bolts, and two-component resin, 85.875 x 103.625 x 43.75 in.

SW: Other architects, Tadao Ando for instance, employ very different principles than you do in your work.

UF: Yes, his work doesn’t speak to me. He doesn’t really like artists, even though he’s liked by many patrons of the arts. I prefer a bit of vandalism over control. You can control people like this, and you can have cheap jabs—it’s kind of cool and it’s comfortable. You fill it with life rather than form. It’s just a different thing, and it’s enjoyable, too. I like both things.

SW: Though your work nods to several art movements from the past, it is remarkably original and pushes forward aggressively. Where do you see your body of work in the art world?

UF: Thank you, that’s nice to hear. The art will just be whatever it is. You cannot control anything in art. I believe that if an artist creates a really good piece, it will ultimately end up in a really good place. Most of the time, pieces are not so good, and they will end up, if you’re lucky, in a good place or not. Over time, they just go where they go. A lot of art just looks weird after 10 years. People say, “I don’t know what I saw in that,” though they got a kick out of it back then. Things change. I think it doesn’t really matter. There are synergies, so everything you do in some form might leave something. If I were an art student now, and I came to see this work, I would think it the worst, because that’s just how it works. But that’s good, too—I’m happy to be the worst guy. I don’t care what they make of me because it’s the work and not me. What I’m saying with the synergy is that any positive or negative thing coming out of what one does is OK, you do your best. I don’t know where my art will fit in, but it doesn’t matter because ultimately you have no control.

SW: What projects do you have coming up?

UF: I don’t know. There are a few shows, but nothing crazy big. I just want to spend more time in the studio. I’m working on many ideas right now, and sometimes it takes a little time to figure it out. There’s no rush. It’s always more about synergies, everything you do. Between space, between time, everything is synergy.

Sandra Wagner is a writer living in Los Angeles.