Urs Fischer’s 2006 self portrait—the cover illustration for his show’s catalogue
[PART I, on MoMA’s Orozco retrospective, is here.]
New York-based Swiss artist Urs Fischer has previously been known for blowing holes in walls. With his show at the New Museum (to Feb. 7), he blew a hole in my mind. There’s currently no other place in New York (maybe, eventually, the Downtown Whitney, if that ever comes to be) that allows an artist to run so gloriously and extravagantly amok. Whatever the future may bring to this now embattled institution—which recently announced that it will launch a series of less imaginative (and less expensive) single-collector shows—it deserves thanks for what it has achieved here.
Shortly before the cryptically titled Urs Fischer: Marguerite de Ponty exhibition opened, I read Calvin Tomkins‘ New Yorker account of the expensive, expansive preparations. This report caused me to experience traumatic flashbacks to MASS MoCA’s Büchel debacle.
Tomkins described the “enormous expense” caused by such vagaries as Fischer’s insistence upon lowering an entire ceiling in one gallery and the need to transport a monumental sculpture by air from China because it would otherwise arrive in New York too late.
“In the last month, I have though a couple of times of killing him,” the show’s curator, Massimiliano Gioni told Tomkins.
But the show did go on. Assuming that Urs’ urges haven’t blasted a big hole in the New Museum’s financial foundation, the result was well worth the anxiety-provoking build-up.
This tour de force—a museum-filling symphony in three movements, brilliantly orchestrated by the artist—gathers momentum and meaning if you start at the top floor and end at the bottom.
You begin by wandering among erratically shaped, looming boulders that, like most things in this show, aren’t quite what they seem:
Tomkins aptly calls these hulking cast-aluminum forms “monstrous and menacing but, at the same time, strangely human.” You’re an alien in an Alice-in-Wonderland world, where you’ve drunk the shrinking potion. A bizarre landscape and a droopy, shockingly pink lamppost become disquietingly alive. The giant, lustrous blobs began as wads of clay in the hands of the artist, whose fingerprints, along with the lumpy shapes, have been blown up to Brobdingnagian proportions.
From this bulky, tactile materiality you descend into an ineffable trompe l’oeil realm which, at first glance, appears to be a shocking waste of gallery space. There’s almost nothing in it.
…a melting, violet-colored piano:
…a small butter-croissant-with-butterfly, suspended at eye height from a barely perceptible fishing line:
…but mostly vast expanses of bare wall that, quite literally, mock our perplexity:
According to Tomkins, Fischer had at one time intended to use these walls “as a backdrop for some large collage paintings that he was working on in his studio.” Maybe that was just his clever ruse to get the museum to buy into this elaborate, expensive (ceiling lowering) but nearly indiscernible feat of visual trickery.
The bare walls turn out to be not bare at all. Every inch is coated with a high-resolution photographic reproduction (transformed from white to smoky violet) of the surfaces that lie just beneath. The only places where it’s obvious that something art-y is afoot is where the plastic signs on the walls are reproduced, slightly off-kilter, in ghostly echos of the originals. The bumps of braille on this violet fraud look so convincing that it’s bewildering to touch them and discover that they’re completely flush with the flat surface.
After descending from the grossly material to the near-immaterial, we finally arrive at the House of Mirrors (actually titled: “Service à la française“) on the lowest level—a dazzlingly disorienting installation of reflective chrome steel boxes, imprinted with blown-up, hyperreal images of a wacky assortment of icon-icized objects.
It’s at this point in this post that I wish I had been able to get to the show’s press preview, where I could have taken my own photographs to illustrate my observations. Instead, I must rely (as above) on an image distributed by the museum.
My take on this grand finale of the three-floor extravaganza is not to be found in other reviews that I’ve seen, nor in the curator’s explanations (scroll down to last two audio podcasts), nor in the press release, which characterizes this floor as an “optical maze.”
But it’s more than just a funhouse. The underlying structure (which curator Gioni does allude to in his podcast) is this: Each side of the each box is imprinted with a corresponding side of the object that is its subject—front, side, back, other side, top.
What, to me, is most significant about disassembling each object into its facets is that the different perpectives completely redefine the subject. When seen from its best side, the image is attractive, whether it’s a bread loaf or, most strikingly, the image of voluptuous pop star Ashanti:
But when you walk around the box, you ultimately arrive at a view that subverts or corrupts that seductive image, pulling the rug out from under you and the object portrayed. Ashanti, when seen from the sides or rear, turns out to be nothing more than a cardboard publicity cutout. A piece of fruit may be unappealingly scarred on one side. A bread loaf with a lovely outer crust may be crumbling and disintegrating from another perspective, An attractive, collectible-looking ceramic? Fractured in back.
When I came upon an elaborately constructed model ship, I thought that no angle could possibly compromise it, until I arrived at the end where all the pieces of string that held the model together were sloppily dangling.
My favorite (and most humorous) encounter was with a tall, silver ladder: Its “wrong” side bore so many warning labels as to transform it into a fearsome instrument of injury and death.
That’s what I meant when I said (in my “Part I” post, linked at the top) that Fischer’s madcap project is one of the handful of exhibitions that changed how I saw the world after I hit the street. As I wandered the Lower East Side, still under Urs’ spell, I caught myself mentally disassembling into facet
s and critically scrutinizing the visual information around me—most notably Thom Mayne‘s new academic building (scroll down) for Cooper Union—another example of front-back disjunction.
Savored slowly, this sprawling show was, to me, both rigorously coherent and profoundly meaningful. On each of the three levels, we’re impelled to puzzle over a physical world that is elusive and transmutable. Is the relativism of physical integrity a metaphor for the moral and the spiritual?