PRINT November 2009


Whether making work with moldy bread, melting wax, or Froot Loops screenprinted on massive mirrored boxes, Urs Fischer probes the inner workings of embodied experience and cultural production—reframing both process art and kitsch in turn. On the occasion of the artist’s first major solo exhibition in the US, currently on view at the New Museum in New York (through January 31, 2010), Artforum’s Michelle Kuo explores Fischer’s feverish range of materials and means.

Urs Fischer, Untitled, 2003, nylon filament, banana, theater spotlight, dimensions variable.

SITTING IN THE KITCHEN IN URS FISCHER’S STUDIO, you hardly notice the mirrors. Yet there they are, panels upon panels of them lining the walls, casting an auratic glow onto the counters and quietly reflecting boxes of pasta and bowls of fruit, the remains of crushed walnuts or Vietnamese noodles from lunch. Mirrors are usually not a good idea for kitchens, amplifying every crumb and smear, but Fischer doesn’t mind, privileging instead the effect of visual extension: The area opens seamlessly onto the yawning Brooklyn loft, so standing at the stove you would not only see your torso reflected but also glimpse the vast work space behind you. The kitchen, in fact, seems to be the locus of the artist’s studio. Not because it is the center of activity (although it often is), but because it is the point at which the visceral and the virtual are most potently locked. Matter is molded, shrunken, macerated; chemicals combust or evaporate; quotidian things and substances are made specular, though even these projections are spattered with grease.

For Fischer, cooking is not alchemy. It does not purify or transcend. It is, rather, a rough science, a technology of adulteration and deformation—and it runs through the entirety of his giddily heterogeneous aesthetic, from large-scale aluminum casts to digital montages to heaving architectural interventions and motorized or mutating objects. If the artist acutely engages the problems of process art—transformation, scale, objecthood, systems, kinetics—it is in order to exceed even their most extravagant historical solutions with rapacious force. Oral stuffs of all kinds appear in his oeuvre: bananas, cigarettes, dough. So do gastric and organic systems, as in a life-size Swiss cottage constructed from golden loaves of bread at which live parakeets slowly peck away, or grotesque botanical hybrids created from halves of different fruits screwed together and left to fester. And while Fischer literally conflates oral and ocular cavities in numerous drawings and collages, in other works he collapses their functions. Eye and mouth and mirror become parallel apertures of voracious intake and metabolic circulation. Things and views, the real and the represented, are compacted with extraordinary stress.

Such procedures lead to a seditious mix of the highest of the senses, sight, and the lowest, taste. In a photograph from 1997, Fischer placed a real pear and a polygonal paper sculpture of a pear side by side on a silver serving tray, as if presenting a before-and-after sequence of diagrammatic optical transformation. Elsewhere the terms are shuffled, but the slippages of edible and optical are still pushed with delicate insistence. Comparisons are made between a raw egg and a carved egg, nested together in a 2000 assemblage, or a polyurethane pear and a real strawberry in a misbegotten gift basket from 2002. In Gänseeier Eclipse (Goose Eggs Eclipse), 2002, two eggs hang in front of a spotlight, the shadow of a single egg cast on the wall—the other egg thus occluded, lost in a blind spot—while in Untitled, 2003, a similarly suspended and illuminated banana and its foreshortened shadow couple like an Aristotelian contradiction. More recently, Neon, 2009 (created with longtime friend Georg Herold), mounts a carrot and a cucumber on fixtures as tubular substitutes for fluorescent lights. Each of these twosomes troubles a hierarchy that has been handed down from classical times through Condillac. In Fischer’s universe, the gustatory, the optical, the base, and the ideal are impiously interchangeable.

Libertine as all this may appear, such leveling is in fact the result of an investigation of sensation as sophisticated as that of Ernst Mach or Michel Serres. Early drawings from 1993, for instance, in which fingers are reversed or rotated and sutured to hands of the opposite orientation, inaugurate a series of works that wittily probe the chiral “handedness” of the body and its perceptual appendages. Untitled (Tongue/Léger Shift/Cookie Cutter), from the same year, extracts cylinders from a carefully mapped tongue in a deadpan take on Purist draftsmanship. More sordid implications are palpable in the clay, resin, and moldy bread excreted by two male busts, AM & PM, 2001. With their striated pigments dripping over, rather than fused with, the clay—a Fautrier-like detachment of color from texture—and with curdling and bubbling rot seeming to leak from every orifice, these sculptures launch a ghoulish attack on the human figure and its twin virtues of verticality and opticality.

This mastication and dissolution of good form has much to do with our densely packed contemporary modes of consumption and existence. Kitsch, after all, was identified by Greenberg and Adorno alike as precisely that which is “predigested.” A long line of artists have now emulated or appropriated the chewed-up, ersatz results. But at a moment when every entity and experience, no matter how specific or unique, appears to have been swallowed and synthesized in some way, not many artists have dived into the machinations of that teeming maw as deeply and cannily as Fischer. Quite literally, he takes up the irreverent pronouncement of that king of the kitschers to whom he is often compared, Dieter Roth: “Mein Auge ist ein Mund,” my eye is a mouth. (In Fischer’s Photoshopped Smoke Mouth Eye, 2005, an eye is framed not by lids but by lips, while smoke emanates from the hybrid hole.) Yet the artist does not simply repeat the subversive base materialism of the postwar generation, whereby modernist opticality is undercut from within and below. Nor is his an aesthetic of sheer accumulation, a reaction to alternating historical conditions of abstemiousness and insatiable Wirtschaftswunder abundance. Rather, he is a master morphological tactician, applying tremendous pressure to all manner of sensations, materials, spatial dimensions, and experiences—compacting them with the kind of brutal yet limber combinatorics normally achieved only through the digital.

Urs Fischer, Smoke Mouth Eye, 2005, screenprint on transparent paper, 16 1/8 x 22". From the portfolio “Thinking about Störtebeker,” 2005.

Yet the most modest and basic of sculptural concerns are key to this omnivorous project. Fischer has therefore long evinced a Duchampian fascination with the cast: an ocular void occupied and indexed by material form. Convexity and concavity lie at the crux of What if the Phone Rings, 2003, the artist’s lumpen version of the Three Graces realized as lit candles that melt over the course of their display. First carved roughly in Styrofoam and then cast in pigmented wax in an edition of three, a complex network of wicks running throughout each body, these molten nudes set in motion a melodramatic, real-time dismantling of rational tectonics and the old sculpture-to-base relationship. It is seldom noted, however, that—like any candle—they burn from the inside out: They do not melt uniformly downward but grow hollow over time, leaving a pronounced group of lurid cavities and shells before they are finally reduced to a stagnant concentrate. These works thus waver wildly between positive volume and negative depression, between the savage extraction of Johns’s wax Painting Bitten by a Man, the congealed, obdurate stasis of Nauman’s Cast of the Space Under My Chair, and the serial and industrial replications of the casting mold itself.

Just as brazenly, Fischer inverts negative spaces and shadows, rendering them solid and rigid presences. The blockbuster Untitled (Hole), 2007, was an aluminum cast of a gravelike recess that, when shown at Sadie Coles HQ in London, appeared on the first floor as a pewter crevasse but was also visible from the basement below—as a hulking, positive mass that had ostensibly broken through the floor, leaving a serrated contour (itself a cast of the air in the hole above). The chair, too, is one of the artist’s most recognizable and recurring forms, and it is often the focus of his manipulations of empty and full, silhouette and stereometry. This is because the chair is an “errand boy,” as the artist calls it, an efficient vehicle for the spatial exploration of container and contained. Indeed, consider that several of his earliest chair pieces began as seats around a dining table, and it becomes clear that Fischer sees not only the chair but the sitting body itself as a conduit, an anatomical channel for the digestion, registration, and transformation of experience—of false sentiment as well as bare life. “We are a medium,” he says.

The sensorium—the connective apparatus between the distance of sight and the proximity of taste—emerges in other works as nothing less than a phantom limb. Fischer has constructed a series of such disembodied appendages, one of which, Untitled, 2006, includes a curious, telescoping canal between a disembodied mouth and anus carved from foam. The hole, piercing all the way from orifice to orifice, suggests that vision itself is tautologically trapped between being sucked in and disgorged. Other extremities cross Duchamp’s Étant Donnés with his Rotary Demisphere, transposing spatial conditions of convexity and concavity into pulsating, kinetic movement. In Paris 2006, the left-hand member of a pair of prosthetic legs is motorized, jittering impatiently. Consumer objects are not exempt from mechanistic animation, either: The fantastic Nach Jugendstiel kam Roccoko, 2006, is an empty Camel cigarette pack that traces an erratic circle, skimming the floor in fits and starts, guided by a virtually invisible nylon filament. Modernism’s embarrassing underside—exactly the fusion of the decorative, the industrial, and the base in Beardsley or Tinguely—comes to restless, impish life.

Buildings awaken, too. They serve as the ultimate testing ground for this collision of physical vessels and perceptual echelons. In some of his best-known works, Fischer has bluntly chopped through layers of walls in exhibition spaces, so that both eye and body travel through gaping perforations that frame the installation of works on view. In Middleclass Heroes, at the Kunsthaus Zürich in 2004, this resulted in a succession of cavernous, abruptly receding zones of depth. A shower of fifteen hundred small plaster raindrops cascaded from the ceiling, while the cutout wall portions were incongruously propped among such hallucinatory pieces as an Excalibur-like sword in an artificial stone and a hybrid illustration and ink-jet print on aluminum of what looks like a sinking submarine, its soft, dark nimbus recalling a silent-film frame. Moving through the sliced space from vantage to vantage, the most extreme of which drew you, vacuumlike, into a rushing depth-of-field, you experienced a series of inconsistent perspectival systems—as if in a thrilling cartoon landscape, or a Romantic one. This was an atmosphere that—like Caspar David Friedrich’s illogical skylines or Hubert Damisch’s cloud—was fundamentally unmappable, a mist of counterfeit raindrops and makeshift gaps. (Similarly, many of Fischer’s drawings are executed on layers of polyester film, which he compares to working in Photoshop: Contours and masses are partially erased and merged, seeming to possess no ground against which to finally rest the eye. Often, this endless tunnel vision is propelled through illustrated strata of mouths or eyes that open onto receding ducts of indeterminate provenance.)

Urs Fischer, Noisette, 2009, silicone, motion sensor, electric motor, 5 1/8 x 5 1/2 x 19 5/8".

Underscoring the architectural divider as a permeable membrane or cavity, Noisette, 2009, actually sticks its tongue out at you, startling passersby with a lifelike muscle that, triggered by a motion sensor, abruptly bursts through a crude hole in the wall. One-liners like these abound in Fischer’s work, and many pieces—melting nudes, floating assholes, a grave in a gallery—rely on a ready-made readability, immediately registering as one big joke on the art world. But these are not mere provocations. They join the artist’s legion of investigations into the addition and subtraction of space and the physiological, affective impact of such structural maneuvers. (They are also, of course, very funny.) The most ambitious of these would be You, 2007, Fischer’s notorious big dig (“dimensions variable”) at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York. As if vibrating cigarette packs and birds eating away at bread buildings were not over-the-top enough, here Fischer manipulated matter by demolishing the main gallery’s floor and excavating an enormous pit. The work created something of a sensation, and with good reason. Pounding through and pulverizing GBE was an audacious and arduous move, involving structural engineers, soil samples, and the like. Perhaps Fischer’s largest negative space yet, the crater descended eight feet below ground level and stretched nearly from wall to wall. To enter this rocky terrain was to feel the precariousness of aesthetic experience and institutional critique—here dangerously internalized, whether one was stumbling down into the crater or teetering on the slim ledge that circled it. Moreover, in the entryway, Fischer had reconstructed the main space at 1:3 scale and in perfect detail, so that one had to stoop to go through the shrunken door and reach the full-size quarry beyond. The work thus characteristically paired trompe l’oeil with a vigorous hit to the gut. Such shock and awe functioned as an early burial for Land art and anti-form (from Michael Heizer to Chris Burden), a breathtaking testament to the ravenous machismo of the culture industry and its ability to absorb any and all gestures into what Benjamin H. D. Buchloh has called the “debris” of mass culture. At the same time, You reminded us how staid, how uniform, our contemporary methods of exhibition remain. But most surprising of all was that we could feel something like collective shock. For all our knowing critical distance and heterotopic, virtualized bodies—precisely amid this prosthetic dislocation—Fischer figures out how to violently re-embody us.

This churning experiential fall becomes all the more vertiginous in an array of rectangular prisms, fabricated for his current solo show at the New Museum in New York. Echoing the untidy refractions of his mirrored kitchen, Fischer has taken commonplace comestibles and curios, had them photographed with the extremely high resolution and hundreds of shots characteristic of commercial still-life photography (think of perfectly lit perfume bottles), and produced gigabyte-loaded, composite digital renderings of five sides of each object (the underside is left unphotographed). Each thing, regardless of its shape, is thus reduced to five planar images. These discrete vantages are then screenprinted onto the corresponding surfaces of mirror-polished chrome-steel boxes, whose dimensions are determined by the widest and longest measurements of the depicted object. In this way a sticky, compressed chunk of melted marshmallows and Froot Loops—a lurid and newly popular variant of the Rice Krispie treat—appears as a porous, dripping crust limned by a reflective halo; a green suede T-bar pump becomes both silhouette and casement, as mirrored surface fills in the negative space between vamp, strap, and heel; a cardboard cutout of Ashanti, doyenne of two-dimensional hip-hop, hovers nearby. Indeed, Fischer wants the images to “float” and their supports to dissolve away: He chose the mirrored right angle because it was the most “neutral” ground he thought possible. (He played with white boxes, recalling traditional pedestals, in earlier works like Cup/Cigarettes/Skid, 2006, but even these seemed too conspicuously solid.) This visual dissociation signals the gap between the initial objects in the round and their eviscerated geometric projections, asserting the fundamental incommensurability of volume and flatness. And yet the divide between these spatial conditions is also elided, since each photographic image retains shallow depth, and the mirrored perimeter cannot help but ricochet back a still deeper perspective on the surrounding environment, including the infinite regress triggered by the other mirrors displayed in proximity. The works keenly amplify the disorienting clip of Fischer’s wall cutouts (and his experimentation with moving mirrored walls, as in the hydraulically tilting Death of a Moment, 2007). Instead of the entropic stalemate of Robert Smithson’s embedded mirrors, or even the seamless gloss of more recent reflective art like that of Anish Kapoor or Jeff Koons, here the effect is not unlike that of a latter-day stereoscope, in which localized pockets of corporeal space are disjunctively aggregated with no coherent spatial continuum to connect them.

Urs Fischer, untitled work in progress, 2009, silk-screen print on mirror-polished chrome-steel, aluminum, Alucore, two-component epoxy, stainless-steel screws, 77 3/4 x 57 1/2 x 47 3/4".

Such topological dissonance accompanies a trenchant testing of relative scale. All these totems are far bigger than their sources—as much as twenty times greater—and this startling shift is amplified by the second-degree nature of many of the source objects themselves. A diminutive piggy-bank replica of a red British telephone booth is enlarged to a height slightly less than that of a real telephone booth; a toy model of the Eiffel Tower is likewise expanded but remains, of course, much shorter than the real thing. A white-chocolate effigy of The Thinker doesn’t quite make it back up to sculpture-garden proportions. One has the unsettling impression that each piece is simultaneously occupying wildly different registers of scale and even temporality. (The fact that certain of the objects—a CD jewel case, a VHS cassette, Ashanti—are of a fading but not so distant period compounds this discord.) Just as eerie is the attendant layering of resolutions. The mirrored ground presents a world isomorphic with ours. Then, kicking things up a notch, the photographic images proffer immense amounts of detail, revealing minute nicks on a cheap lighter or slight blemishes on a sliced pear. At that level, the sugary glue of the Froot Loop confection looks like nothing so much as spit. If the images all depict readymades of a kind, it is the process of apprehension itself that begins to resemble a preformatted effect. Fischer thus thrusts us midstream into the progressive technical enhancement of the senses—which are constantly becoming more specialized, more attuned, more data rich. But he recognizes that this increasing refinement slices both ways. Ours is the age of high definition, when faces and substances paradoxically become all the more abject or imperfect because of the lapidary precision of their imaging.

Even Fischer’s most brutal surfaces emit this dual formlessness and clarity. Miss Satin and Marguerite de Ponty, both 2006–2008, belong to a suite of cast-aluminum sculptures that obey a similar principle of scalar transformation, in which detail is jarringly magnified. The works take their shape from lumps of clay that the artist bluntly gripped and squeezed with his hands; these were then drastically enlarged. In contrast to an outsize Play-Doh mound or typewriter eraser, however, Fischer’s hefty forms are not abraded or softened into smooth contours. Marks of facture and, in fact, the blown-up grooves of fingerprints remain, every wrinkle and fissure intact. One of the most recent of these pieces is approximately sixteen feet in height but despite its bulk is designed to hang from the ceiling. If the initial pieces of clay in this group of works are negative spaces generated by a hand’s simple application of force, Fischer here has gone one degree further: He has thumbed a hole within the clay, then x-rayed it and cast the new piece from the cavity. This shape, like a contusion on a body, has undergone an elaborate, far-flung production, with the mold made at a facility in Switzerland and cast in China, a series of transpositions of money and labor that parallels the transposition of void into solid and back again. Fischer’s work as a whole likewise shuffles artistic agency like a shell game, through the abdication of composition implied by the random impression of clay or the digging of a hole and the dispersal of construction, and even through titles that occlude or displace the authorial “I”: Miss Satin and Marguerite de Ponty were Stéphane Mallarmé’s pseudonyms when the poet posed as a fashion critic; You adds to that unusual category of titles invoking the second person, the ur-designation being Duchamp’s relentlessly indexical Tu m’.

The “clay” pieces also exist as images. The artist has cast them in starring roles in a series of photomontages, inserting them into cityscapes and film stills like minatory CGI giants. Most striking is the imposition of the works as towering monuments along the Bund in Shanghai, recalling an alien fiend in an Asian horror flick—Godzilla or The Host. (I couldn’t help but think of them in terms of some hilarious send-up of the unshakable Orientalism of the global art market.) The misshapen, profoundly contorted forms serve as emblems for the way in which historically specific methods of photographic contrast, shadow, and depth produce concerted and seductive types of affect.

Fischer has brought this machinery of simulation, of preprocessing and postproduction, to the core of the art world—in 2008 with “Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?” (a collaboration with Gavin Brown) at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York and in 2007 with Verbal Asceticism at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. For each project, Fischer produced an incredibly fine, life-size reproduction of the exhibitions that had been installed in the space right before his own show—meaning photographs of the works in situ, as well as the architectural details of the rooms—and used these as photographic wallpaper against and on which to display other artworks. At Shafrazi, for example, one of Cindy Sherman’s vomitscapes nestled atop an image of a rabid Kenny Scharf, while a Rudolf Stingel carpet lay underfoot. It was a kind of sharp-focus defacement: Fischer initiated a bottomless layering of original and imitation, of styles and orders, in which tactics of institutional critique and appropriation were multiplied into an absurd frenzy. This fakery induced an extraordinary digestive feat—absorbing viewers into a vortex of duplication, déjà vu, and spectacle that was just as unstable as the vintage critical tropes it displaced.

Like a surprising additive, a chemical supplement, Fischer’s art spills into culture’s alimentary canal. It spills, in other words, into the very formation of kitsch. And while kitsch has always implied its dialectical other—an advanced, “high” tradition—there are, as many have argued, multiple ways of getting around this remarkably persistent dialectical impasse. Some have engaged kitsch’s products and features, adopting the alternately affirmative and knowing, distanced strategies of parody or camp (which often only shore up the ancient antinomy). Some, in the tradition of late Warhol or Kippenberger, have taken up kitsch’s effects, attempting to outpace or overtake them by inhabiting an outsize persona or brand. Fischer, however, takes up kitsch in order to infuse its processes—in all their turbulence and unprecedented elasticity. This may be why the deliquescing fruit of the still life is so prominent in Fischer’s work. Token of our mortality, our fleshly transience, the classical genre was meant to reinforce, by contrast, the constancy and transcendence of God as prime mover; today, much art similarly tends to hypostasize its foil—capital or control—as all-knowing invisible hand. Yet Fischer’s nature morte elicits a world that is only just becoming familiar, an uncertain one in which hands tremble and fruit simply rots—one in which we do not have causes, only actions.

Michelle Kuo is a senior editor of Artforum.