Urs Fischer, an internationally renowned visual artist, born in Switzerland and based in the US, opened his first exhibition in Israel at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. PLAY is an installation of nine colorful, independently moving office chairs that, pre-choreographed, utilize artificial intelligence to interact with the audience. They literally play with you.
At the exhibition, one can also see Francesco, Fischer’s signature candle sculpture, which is lit and will progressively melt by the end of the exhibition. The towering wax figure of Italian curator Francesco Bonami stands atop a half-open refrigerator and slowly disappears.
Fischer, initially trained as a photographer, works across a range of media. His artwork is hard to label, and he successfully evades categorization. He enjoys the process of creating new things. He is ingenious, curious and exudes a relaxed sense of humor in his work.
He began to exhibit in the early 1990s while still in Zurich. Soon he became known all over the world. Asked about the key to success, he says it is to be humble. He adds that as an artist, he wants to celebrate life.
We met a few hours before the opening of the exhibition. During the interview for the Magazine, Fischer was still adjusting the height of the flame on the head of his sculpture Francesco.
Whoever comes to the exhibition in its first weeks will see the entire sculpture Francesco, while anyone who waits until the end of the show will see just a part of it. Why do you create something that will melt eventually?
We have time until October. Maybe half of it will melt. When this one is done, we will make another one. It is a cast.
Traditional sculptures endure for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. Yours are temporary. Don’t you want your sculptures to be found in 2,000 years?
I don’t care. [laughs]
Why did you start working with wax?
It was not so much working with wax.... I used to put candles, and add them to my other sculptures sometimes, just to activate them. Sometimes sculptures can be a bit frustrating because they are very still, so I put something on them to make them more active. So that is how it started with the candles. Then the sculptures became candles themselves. But the fact that they are melting is just one of the things you are looking at. You also look at the image of the man holding his phone, standing on the fridge.
You make monumental sculptures, like antique Greek ones, but unlike them, Francesco is not in a serious pose; he’s holding a phone.
He is also very serious. If they had phones in Hellenistic times, they would make marble statues with the people with their phones instead of arches.
So the mobile phone is the modern-day arch?
I don’t know.... My friend really likes his phone.
Maybe he was texting you. And what was the idea behind the chairs? You used chairs before but never in such an active way. The chairs in PLAY (2018), a room-size exhibit, are equipped with motion sensors and motors so that they move on their own and react to the action of people passing.
These chairs are robots. They look like chairs, but 97% of them are robots; they are remade. In this case, I want to make them like real things.
Regarding movement, let’s say with a table – when you move away, the table moves. A simple interaction, a pattern you want to understand. Humans are all the same. That’s why they stare at the TV because it’s all moving, new images. New things always keep us busy. So, at first you have a simple interaction. Then you try to see if these things have their own minds, not just a reaction to your approach.
These chairs really are just like people – they hide, run from someone or to someone; they seem to have human personalities. There was choreography done for the chairs, just like for ballet dancers. What did the cooperation with choreographer Madeline Hollander look like?
I made the chairs, but I don’t have an education in movement or classical ballet. There is a broad vocabulary of movement, how you engage, turn away. I started with another great choreographer, but it didn’t work out. Madeleine found structure and knew how to convert that to movement to the chairs.
How long did you work on this?
About two years.
At which point did the choreographer come?
At the very end.
Do you watch the audience at your exhibitions and how they react to your work?
Sometimes.... I don’t watch people; I don’t watch my own shows [in general]. But in this piece, the people are as much a part of it as the chairs. You don’t come for aesthetic reasons to look at the office chairs. The chairs do their own thing, but also when they interact with you. They entertain you.
What I love about art is that you don’t have to put it into words. Words can make sense and tie up things neatly and make us feel good, but the genius of art is that it can give you many answers and experiences. There is no single artwork [to which] I have the same relation as at the time when I made it. You keep evolving, you keep moving, you keep changing. Any meaning attached to anything is ultimately as stupid as you are at this very moment because you are intelligent through the collectives of our thoughts, not a single thought.
Thoughts also depend on the context. I imagine that the reactions to your work can be different all over the world, or am I wrong and they are similar?
For example, with the Bread House, I first showed it in Austria, [where] it was [interpreted as] the body of Christ. In the US, they thought of the low carb diet. That has as much meaning as things have.
Since you mentioned the Untitled (Bread House), the Swiss-style chalet constructed of wooden frames and loaves of bread, the sculpture that earned you a lot of fame, I’d like to ask you about other unusual materials you use. Apart from wax and aluminum, you use vegetables and bread in your artwork, for example. What inspired you to make the sculpture out of bread?
Just an image that came to my mind, this house made of bread. I work from the images to the ways how to do it. It is the same with these chairs. You start with what you want to achieve, and you look for ways to do it. Materials often have a history. When you look, for example, at the ceramic, you will look at it first, and then decide what you try to do. At first, I made the Bread House outdoors. I wanted the birds to eat it.
But you did preserve it eventually.
Yes, but like any house, it needs repairs, to be patched up.
Your house made of bread made me think of the gingerbread house in the fairy tale.
Yes, maybe. There is a folkloric component. It is almost like a collective subconscious image of the house. Sometimes it is not much more than that.
Is there anything specific from your childhood that you remember?
My grandparents had a series of art books; I used to look at them. There was one very scary, even irritating picture; it was Bruegel’s painting. It was in a tavern; they were serving soup. There was some scary energy in it. They serve a white soup and a red soup...
Was there bread in the painting?
I don’t know. Maybe there was. And maybe it was not scary, but eerie. It was not comforting but fascinating at the same time.
Sometimes the size of a sculpture can be scary and fascinating. Most of your works are very large. In 2005-2006, just after the Bread House, you made Lamp/Bear, seven-meter high, 20-ton bronze bears with functional lamps in their heads. Why that big?
What is size? You can think of an ant in your mind the same size as an elephant. Size is only in relation to something else, always in proportion to where you are showing it.
Do you prefer to have your sculptures in museums and galleries or outdoors, where they can be seen by more people?
It’s not about being seen by more people. Also, a home setting is different; [a sculpture –] it’s always there. But going to a gallery or museum, it’s like going to a zoo; within this there is art. But public [placement of a sculpture], it’s a part of a landscape. It is nice to participate and put things in a collective space, to be a part of it. You don’t have to go to a gallery or to the museum; it is part of the city. It gives the identity. For example, if you think of Australia, you think of the opera building in Sydney. When you think of New York, you think of the Statue of Liberty. A successful work of art gives identity. It’s more than about being seen. It’s about contributing.
So this is something that you do...
You don’t know what’s successful and what’s not. But I think the process behind it, you are trying to understand what it will be; to engage in this matters.
Most of your works are your original ideas, but for the Venice Biennale in 2011, you did the wax reproduction of already existing art – The Rape of the Sabine Women by Flemish-Italian sculptor Giambologna. Why?
This is [what’s] interesting about recreating. On the one hand, you want to create your own art. But reproduction is just another medium. Everything we do is just a part of one big conversation, from the Stone Age to now. We choose what’s appropriate in this conversation, the words, and the language. But it only becomes interesting when it is spoken. Language not spoken is not interesting. And that’s how I understand it in the context of art. The same appeals to these chairs [PLAY] or Francesco, [who] was a real person.
Your friend. But yet, speaking about the sculpture for the Venice Biennale, why did you choose Giambologna?
It was not about him. I just looked for an interesting sculpture to oppose [be in relation with] my friend Rudi (Rudolf Stringel). There were three elements to it. My friend is Italian. There is this past in European art, and the past looks in a certain way in a certain aesthetic.
You know, the Europeans are weird. They sit in their houses, they eat the same food that they didn’t invent, and they protect the culture they didn’t really create, but they keep moving with it and are so very protective of that.
I’m smiling when you say that because you’re European, even though you’ve been living in the US for many years.
I love Europe; but in other parts of the world, I see more dynamic things which are “own-made.” But the culture [in Europe] is not made by the people now. You basically continue something that has been given to you. So the sculpture is somehow the identity of being European.
Why did you move to the States?
When I was a kid, I grew up in a medieval society. Sometimes people are from 2,000 years ago, sometimes from 1,000. So I think the people where I grew up [Zurich] were from medieval times in the way they think.
What do you mean?
Culturally… For example, when you go to Naples, you feel as if you’ve been standing there for 2,000 years. In Venice, you feel like you’ve been there for 900 years. And you go somewhere else and you feel like you’ve been there for a year. My interest was to live somewhere where there is less history. With cultures, it is like with clothes: some suit you and some don’t. In the States (although there are many cultures, so you can’t talk about just one), there is a lot of room.
Do you like American art?
I love American art. I think it’s interesting because it does not refer to the aesthetic values that were established 2,000 years ago. It’s more about generosity and openness, not the need for meaning. But I am also not saying it’s not about the need for meaning, which is a very different thing. But rather than looking for an answer, you look for a question. So American art is very open about that.
I had wanted to ask you what you want the Tel Aviv audience to take away from your exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, but now I need to rephrase it: What questions do you want them to ask?
I trust the audience, the viewers of art. Some people do like context; then they can read it on the walls [of the museum]. There will be people who read the description and those who will not even look at it at all. But I think it all makes sense when you have an experience, what really stays in your mind – it remains with you for a long time.
And that’s really when the art starts to live. Because looking at art is one thing, but it actually lives in you afterward; in your memory, it starts to unfold. Like anything I have ever seen that I remember, it was less about seeing the thing and more about what I carried after.
Stepping back in time, how did your career start?
You should ask my parents. [laughs]
You studied photography, and very early you had your first solo sculpture exhibition. At age 22?
Twenty-one or 22, but it doesn’t matter when. It’s us older people saying it is early. When you want to do it, you do it. There is no right or wrong way, or order, the [choice of] schools. It doesn’t matter. An artist wants to celebrate life with something, not to put categories or an order.
Why do you think your artworks speak to people?
You never know why something works or not. It is really interesting. I think the answer is to be humble. You can have many schools and many situations you consider successful, and you can analyze in many ways, but you can never know why it works. Any artist has among great pieces of art also things that were not so successful. If they knew why, they wouldn’t do them.
You came to Israel for the opening of this exhibition, PLAY. Is this your first visit to Israel?
The second. I visited here 16 years ago with a friend.
What were your first impressions of Israel?
My first impression was that it was fun. There is the city and the beach, and everybody is outside. It is alive. I know all the different countries in the Mediterranean, all the way from Spain.... There are similarities and local things that are very different here.
What do you find local here?
There seems to be a lot of solidarity among people, or just the way they hang out here. It’s nice. Even driving here this morning, seeing people in all these cafés, how they sit – they seem very comfortable. There is this communal thing.
Your chairs seem to fit in this atmosphere that you are describing. At least to me, they are very Tel Avivian. What is your next project going to be?
There are so many, but all moving images. There is a lot to be done algorithmically about moving images.
For more information: tamuseum.org.il/en/exhibition/urs-fischer-play