Sunday, 31 January 2010

Urs Fischer at the New Museum

After seeing the review and a rather jumbled photograph in the New York Times, I was very doubtful that the Urs Fischer exhibition (Urs Fischer: Marguerite de Ponty) at the New Museum would have anything interesting at all. But it made sense to see the museum again. After a year, the building hasn't changed, but we felt a little more comfortable with it and welcomed the very accessible tables in the lobby where we could have a coffee and puzzle out the installation by the café. We did find it amusing, and a lesson for any building project, that everything is named, from the coat check and the museum shop to the water fountain and the ticket desk.

The Fischer show occupied all three exhibition floors, each floor with very different content. On the top floor, huge blob shapes dominated the space. They are aluminum casts of small lumps of clay modeled by the artist. Not looking exactly like rocks or clouds or monsters or anything specific, they loomed over the visitors and I think we liked them just because they were so big. In their midst was a 19th-century style drooping lamppost painted pink, very out of place. The oversized lumps and the drooping lamppost remind me of the work of Claes Oldenburg and Cossje van Bruggen, both their outsize monumental sculptures and their soft sculptures of everyday objects. But I didn't think Fischer intended to imitate them. I think the appeal of these works was their size and unlikeliness, especially in galleries that emphasized their size.

The floor below had a soft-looking (actually cast aluminum) collapsing lavender piano, which reminded me of the piano by Matt Johnson I saw at the Saatchi Collection in London last summer, a blue one, made from a large blue folded tarp. And both of them make one think of Oldenburg. There was also a hole in the wall from which a tongue would jut out if you walked close to it. Several people were gathered around it, trying to make the tongue come out. It was kind of amusing. The main object on this floor was the walls. Fischer had photographed the walls and ceiling of this floor in every detail and then papered the walls with the photographs, so that the walls were exact images of themselves, but for some reason in mauve. I tried to examine this and tried to get the point, but the walls were still just walls and not very interesting to look at.

The final floor had been featured in the Times review, which I had not found interesting. Here Fischer had installed many mirrored large box shapes, monoliths, with photographic images of various objects, each one seen from four or, if the top was visible, five sides. For example, a mirrored box about 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide depicted a half pear from the front, sides, and back. Another box depicted what appeared to be the same half pear after it had started to rot. Apples, shoes, Tweety Bird were big, the Empire State Building was small (with King Kong on top), a British phone booth was about the right size; people weren't really people, but cardboard cutouts of people. Walking around these boxes I was forced to think about three-dimensionality. You saw the item from four sides, but it continued to be flat at the same time it suggested volume. The cutout people were disarming, since one expected a full side view of a person rather than one of cardboard. Besides having some of the amusement value of a funhouse exhibit, these also made me think about our habits of perception and assumptions about what we see. As a combination of three-dimensional sculpture and two-dimensional photographs, they emphasized the contrast between the three-dimensional objects being depicted and the two-dimensional views of them. This reminds me how Renaissance sculptures tended to have up to four main viewpoints until the sixteenth century, when Giovanni da Bologna created sculptures that encourage the viewer to walk around them in order to grasp the full composition, a full manifestation of the concept of figura serpentinata.
Photographs of the installation, because they do not give the viewer the opportunity to walk around the objects and respond to the different views, make it all look like kitsch.

To me some of Fischer's work seems facile or silly (the tongue, a floating cake I didn't mention, a hanging croissant with a blue butterfly) and some is striking just because it's huge, but these mirrored box sculpture/photographs, whether intentionally or not, made me think about what we see, what artists make, and what artists can make us see.

I was about to consider myself finished with the exhibition when I thought about the subtitle, "Marguerite de Ponty." All the reviews and New Museum press information provide about this subtitle is that this is one of the pseudonyms Stéphane Mallarmé used in his 1874 fashion magazine, La Dernière Mode (The Latest Fashion). According to the exhibition curator, Fischer likes to use second names in his titles and perhaps this just appeals to his absurdist sensibility. The four huge monolithic forms on the top floor of the exhibition are titled after Mallarmé's Dernière Mode pseudonyms: Marguerite de Ponty, Ix, Miss Satin, and Zizi. A web search for more information was a bit frustrating because now when you search Mallarmé and Marguerite de Ponty, most of the items are about Urs Fischer; nonetheless, information is available and one useful reference is P.N. Furbank and A.M. Cain, Mallarmè on Fashion: A Translation of the Fashion Magazine La Dernière Mode with Commentary. Oxford and New York, 2004. Mallarmé produced 8 issues of the magazine and wrote almost all of them himself, discussing fashion, theater, railway stations and trips from Paris, food and other subjects of contemporary culture. He always began with an essay by Marguerite de Ponty on fashion, suggesting themes and principles of fashion and then describing current specific fashion elements – hats, jewelry, scarves, shoes, the bustle. She/he refers to the lack of a current real coherent style in Paris (empire being the last), to revivals of previous styles in specific items, and to society's tendency to stifle essential creativity, all possible themes for a contemporary art exhibition, and possible things to keep in mind when looking at Fischer's work. Since Fischer obviously owes a lot to previous artists, the fashion concept may relate more directly to his work than one might think at first.

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