[February 2 2017]
I meet Urs Fischer at Sadie Coles HQ in Mayfair. We sit in the upstairs office section. It’s one of those areas that all the big galleries seem to have. Where there’s no door, but you’re not quite sure if you should wander in or not. Alongside the usual art office stuff there’s a Baby Belling oven. I don’t get the chance to ask Sadie about it, although she’s very nice and gives me one of Fischer’s books when I leave.
The next couple of sentences sound a bit like an artist interview cliché, but are true (or, at least, I can’t think of a more interesting way of writing them). Downstairs in the gallery Fischer‘s assistants are putting together the final touches to his massive plasticine version of Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’. Upstairs, the gallery staff are mounting the photo-painting pieces onto the walls: black and white film stills of movie couples, digitally coloured-in, and covered with fat brushstrokes in red and green paint that sit in a flat print layer directly on the image. They are using power tools and I’m mildly anxious they’ll do some drilling just as Fischer says something interesting.
If you’re still reading this then you’ll probably already know that Fischer has lots of tattoos and speaks with a neutral Teutonic-accented English. He is wearing a bright jacket in some sort of technical fabric. He smokes a small e-cigarette. So, once we’ve split the mineral water in two (I take the glass, he takes the remaining half in the plastic bottle) and I’ve turned the recording app on my phone on, it’s the first thing I mention.
Jethro Turner — The e-cigarette seems like a good point to start, which is to ask you about the idea of the ‘original’ and then the modern substitute or the replacement. The idea of a thing that looks or feels like one thing but is another thing. There’s the Rodin statue downstairs, which looks like plaster but it’s plasticine. And in your work previously there’s stuff that looks like plasticine or clay but it’s bronze. So I was interested in what makes you want to play around with things that seem like one thing but are another thing.
Urs Fischer — It’s probably quite technical. Let’s say you make something out of a material like clay. It’s not stable. If you cast it as a bronze you don’t want to make it look like a bronze. Quite often the medium is more dominant than the work. At least that goes for traditional mediums. Let’s say you have a ceramic, the first moment you look at it you’ll say that’s a ceramic, and who made it is almost secondary. So it’s very hard to own – not that you have to own it – but to not get distracted by mediums. If you have a bronze sculpture it doesn’t even matter what the sculpture is of, you just think of it as a bronze sculpture. I don’t want to make things where your first association is that easy. It’s not that helpful when you’re trying to create an open image, because it almost closes down the moment you see the traditional medium. The thing downstairs (his sculpture ‘The Kiss’) should look like a traditional marble once it’s done. But because you can interact with it it’s not like a marble that’s pushing you off.
Jethro Turner — And there’s the fact that people can physically interact with it, take bits away.
Urs Fischer — They can heal it. They don’t need to destroy it. It’s not an image that exists and is finished and you have to deal with it, it’s an image you to some degree can interfere with. You can touch the artwork, which is kind of nice. You almost have to touch the artwork. That’s why I also chose a very well known image of intimacy for this. It’s very romantic, and to interfere with something romantic, is not like you’re just interfering with the image, you’re interfering with the intimacy. It kind of heightens it.
Jethro Turner — You can stick your finger in the romance.
Urs Fischer — Yeah into somebody else’s business. If it was just a single sculpture, if you picked a Henry Moore, I don’t know if it would have the same joy. A Richard Serra would be cool. If you could just poke your finger in it.
Jethro Turner — The medium is interesting with the paintings here too. Because you’ve got a movie image, physical paint, painted onto another medium, and then printed again.
Urs Fischer — For me paint has a physical problem. I love paint. It’s such a genius communicator because it doesn’t reproduce reality, it narrows it down and opens it up again. If you try to paint anything it won’t be that thing you’re painting, it’s its own thing. It mixes and you make mistakes and it’s so alive. But very often paint looks very old as an image. Sometimes I’ll see real paint and it talks about something I’m not interested in engaging in. It’s personal choice. I like certain palette and a certain gesture, but in reality that often just looks dusty. I just try to look for ways that we can freeze this gesture. You feel a certain physicality when you freeze the gesture. It freezes that moment, freezes the act rather than creating an image (a traditional painting) that in the wrong light looks dusty or old.
Jethro Turner — With the brushstrokes in the pictures that gesture belongs to you, but with the sculpture you’re giving the physicality to someone else.
Urs Fischer — And these pictures are all things that came out of the other thing (the sculpture). The couples don’t kiss. They’re the squares.
Jethro Turner — With all of this work there’s an element of re-appropriation, from the film stills to the sculptures.
Urs Fischer — What’s good about dealing with films is that you’re not dealing with a real person. These people are in the process of being something they’re not. Which creates a real distance. You don’t have to deal with the reality of whatever it is.
Jethro Turner — This is where I’m interested in where everything relates to what’s going on at the moment in a wider cultural, political context. We seem like we’re in a moment where reality has become a very fluid notion, especially in the political sphere. Like the idea of ‘facts’ and ‘alternative facts’, and these multiple levels of reality according to where you’re coming from.
Urs Fischer — They always existed.
Jethro Turner — They did. But it seems like art tapped into that first, and now politics is taking a lot of the art theory from the last fifty years and turning it into whatever it needs. Like the idea of projecting meaning onto blank canvases. There’s a self-authorizing, self-justifying process at the heart of mainstream politics now. What were previously ‘facts’ can now be debated on multiple levels of truth.
Urs Fischer — It’s like the Catholic Church. Doesn’t it do the same? You create a world view and then you have to talk within that and if you don’t you were cut off. It’s all manufactured. It’s equally made up.
Jethro Turner — But it feels like there a cultural shift where you go through the enlightenment and it all gets more and more playful. And then you get to that Melania Trump speech. That she can take those words from Michelle Obama, appropriate them, and it’s kind of art.
Urs Fischer — It’s a very functional way of thinking. You need a speech that needs to do X, Y, and Z, and you say ‘well, that one does it. Let’s use that one’. It’s like going to the store.
Jethro Turner — We’re in this moment where everything seems very cut and paste. And you have someone like Obama, where his rhetoric was sometimes quite well trodden, but did seem uniquely his.
Urs Fischer — It’s very beautiful. He’s a very scholarly person. And for me that’s easier to relate but we don’t know what it really has to do with politics. I mean if you go to the border between Mexico and the US, there’s already a big wall. It just wasn’t sold as that. A lot of it just seems like where the focus lies on what you sell versus what you do. I think during his administration they deported like 2.5 million people so it’s not like it didn’t exist. It’s just the message was different. The differences between realities you present and the realities that actually are. It just seems extremely hard to gauge anything at this point. What I do realize is that every day there’s a new drama so the old drama almost disappears. The speed of entertainment has really shifted. Because there’s a lack of curation. When you think of an older newspaper there’s time that passes from the event to the time it’s reported. Each media outlet had a specific point of view, the way you put stuff in context, because there’s always too much, is what gave it sense. I think the Moon Landing and color television was a real shift. Up to the end of the 60s, whenever something happened you’d see people on the street. If someone became world champion in boxing you’d have hundreds of thousands of people on the street. And in the 70s you see these abandoned streets, that’s the 70s photo with the empty streets. Now everybody’s stories are in the home. They happen removed from you but as an image. After 9/11, I remember that everyone started to look at their computer for news. Everybody needed the newest update. It really made internet use explode. And logically with social media it just gets accelerated with everybody curating it and sharing it.
Jethro Turner — And now you’re at a point where you don’t even need to look for the news, because your phone vibrates and tells you the latest bad thing that’s happened.
Urs Fischer —It’s weird. I don’t know what to do with it.
Jethro Turner — It’s a strange time to be living in.
Urs Fischer — Maybe if you think like we used to think, then yeah. If I see my older daughter who’s seven and a half, for her this is just the world we live in. For people in their 20s, the changes from 9/11 to the economic crash to all the recent political shifts, mean that you already grow up in times of major change. So the more we live inside technology, the more we see to emulate pasts that never happened.
Jethro Turner — Like the photos on the wall here.
Urs Fischer — Exactly. We start to romanticise a lot of things. Right-wing movements sell us a lot of things about the past. It happens in hipster culture too. The idea of simple and old being good. It’s not new environments that get created in technology: we recreate old environments while we are somewhere future-present. I feel like it’s kind of created to create comfort because virtual experiences are not comforting.
Jethro Turner — It’s almost like a trap our minds have made for themselves, because, you might disagree with me, nostalgia is the drug or the trick that makes life liveable for most people. In our daily experience it makes the branching pathways of decisions we make bearable. That’s where we are now, where we have access to all of this huge amount of culture, and everyone is creating or curating versions of the past, putting old movie stills on their instagram. Reworking past imagery with present experience and future expectation.
Urs Fischer — It’s good! My grandfather was a scientist in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and he was working in an era when he felt like the future problems could be solved with technology. In Switzerland there was a magazine for the permanent storage of nuclear waste. He thought that nuclear power was the permanent solution and we just needed to find the right solution to store the waste. The magazine was very Swiss and thorough, and it was like ‘we got it, we’ll figure it out’. That’s it. It’s interesting. We’ve lost that idealism. Every morning when I was staying with him, we’d go to a self-service restaurant. We drove there in a car, then we’d get there and stand in line with our trays, he’d get his croissant and his coffee and his tabloid, and I’d get the croissant and milk or whatever, and that was all progress for him. In the end he died in an operation where he wanted some technical operation in order to live longer. He died in that way. It’s somewhat beautiful in a weird way. Then I remember going to Disneyland in the 1970s and there was Tomorrowland, which was this 1950s vision of the future. So by that point it was already old. It felt like somebody else’s future. I mean if you ask me I’m already somewhere else. I feel like they should get rid of national states. I think politics is so behind the present. Old party systems. It’s all so out of touch.
Jethro Turner — It’s all so crazy because if you look at what’s happening here in the UK now, it’s like the vote split the country but it also split the two opposing parties. We’ve got into this situation where everybody feels they get to curate their own set of choices around everything, and then to suddenly deal with a democratic decision that challenges individual identity is really jarring.
Urs Fischer — As an electorate there’s only this tiny moment when you’re actually in charge of the decision making.
Jethro Turner — But what’s crazy is how, especially for most younger people it’s really emotionally challenging to be dealing with decisions about identity that are somehow out of their control.
Urs Fischer — Absolutely. But don’t you think it’s interesting that at the same time that you have people like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, where for me it sounds like a lot of old ideas. They were beautiful ideas and they’re still beautiful but I don’t know if you can implement them in that old way. When I grew up there was this idealism, but I don’t know what that has to do with my reality now, except going back to that idea of alternate realities, to what I would love things to be. But how do you implement that? Or does it just make you feel good that you support a thing you wish could be?
Jethro Turner — There’s a sense of nostalgia about that kind of politics.
Urs Fischer — Exactly. Because it makes us feel like we would do the right thing. But we don’t act accordingly. It’s the same thing with the environment. Hardly anyone does anything. Some people don’t eat meat, which is probably already a good thing, and there’s a bunch of other stuff. But it’s very hard to do something yourself and see how it makes a difference. Of course it makes an accumulated difference but it’s kind of weird.
Jethro Turner — To loop it back to that sculpture, I was thinking about empathetic feedback, and I liked the way you said that it gave people the opportunity to heal it. Your parents were doctors right?
Urs Fischer — They’re still doctors, retired now.
Jethro Turner — So goes back to the body in lots of ways.
Urs Fischer — Or your sense of self. You change every day. You get older and everything changes. There’s no static point in your life, even when you’d like to hold on to certain things it shifts. You fall in love and that relationship is always changing. Maybe you can both go back to a certain point to what it was, and there’s a beauty to that and you that can carry you through more difficult times. But you can’t freeze anything at any given point. It’s crazy because it’s the opposite of what’s sold to us. For me the craziest thing is that there’s this report that we are sixty crops away from the soil being fucked. And that’s even more worrying than overpopulation, which is a highly unpopular topic to talk about. It’s not part of the daily conversations we have but it should be. If ten people piss on a tree it’s not good, but if one person pisses on it, it’s okay.
Jethro Turner — And we say that sitting in a posh gallery in central London, knowing that if everyone has lives that use this level of resources it’s not possible.
Urs Fischer — These are all crazy things. But it is what it is. But one thing that’s comforting is that the world was always ending.
Jethro Turner — Yeah. Nostradamus. The decline thesis. Everyone feels that their age is the period in which everything is going to shit. And yet we’re still here.
Urs Fischer — Somehow. Yeah that’s the positive thing in all of this.
On view until March 11th, at Sadie Coles HQ, 1 Davies Street W1, London.
Interview Jethro Turner and photo Flo Kohl