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Untitled (Lamp/Bear) brightly celebrates the objects that define a young child’s life. Urs Fischer realized this striking sculpture on a monumental scale, combining a canary yellow teddy bear, everyone’s cherished childhood keepsake, with a bedroom desk lamp. The lamp neatly bisects the bear, casting a shadow over its face, while a forlorn black button eye peers out from underneath. The bear’s inanimate body flops forward, lovingly care worn, resting against the support of the lamp stand. The first out of a series of two works, the sculpture starkly defies its facture. Fischer made the bear in Untitled (Lamp/Bear), not out of softly comforting fur and foam, but out of bronze, a rich material that reflects the personal value a young owner places upon a toy. The sculpture evokes permanence, weighing close to seventeen tons, contrasting with much of the artist’s oeuvre to date, such as his ephemeral Untitled (Bread House) (2004-2005). The giant lamp is a functioning beacon that lightens up outdoor space at night, defining its surroundings and illuminating the giant teddy bear. This playful and humorous work depicts an everyday object surreally, uncannily. It parallels Jeff Koons’s public monuments, such as Koons’s monumental Puppy (1992) - housed in the forum outside the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao - or his Celebration series of balloon animals blown up to fantastic proportions. Untitled (Lamp/Bear) was exhibited to great acclaim at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. It is the most significant work by the artist to be offered at auction to date.
Born in 1973, Urs Fischer began his career in Switzerland where he studied photography at the Schule fur Gestaltung, Zurich. These formative years deeply informed the artist’s practice, instilling his sculptures with a photorealism so evident in the carefully realized Untitled (Lamp/Bear). In spite of the work’s apparent simplicity, Fischer always employs a process of detailed planning and intricate artisanship in creating his sculpture. Fischer generated digital studies for the production of Untitled (Lamp/Bear) as a point of departure and employed laser and mechanical expertise to bring the sculpture to life. To establish the composition, he created a 12 inch high replica of a stuffed teddy bear from childhood, having its various elements sewn together by hand. Fischer selected a generic Bakelite lamp and conjoined the two elements through digital manipulation. Fischer enlisted the assistance of the University of Applied Sciences St. Gallen, Switzerland and their laser technology to establish an exact imprint of both items, digitally scaling them up to over 22 feet in height. He chose this immense scale not through any particular rule, but through considering the reaction it might elicit from its viewers. As Fischer once suggested "What determines the ultimate size of each object is based on architectural reasoning Architecture always takes into consideration the spatial confrontation between you and a thing" (U. Fischer, quoted in M. Gioni, "This is my Grandmother she Makes Really Genius Cakes," in U. Fischer and A. Zachery (eds.), Urs Fischer: Shovel in a Hole, New York, 2009, p. 60). The image of the assembled sculpture was later incarnated into a full-scale milled Styrofoam maquette and coated in polyurethane resin to be exhibited as an artist’s proof alongside Fischer’s other works at the Paris 1919 exhibition held at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Following the exhibition, the prototype was brought to Shanghai to be cast into bronze and assembled with an operating light bulb of over 5 feet in diameter made out of acrylic. The surface of the lamp was patinated and the body of the teddy bear covered in matte yellow urethane paint to create an arresting, brightly colored and colossal outdoor sculpture.
Untitled (Lamp/Bear) forms part of a small series of large-scale works depicting quotidian objects which one would not normally expect to be combined. Fischer’s Bad Timing, Lamb Chop! (2004-2005) - exhibited at Mapping the Studio: Artists from the Francois Pinault Collection, Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, Venice (2009) - displays a giant wooden chair straddling a half empty packet of cigarettes, in a similar meditation on the Duchampian ready-made and the experience of contemporary life. When asked about his predilection for ordinary objects, Fischer once replied, “I don’t find them dull. Maybe it’s an obvious choice, but those are the things I relate to. What if I did a Fabergé egg? Would that be better? Even if I have nothing to do with it? I just use the stuff that’s around me. And those objects, those domestic objects as you call them, are made in human scale, so they can also be related to humans. They’re made by humans for humans. They speak about us” (U. Fischer, quoted in Ibid., p. 63).
This approach resonates with Jeff Koons’s sculptural works, such as Puppy (1992) in which Koons knowingly embraces high and low art, in homage to simple pleasures. In Untitled (Lamp/Bear) as in Koons’s work, the artist invites the viewer to reconsider the banal and re-experience a childlike sense of awe and wonder, while standing in front of Fischer’s giant teddy bear. These works differ from the majority of Fischer’s sculpture, where he brings objects into stark relief, not through the alienating effects of scale but through an emphasis on their transience. Many of his sculptures appear broken, excavated, decomposed or melted. In Untitled (Bread House) (2004-1005), Fischer constructs a Swiss style chalet entirely out of loaves of bread. Fischer placed an emphasis on the paradoxical interplay of creative destruction, allowing small birds to eat the structure, slowly demolishing it. Creative destruction is a theme that unites the artist’s oeuvre. In You (2007) Fischer literally breaks ground to create a dramatic breach in Gavin Brown’s gallery floor, juxtaposing the pristine white of the walls with the uneven dirt of an evacuated pit. In Untitled (Lamp/Bear), Fischer physically interpolated the teddy bear with the lamp in an act that is simultaneously destructive of each object but creative as a whole, effectively building a novel, animated and enigmatic monument to the human experience.
Darren Bader Interviews Urs Fischer, May 2008
Darren Bader: My girlfriend and I were out in Montauk surfing last month. We got up really early one morning which REALLY wasn’t worth it in the end. But when I was out there I saw your giant bear sculpture lit up. It was one of those great unexpected moments. A few days later I happened to see it up close. Blah blah blah…Why a yellow teddy bear—it seems almost saccharine—and why a desk lamp? Is this a very deliberate combination of objects for you?
Urs Fischer: The lamp was my desk lamp at the time. The bear was something that Carmen [D’Apollonio] and I made out of an old blanket. A desk lamp and a teddy bear… I’m still a little rusty… ask me again later.
DB: When you combine these objects together, whether in twos or threes, do you aim to pronounce a tension? Or do you find some sort of fortuitous equilibrium?
UF: Well, the twos don’t have much in common with the threes. The twos are about two things colliding: what happens when two specific objects meet in an imagined space. The two things meet in the same place rather than on their own terms. For instance, the table and lighter piece [You Can Only Lose, 2003] is two objects that are often in close proximity to each other and I started to think about how they might occupy the same space: just a meeting of a lighter and a table, without the hierarchies of how we’re used to perceiving them. Also, the multiple meanings of ‘duality’—both as concrete ‘two’ and as the exchanges of identities between two things. The three-object works are different, they’re more ‘hands off.’ I phone in some names of generic objects and then list their stacking order, but that’s it—the specifics of product and placement are chosen by others. The only thing I ‘make’ is the decision on where to cut the stacks. The two-object works came towards the end of one of my engagements with figurative sculpture. They were a way to make and create a relationship, whereas the three-object works are more about limiting the creative involvement and simply presenting a possible relationship that might not have anything to do with anything. Does that answer your question?
DB: Yeah, I think it does. So with the three-object sculptures, does the proverbial 'chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table' apply? Would you consider yourself a Surrealist, or in league with Surrealism, or…?
UF: Surrealism, sure. A Surrealist, no. I don’t believe in Surrealism as this great genesis of ideas. I think the Surrealists lived in a time when the things they thought were revolutionary were simply becoming more and more obvious, more and more part of everyone’s lives. Maybe Surrealism was finally left to be surrealism when the dudes clinging to the capital ‘S’ kicked the proverbial bucket. Surrealism’s a very helpful and very useless way to make sense of things. Are the three-object works surrealistic? I’m not sure.
DB: You used the word 'hierarchy.' I never considered 'hierarchy' in the context of inanimate objects. Are you viewing a table and a lighter as having a power dynamic? I can see the wrestling going on in that sculpture and the one with the lighter and the chair [You Can Not Win, 2003].
UF: It’s a matter of how we perceive things regularly and then how they might act if their roles in our eyes were altered. It was interesting to me to see how I could imagine two objects coming together as two presences with unique claims to being themselves. I’m not being animistic, making tables and chairs come to life. I’m asking about the value of things and how these values shift when our circumstances shift or when our settings and mindsets shift. You take a roll of toilet paper and a $100 bill for example. Each one can easily trump the other—it just depends on the situation you find yourself in. Like a blow job in the Oval Office. Same thing.
DB: So a situation as an object?
DB: When you talk about values and hierarchies, I don’t imagine you’re thinking about emancipatory politics… having objects as stand-ins for human dissent and revolt?
UF: Sure, why not. Politics is a central part of how we perceive everything. Relationships and power relations are intricate parts of every thought we have. I like to imagine it in basic algebraic forms. You have a, you have b, you have c, you have d. These symbols somehow work themselves together to create something new, a new logic. It’s malleable and logical both. The situation is always generic but also highly specific, like any politics. I don’t use objects as stand-ins for humans, but for states of mind. Objects are always about human relations to them. They’re extensions of us; they’re part of us. We live in artificial habitats: the apartments and houses filled with artificial fauna, things and entertainment as wildlife. I think humans never really understand or know the separation between the exterior world and their interior worlds. The whole thing you construct your whole life will pass with you.
DB: You’ve also mentioned relationships a few times now. And I see this as a very salient aspect of your approach to art. You seem very interested in how things can go together—not as seamless synergy, but a way that distinct objects or bodies are woven around each other, almost like muscle is 'woven' around a bone. There’s a force, but a suppleness too.
UF: What muscle around what kind of bone…? Yes! I like to find a way to have two things interact. The inner mechanics or innards of duality. Everything seems to work on separation: shit and blood are separate, desire and pragmatics are separate, the present is separate from the past. Our world, our cognitive world stays in balance when things are separate. Mystics always try to dissolve the separation but I’m not interested in mysticism here, per se. I look for a simple, you could say vulgar, image—what happens when two separate things collide/coexist? When I have things colliding in my work, I’m hoping they give up their separation, that they mutate.
DB: And then?
UF: And then they’re this thing. When something mutates it’s what it is. Past, present, future are all optional.
DB: You seem to elect objects that pertain to a current of sentiment and/or analysis you’re working with. Almost like ad-libbing in the kitchen. Do you see yourself as a chef? Do you have any affinities to the alchemical as every artist and his/her uncle seem to nowadays? What does mixing or dissolving mean to you, if anything at all?
UF: Nothing much in particular. Sentiment or analysis: they’re impossible to locate as one or the other the more you try to assign one a role. What’s in my head when I’m choosing things… who knows what’s puppeteering what. Mixing happens.
DB: The Lamp/Bear is an outdoor sculpture of an animal and a commonplace object. Obvious comparisons that come to mind are [Jeff] Koons and [Claes] Oldenburg. Any affinities there? What do you think of those guys?
UF: They’re both great artists. Are you asking me because of their relationships to objects?
UF: Everybody likes objects; everybody likes different objects. It comes down to what objects you want to put in your art. Koons and Oldenburg both seem to have their agendas with their objects. So do I, I guess. I like them all: high, low, used, new, whichever works. I don’t know if the Lamp/Bear has anything more to do with Koons or Oldenburg than all three of us and everyone else have to do with [Marcel] Duchamp’s liberation of the real thing. Before him, it seems objects appeared in, or maybe as, still-lives. Duchamp’s the guy, the legend, who liberated objects from being second-class citizens. Even if his greatness lies in our imagination and how he built himself to make us imagine his work as we imagine it. His objects are often not very satisfying to spend time with outside of the fictions he created for them.
DB: Why an outdoor sculpture? I know you also did this with the chair and cigarette pack [Bad Timing, Lamb Chop!, 2004]. But you haven’t dabbled in outdoor sculpture since. Is there a reason that the combo sculptures get exposed to the elements? Is it just a matter of size and what can be exhibited within the confines of where?
UF: I sometimes think the chair and cigarette might work best indoors. But it moved outside because of its size, yes. But I really enjoy outside art because you can have a profane relationship with it—you’re not forced into a sacrosanct staredown with it. You can just live with it and not have to employ clear judgment. The work unfolds over time and in many ways. As you are, so it is. It gives you more space to reflect yourself onto it. I think it’s a good place for art. I’m actually working on new outdoor sculptures. Very tall—like maybe 15 meters high—and of pieces of clay that we modeled with our hands. We just worked our fingers around the clay for a few seconds and then let the results have a life of their own. It was a crude act of creation. Trying to navigate around composition and my own stupidity. Refinement sometimes works best without refinement. So outside, these sculptures can just be what they are: almost falling back into the 'natural order.'
DB: You’re not making the clay 15 meters high, I assume—they’ll be enlarged digitally or something, right?
DB: Back to the bear… Why did you decide to create a night-light for the work? Why an actual electrical element? The bear isn’t soft, so why is the light functional? The sculpture’s all bronze, right?
UF: It’s bronze. I wanted the light to create the same kind of intimacy that streetlights can create: to cut islands in the darkness. There’s a great warmth to that. The way the light pours on the bear also creates the semblance of the bear melting. Don’t you like to watch cheese melt on a toast?
DB: Melting cheese is perfect!... Speaking of toast and cheese: I don’t like bringing French Theory into art talk, but Lacan’s been coming into my head throughout our conversation. Lacan is very major I think. You talk about duality, you talk about the ultrafine line between interiority and exteriority. Lacan has this term '$' [the barred subject]. He says there’s a constellation of subjective criteria that we acquire and no real site for it to reside—nothing but this constant push and pull of subject and non-subject: basically the classic subject/object binary is in fact one and the same: your own personal Jesus in a very real way. This almost always makes me anxious. The Lamp/Bear sculpture produces the same kind of anxiety—even if mollified by the cuteness of the bear. Is anxiety actively at play in your work? Or is it more a play on anxieties in general? The big hole at GBE [Gavin Brown Enterprises] creates a similar dynamic.
UF: It definitely has to do with that. Anxiety is great! At least for creation, that is. Everything you encounter becomes a prism for all the stuff you project onto it. It’s all you but it’s never you, kind of. It’s like any relationship. I often wonder what it would be like to be in a world with common taste, a common sense of how to make sense of the world: a rulebook, a system of standards that relieves anxieties—like ants or bees might experience. What would it be like to not see the world the way we do—how can you relieve yourself of the anxieties you have? Or do bees have anxieties too? I imagine this common taste, but I guess it’s just an object like any other. But I think commonalities, securities, traditions, classical forms, they’re all a way to handrail the nausea you experience when you end up thinking about all the misunderstandings that inevitably happen with any person or object in your life. We’re very complex. Luckily, we get in our own way. But that can be very frustrating... Artworks are temporary structures created by artists for their own order and orientation. Which makes it impossible to really understand what a finished work would be or why it should be preserved for as long as possible. Maybe it’s voyeurship: seeing somebody’s temporary handrail travel in time, released from the moment it was made.
DB: So just because you’ve created an object for other people to possibly relate to, that means all anxieties and frustrations—once salted, candied, smoked, or pickled—start to taste delicious?
UF: Of course!
DB: So, the Lamp/Bear…What do you think of the finished work?
UF: You tell me.
Post-War & Contemporary Art