Looming over the pedestrians of midtown Manhattan is a monumental new work, “Big Clay #4” (2013–14) made by the Swiss artist Urs Fischer (b.1973). “Big Clay #4” derives from a rather ordinary hunk of clay. Presumably the artist took about five clumps and squooshed ‘em together into a crooked pile — something like an unmanageable bacon cheeseburger. The procedure seems to have been perfunctory, unlike the highly skilled labor that went into transforming the unimpressive clay mound into a whopping 43-foot, freestanding mass of aluminum.
The work’s metallic surface reveals the artist’s magnified palm creases and fingerprints, which at such an enlarged scale become reminiscent of the 1976 blockbuster King Kong.
Encountering the work, one intuitively knows not to advance further, but rather to back away — so to frame it within the dressy vertical contours of Mies van der Rohe’s modernist skyscraper, the Seagram Building, as well as the building’s dynamic plaza (at Park Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Streets), one of our city’s most prestigious and highly visible sites for public art.
Seagram Plaza has hosted many thrilling works over the years, by greatly accomplished artists, but Mr. van der Rohe originally had Alexander Calder in mind as a permanent fixture. And while various Calders have temporarily occupied the space over the years, it is the architect’s companion building in Chicago, the Kluczynski Federal Building — laying claim to Calder’s blazing orange 40-foot “Flamingo” — that epitomizes the zeitgeist of the big-city romance between architect and sculptor.
“Big Clay #4” contrasts nicely with the architecture, and its scale works well in this outdoor context, but it’s hard to say if the sculpture and architect are hitting it off or not. What seems inevitable, however, is that the average pedestrian encountering the work will return to his/her desk after lunch distracted by a daydream of ripping into a block of clay and feeling the moist, malleable substance squish through his/her fingers. On a subconscious level, one could find oneself aroused by the tactility of Fischer’s squashed clay, or by the work’s inchoate anthropomorphic protrusions and cavities (one might even spend the afternoon google-searching that famous scene at the pottery wheel from Ghost).
In 1951, Marcel Duchamp created “Female Fig Leaf,” a delightfully perverse bronze cast of someone’s vagina. In the small body-pressed sculpture, we are drawn to a ridge that protrudes in place of the female’s ordinary concavity. This work at least partially illustrates what Duchamp meant when he said that “art should grasp the mind the way the vagina grasps the penis.” Could it be that Fischer is teasing us in a similar game of innuendo, allowing us to use our own minds (our own psychology) to grasp the clay and customize its form?
Despite “Big Clay #4’s” presence, its gargantuan hunk seems far too cynical to tease our minds. Urs Fischer, as we all know, has made it big. And now he can literally have it made — as big as he damn well pleases! And to me, his latest gesture confesses: look how easy this is. I can take any lame thing, have it supersized and fed through the art world alchemy machine until it comes back as a staggering set of numbers in my Swiss bank account.
And with the nonchalance of this Zurich-born international artstar, the work can’t help but seem like an anachronism, conceived to bask in cocky irony while claiming the place once held by Pop Art from the late ‘60s (like a Roy Lichstenstein “Brushstroke”). And while the work certainly attracts attention and warrants a critical response, it could also be dismissed as yet another ultra-cool one-liner in a tired genre that was launched with such earnestness by Claes Oldenburg’s conspicuously cheesy “Floor Cone” or “Floor Burger (Giant Hamburger) from 1962. Today one need only ask: what mundane object hasn’t been blown up to the size of a 4-story building?
You might say, Urs is sitting far too pretty to concern himself with the actual premise of this work. Stillborn in aluminum, there is no perceivable struggle taking place in the work’s initial medium. Compare “Big Clay #4” to any of the remarkably libidinal, angst-ridden clay-to-bronze figures by Willem DeKooning. Or to Robert Rauschenberg’s fabulous “Mud Muse” (1969–71), which consists of a king-size aluminum frame filled with Bentonite that oozes, plops, bubbles and slaps in accordance with sound waves. Or, if you want to feel some clay, compare Fischer’s ironic one-liner to “Challenging Mud,” the Gutai performance from 1955 in which a nearly naked Shiraga Kazuo thrashes his body for hours in a thick ground zero of clay (or mud).
Urs’s big pile of clay is not clawed at or “pushed” as they say, with too much intensity; on the contrary, he seems to have allowed this giant monument to simply ease on out. It is something like bodily waste. And when it comes to defecation, effort can only get in the way, which explains the difficulty of being potty-trained. We all have to learn to let go — to let gravity do the work for us, to un-grip the metaphorical “clay.” Thus, by potty training standards, Urs’s Big-whatever might be seen as a real accomplishment.
But all sarcasm aside, I do read a deeper pathos in the work which I find very interesting. Could it be that Fischer is referring to a different kind of waste, the wasting of an opportunity — the opportunity, that is, to sculpt, to apply oneself, to use one’s imagination. I see the work as a metaphor for the uninspired artist who has all the resources one could ever want at his fingertips, but has no hunger. At this scale, and financial output, one might call such a waste a tragedy.
Compare “Big Clay #4” to Fischer’s highly productive and even democratic (while equally cynical) 2013 show in LA’s Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, where over a thousand museum-goers were invited to enter the gallery and sculpt-away with Urs’s clay. After a few weeks, the room was packed with a motley array of anonymous, dried-up clay objects (skulls, pretzels, iPhones, a tombstone, a bowl of soup, life-size humans). Despite the energy and creativity of the mob, Fischer seems to have balked, for the spectacle was actually derivative of fellow Zurich artists Fischli and Weiss, who have exhibited similar unfired and uninspired clay doodles since the early 80s, but with tremendous originality.
Big Clay is actually Urs Fischer’s second appearance at the Seagram Plaza. Back in 2011, he installed a 20-ton tattered teddy bear/desk lamp, another upscale piece of kitsch in Condo-ville. Apparently that same year, a painted bronze bear from the same series was auctioned off by Christie’s for just under $7 million. Nice. My impression is that, back in 2011, Urs Fischer was taking his brand of intentionally derivative art into the same arena as Jeffrey Koons and Paul McCarthy, both of whom walk the line between inflated crap (overpriced merchandize) and literally inflated crap (balloon-shaped poopy). In 2007, McCarthy created a fabulously menacing work called “Complex Pile, Shit Pile” — a series of gargantuan Macy’s-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade-ish, inflatable bowel movements. And Koons recently unveiled a deeply pathological, 10-foot-tall painted aluminum mound entitled “Play-doh,” which poses as a pile of colorful (edible) children’s clay. I read the work, and its clever title, as a pun, referring to the class of people who like to play with their dough. Could it be that Urs is in competition with Koons and McCarthy to see who can drop the largest, most expensive turd in the art casino? Where it will be purchased by the most reckless gambler at the poker table? If so, isn’t this pooping contest, actually more of a classic pissing contest?
Wikipedia defines a “pissing contest” in the following paragraph:
[…] a game in which participants compete to see who can urinate the highest, the farthest, or the most accurately. […] Since the 1940s the term has been used as a slang idiomatic phrase describing contests that are futile or purposeless, especially if waged in a conspicuously aggressive manner. As a metaphor it is used figuratively to characterize ego-driven battling in a pejorative or facetious manner that is often considered vulgar.
In 2007, Urs seemed to be lifting his leg and marking a different arena with his cunningly derivative art (or shocking acts of plagiarism, depending on how you see it), when he completed his quasi-earthwork/re-deconstruction “You.” Using a jackhammer to break through a concrete floor and a backhoe to excavate tons of cubic NYC property (clay, I presume), Urs transformed Gavin Brown’s Enterprise into an indoor crater—an obvious “cover,” if you will, of Chris Burden’s seminal 1986 installation at MOCA’s Temporary Contemporary entitled: “Exposing the Foundation of the Museum.”
Returning to “Big Clay #4,” imagine if Urs’s work had had slightly different parameters. What if he had un-gripped his five-pound hunk of clay in the middle of the plaza, forgoing the urge to go gigantic. There, dwarfed by pedestrians, would stand a pretty modest offering. Who knows how many people would have stood in line all day to have their way with it. But such a small work would have been an enormous risk — that of not making a splash, and not being noticed (i.e., see Valie Export lying in the street c. 1970). But there would have been an even bigger risk: failure to mint.
“Urs Fischer: Big Clay #4” is on view at the Seagram Building (375 Park Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 1.