Urs Fischer's Funhouse 

An unexpected note of restraint permeates Urs Fischer's major solo exhibition of recent work Marguerite de Ponty at the New Museum (through January 7). For an artist still in his mid-30s who's been known to drill holes in gallery floors and walls, or create massive sculptural installations like a cabin made of bread, a tree made of picture frames and a 20-something foot-tall teddy bear-like figure, the objects spread throughout the three floors of this show are practically self-effacing (sometimes intentionally so). Even compared to Fischer's previous appearance at the New Museum—one of his nude wax sculptures that melted into a puddle by the end of Unmonumental—the pieces in this exhibition are surprisingly elusive.

All three floors of the show (each level is a nearly self-contained installation) have at least one thing in common: they plunge the viewer into completely unfamiliar spatial experiences. Or, as Massimiliano Gioni, the organizer of the exhibition, put it on opening day: "We hope that it will feel like a walk through Urs' mind." Marguerite de Ponty isn't exactly a series of artist-made fun houses—"We're tiny!", "We're in a copy of the room we're in!", "We're in a hall of mirrors filled with giant objects!"—but that's a helpful way of making sense of the exhibition.

Beginning on the 4th floor and working down, the first gallery is dominated by five giant abstract aluminum sculptures—one of which is titled "Marguerite de Ponty," a pseudonym used by the French poet Mallarme. The towering silver forms invite innumerable associations: from certain angles one resembles an elephant; another, suspended from the gallery ceiling, twists and funnels like a tornado. These are in fact tiny scraps of clay that Fischer squished and squeezed, and then cast in aluminum at a vastly increased scale. The result is both incidental and carefully, painstakingly processed, almost thoughtless miniatures turned into deliberate monuments.

Urs Fischer at the New Museum

Fischer is exploring an alchemical process here, producing complex aluminum copies out of very organic, earthy originals. He's also playing with the concept of authorship and identity: his giant fingerprints are all over these works, but unlike the clay pieces, creating the aluminum replicas involved a small army of studio assistants and engineers. These giant prints—evidence of the author's hand—are criss-crossed by the seams of the aluminum panels that make up the work, which bare testament to the hand of "Urs Fischer," the artist studio. These motifs—transformations of scale and medium, slippages between originals and copies, distorted perception—recur throughout the exhibition. Fischer emerges as a kind of trickster or magician, creating uncanny versions of mundane objects, often with a great deal of humor.

An ongoing series that provides a kind of through-line (an unstable one at that) in this show features random items—a piano and piano stool, a lamppost, a pair of crutches—that appear to be melting. Each aluminum-cast piece is painted a different pastel tone and, tucked into the vast installations on each floor, pull our attention back to something recognizable, of appropriate scale, yet not quite of this world. We are still in Fischer's uncanny universe, but it's a distorted version of our own rather than a wholly separate place. In Fischer's Funhouse tiny objects are huge, solid objects droop and drip, and rooms reappear within themselves. As the exhibition continues these manipulations only become more extreme.

On the middle floor of the show, Fischer seems to have covered the walls and ceiling in dark crimson wallpaper, with slight variations in tone here and there. As apparently random details like fire alarms, air ducts and nail marks begin to recur, the picture comes into focus: the gallery has been covered with an image of itself. He photographed every surface of the space at night after the preceding David Goldblatt exhibition was taken down, and then covered the original with the copy. Exit signs, doorways and other incidental architectural details appear a few inches out of place, suddenly gaining an unusual significance, as though by coming into this gallery we'd stepped into a primordial staging area or installation in progress, an unfinished space not quite ready to be thrust into existence.
click to enlarge Urs Fischer at the New Museum

The room also recalls the one-paragraph Borges fable "On Exactitude in Science," in which a map of an empire is created on a one-to-one scale, blanketing the territory in a copy of itself. It's appropriation art on a grand scale: by photographing and reproducing the architecture, Fischer has made it his own. The copy doesn't quite replace the original, but it certainly overwhelms it.

The last floor of the exhibition pushes the themes of appropriation and transformation further still, magnifying small objects into big, boxy prop versions of themselves. This is where the feeling of being in an artists' funhouse becomes the most acute—in fact, according to a recent New Yorker profile, Fischer's Red Hook studio looked a lot like this gallery in the weeks before the show opened. The room is filled with 51 chromed steel boxes of various dimensions varnished to be perfect mirrors and printed with silkscreens on their five exposed sides with blown-up images of relatively unremarkable objects: shoes, cheeses, fruits, lighters and books are among the most frequently-recurring subjects.

Waking around the installation feels something like traveling through a miniature city, with its grid-like layout dominated by two tall skyscraper boxes. This is also a hall of mirrors, a trompe l'oeil on a different scale than the gallery-sized duplicate above. From different angles certain images appear reflected in one another, sometimes with museum visitors trapped in the middle. The piece, titled "Service à la française" and created especially for this exhibition, becomes a kind of self-service Dadaist collage, composed by viewers as they change positions in the space. From one corner of the gallery compounding mirrors reveal a pear on a boat in a loaf of bread; elsewhere a metronome stands under a ladder, which promises a view over a red London phone booth. The familiar objects repeat infinitely, yet are so meticulously photographed and printed that they are also fascinating as individual pieces. They form a kind of solemn monument to a culture ruled by consumption and images.

Here, again, Fischer is playing with ideas of object-hood and uniqueness, using a process of reproduction (photography) to turn unremarkable and often mass-produced items into singular works of art that in turn are nearly lost in a network of reflective surfaces. In this disorienting labyrinth, we encounter familiar objects in scales and resolutions that are wholly new. This maze of the uncanny is Fischer's postmodern update of the Duchampian readymade: the manufactured object turned into a big, clunky, beautiful yet useless version of itself. It's not quite the radical shift in scale of the aluminum clay mounds upstairs, but the uncanny sense of displacement is more deeply felt because such harmless objects provoke it.

Urs Fischer at the New Museum

This installation testifies to Fischer's greatest strengths as an artist—strengths that have made him a household name in Europe, but until now a relative unknown in North America. He's a collector and a curator, assembling lists, working in series, amassing objects and media; he's an architect, engineering experiences of space and organizing our evolution through rooms; and he's a craftsman, concerned first and foremost with transforming and refining the material qualities of his work, confident that meaning and intrigue will emerge organically.

Marguerite de Ponty isn't quite a tour de force, but then it was never conceived as such. It's as good an introduction as can be assembled for an artist whose interests have remained fairly constant over the last ten years, but whose methods of expressing those themes are perpetually evolving. Indeed, the fact that he didn't feel compelled to knock out walls or pull up floors, merely to photograph and superimpose them, may signal the beginning of a subtler mid-career period for Fischer. The only hole in a wall here is just a couple inches in diameter and houses a silicone tongue that slides out at approaching viewers. It's a startling joke, but also a kind of parody of his earlier gallery incisions, as if Fischer is sticking his tongue out at his former self, reinterpreting his earlier work as he presses onward.

(photo credit: The New Museum)

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