Wehrli has gone to great lengths to create a world where the primary objective is neatness and it is one that I could quite happily live in, despite the fairly obvious impracticalities.
I imagined what a cleaning lady would do if she had to clean his studio
Wehrli’s initial inspiration was modern art. As lovely as a Joan Miró can look, could it not do with a bit of a tidy up? Werhli thought so and made two books in which he cleaned up some famous works of art including Miro’s Gold of the Azure and van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles. It hasn’t stopped with art, however, he has since moved on to the real world as illustrated with his third book The Art of Clean Up: Life Made Neat and Tidy. Humans Invent tracked Wehrli down to congratulate him on this endeavour and discover the modus operandi behind his third book.
Actually, no. I would like to be a neat and tidy person but it never really works out. If you see my studio or office you would see that it doesn’t look as tidy as you might expect. With the work I do, I spend too much of my time tidying up things one shouldn’t tidy up.
Tell me how this book came about?
I had already done two books before this one. The first two were about tidying up art and for the third one I devoted myself more to everyday situations or objects. I very often go to museums and I actually like modern art but I was standing in front of a piece by the very messy Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. He is famous for putting all sorts of colours, material and objects on a canvas and I tried to imagine what a cleaning lady would do if she had to clean up his studio.
I imagined how she would not really know where the mess starts and the art begins so she would end up cleaning not only the floor and the tables but the artworks. I realised this was a fun approach because you really start to look at art very differently if you try to bring some order to it.
If you arrange art in this new way it gives a new perspective to the pictures. I started showing what I had done to different people and realised it had quite a big impact. I worked a lot on art works and then I realised there were a lot of situations, if you look out of the window say or walk along the streets, where there is disorder and you can tidy up nearly every situation. It is ten years since the first book came out and it goes on and on.
How do you do it, do you use a computer?
I never usually work on a computer. Some people say, ‘oh you could just tidy up the parking lot (for example) with photoshop but of course that is way too easy. I like the event behind the picture. First it is in your mind, you think ok, let’s go to all the drivers and ask them if they could possibly park by colour or by size and then you realise that’s not going to happen so we really had to organise in advance.
I’m happy if it makes people think about the balance between chaos and order
That is hard to say. Obviously the big events were the hardest ones in terms of time because there were a lot of people involved. The bigger ones looked like a movie set because we had to use a crane to do the picture from above and stuff like that but of course the smaller ones I could do in a studio myself. However, the ones in the studio could take a very long time too. The alphabet soup one for example, where I put all the letters alphabetically took quite a lot of work because I had to experiment with different sorts of pasta and it wasn’t easy moving the letters around.
How did you do the one at the swimming pool?
At first I thought I’ll just go into a public pool and ask people to move around by size and colour but then I realised that a lot of people wouldn’t want to join in because they had come there to relax.
We put up some ads online and got quite a lot of press. We actually did it at 8.00am on a Sunday morning in the middle of July and it was quite chilly actually, only about 10-11 degrees. It took us three hours to take the images, which isn’t too long but of course the preparation was quite tough.
Which one took the longest?
It was the chicken coop because we used real chickens but they were shy. When people came they would run off and it was not easy to find an old fashioned hen house like this either. We finally found one in an outdoor museum in Switzerland.
No. I don’t like to work with a moral goal in mind. If people see my work and like it I think that is ok. Of course, there are a lot of issues that come with it: we are living in a very complicated world and I realised the more topsy-turvy our world becomes the more satisfying it is to see these tidied up situations. It’s kind of reassuring to see these pictures even if it doesn’t make sense at all. I think it speaks to our complicated world because our days are full of decisions and sometimes it is really hard to decide what is right, what’s wrong and we have to fight against the mess and the chaos. I wouldn’t say it is a manifesto for a neat world, but I’m happy if it makes people think about the balance between chaos and order. Of course, we realise we need both poles and it’s the balance that makes life worth living.
Do you have plans to make another book like this?
No, but then I said the same after my first book. You never know when new ideas are going to come. They never come when you expect them. I started to give talks with my first two books, where I presented them with some stories around the books and the more talks I gave the more ideas came to my mind or people came up to me and said, ‘Why don’t you tidy up this and that?’ and after a while I realised it just goes on. I have no idea what will come next.
Wehrli-1: Right hand picture only – Ursus Wehrli, KEIN & ABER AG
Wehrli-2,3: The Art of Clean Up, Ursus Wehrli, £9.99 published by Chronicle Books