In Greece, Urs Fischer Conducts a "Symphony in Clay"

In Greece, Urs Fischer Conducts a "Symphony in Clay"
Sculptures for Urs Fischer's installation "Yes" on the Greek island of Hydra.

The Swiss sculptor Urs Fischer is notorious for his destructive practice, for jackhammering holes into the floors of galleries and melting down life-size wax candles of art-world figures. Even when his work isn't grounded in its own ruin, it tends to be ambivalent toward life. In his computer-generated series of aluminum monuments blown up from small lumps of amorphously squeezed clay, Fischer seems to have preserved the mark of the artist's fingerprint on the sleek, machine-made surface only to remind us of the feebleness of that gesture.

So when the Greek supercollector Dakis Joannou commissioned Fischer to create an installation at his project space on the Aegean island of Hydra two years ago, it may have come as a bit of a surprise that Fischer didn't propose one of the antisocial, sometimes sarcastic works he is known for. He wasn't going to excavate anything either. In fact, he planned something oddly productive: to enlist schoolchildren and locals from Hydra to construct their own clay sculptures inside a reclaimed brick slaughterhouse—the site of Joannou's DESTE Foundation Project Space—and scatter the works around a waterfront path. Remaining unfired, time and weather would eventually beat the works back into earth.

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Fischer originally brought on his friend, the painter Josh Smith, to collaborate on the project that was scheduled to open last May. But then the turmoil surrounding Greece's legislative elections derailed the opening for a year and the two artists reportedly ran into creative differences surrounding the temporary nature of the installation. In the end, Fischer enacted his own version of the project at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Artearlier this year, and has now finally brought the exhibition, titled "Yes," to Hydra, where the artisans began sculpting about three weeks ago.  

One might have speculated that the community-based idea came as a response to Greece's recent economic and social upheavals, but, according to Joannou, "The atmosphere is there, but he always wanted to do this." Fischer himself suggested that the impetus for the project had to do with his interest in the creativity of children: "We're all artists until we're two or three," he said during a lecture in Athens on Wednesday. "Now the artists I know smoke lots of weed or get drunk so they can work like a child." 

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Launched three weeks ago, hundreds of sculptures already line the path around the slaughterhouse, piling up into new assemblages and proliferating into a kind of mini folkloric landscape. The results have been quite different from those in California, Fischer said at the event. "In L.A., there were lots of skulls with things growing out; headshop art. That's very different to the kids in Hydra," where palm-sized animals, replicas of their own houses, and mythological figures abounded. This weekend,  Joannou plans to begin sculpting a snake slithering out of the water onto land. Elsewhere on the site, two local bartenders are in the process of forming a breastfeeding pregnant woman wearing a gas mask—"that could have fit in L.A. too," Fischer said.

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The opening of the DESTE Foundation's annual Hydra commission has become a kind of Basel Week retreat for a certain sect of the art industry. In recent years, Joannou has invited collectors, curators, and artists from around the world to the island to view the opening of installations and performances by Doug Aitken, Maurizio Cattelan, Matthew Barney, and Elizabeth Peyton. Next year he will feature the Polish figurative sculptor Pawel Althamer.  

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Until then, bundles of colorful Peloponnesian loam await anyone who wants to make the trip to the Hydra slaughterhouse and participate in what Fischer calls a "symphony in clay."


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