Ursus Wehrli: Order and chaos

I just stumbled on this Ted talk from Ursus Wehrli and found his work kind of interesting, although I think I might like it better without his interjections. Despite his trivializing of the content of his own pieces, which I found to be quite irritating and one-note, there is a truly smart concept here. As a society we are somewhat obsessed with data, categorization, and applying an order that is rather inorganic to everything around us. This order is something we seek and yet it is simultaneously unnerving; Wehrli hits on this reality in a humorous way through his work. His talk, however, makes his work seem like nothing more than an arrogant, postmodern, “art school” snub at the very concept of producing contemporary art, which is to retread art history in a “wink, wink” manner. Despite his best efforts, however, his work is still worth consideration.


Technology as a harbinger of doom? Not really. This work is no Nam June Paik…

I came across some interesting artwork this week called Apple Destroyed Products. The work consisted of photographs of iPhones, iPods, iPads, and MacBooks that had been mutilated in various ways by Michael Tompert and Paul Fairchild. The images are stunning in their beauty. However, this beauty is owed in part to the exquisite look of the Apple products in the first place, all of which remain completely identifiable; nothing has been reduced to a pile of goo. The artists, for their part, state rather unprofoundly that the work is an attempt “to make people think about their relationship with these universally beloved gadgets.” Interestingly, this work doesn’t make me me examine the relationship I have with my technology in any real manner, nor do I believe the artists were engaging in this process.

First off, this is not about just any technology since only new Apple products were used. The artists were acutely aware that a smashed Ipad would be more elegant than a mutilated Acer laptop or a Blackberry Curve phone. Apple exhibits a level of design and engineering that is hard to match. The artists have a reverence for this fact, given that none of the mutilation renders the products unrecognizable. They too are in awe, and this work is purely aesthetic. In the absence of the artist statement, I would have been tempted to view the work not as a comment on technology or Apple gadgets, but as an indictment of consumer waste. We discard these products often in favor of the next new thing, which is both the genius of Apple innovation (read: marketing) and the extreme selfishness of consumerism. I love progress, but we throw away functioning pieces without a thought for those who don’t have access to these devices in the first place. We discard these items into stuffed landfills without regard for environmental impacts, all so we can have a newer device with a chrome finish or better apps. I am guilty of this.

This work falls short, however, of making me really examine my relationship with technology, or with Apple. The fact is, the artists benefited from good design here; they also used technology in the form of digital cameras to document the pieces, undoubtedly printed them with dye sub printing technology, and made sure to submit the works to online venues to get the word out about their show. I only discovered the work when a friend posted a link to Facebook. Technology here has made the work, and the artists have not gone far enough to either loathe or even struggle with the relationship. I see no abject hatred of the destroyed pieces. I see a lack of volume sufficient to comment on the true wastefulness of our culture. I’m sure a thousand bucks worth of new electronics seemed like a lot to the artist, but really, let’s multiply that by at least ten-then maybe, maybe, we start to make a point.

I see no personal relationship to the devices evident either. Tompert cites his motivation for the project as watching his sons fight over an iPod Touch because he was too stupid to make sure each boy had the same games installed on his respective device. Big deal. This is not a comment on how Apple products get people worked up into a frenzy, it is a comment on how kids fight over everything. My brother and I fought over games, toys, books, food; we fought over little chocolate eggs my parents laid out as a scavenger hunt every Easter. Kids fight; it’s not profound. An adult smashing an iPod out of anger that his kids are fighting is stupid. Reading that snippet of the artist statement made me realize that this work was not about anything more than the fact that the toxic liquid oozing out of a broken screen is super pretty.

Does this matter? Well, yes. In the absence of this vacuous artist statement I was willing to see a glimmer of something more than aesthetic pleasure. The artists didn’t take the concept anywhere near far enough, but there was the possibility of a complex message that could be teased out. After reading the artists’ drivel, it is clear this is a one-time series bent on gravy-training off Apple beauty while, (wink wink) offering the notion that people should think. This is not enough. All art makes people think something. And right now I think that if artists are not at all articulate, they have a two choices:

1. ask someone smarter to write the statement
2. remain silent

This is a lesson that these two artists, and many others besides, should learn quickly. Meaning isn’t solely derived from intentionality, but a bad artist statement hinders meaning in a serious way. All I can focus on here is what I wish the work was and that is a sign of an idea that needs more attention. I am forced to identify all the reasons the artists are wrong about the meaning of their own work. Good art transcends this and inspires meaningful conversation and debate. Simplicity of content is not the same as inane or childish intentions, and sometime words eclipse potential.

Check out the work here: