Artist Urs Fischer. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
As Urs Fischer stood inside the Geffen Contemporary last month preparing for his big MOCA survey, the museum's much-discussed financial troubles did not seem to be weighing on him.
"I don't care about any of that; I care about art," said the beefy 39-year-old artist in jeans and a long-sleeve black T-shirt, with assorted tattoos snaking up his arms. And he noted that his show has not been shortchanged because of any budget crunch. "Putting on a sculpture show always takes a lot of effort, but we didn't have to compromise much. Whatever compromise was needed, we found a solution."
While talking about the hot topic of the L.A. art world, he was massaging a ball of clay in his palm into some small animal form. He formed two triangles as ears, pinching them into place. What is it supposed to be?
FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Spring arts preview
"I don't know. It looks like a cat / pit bull combo," he said, before taking the Japanese-seeming, toy-like sculpture apart and throwing the limbs or lumps one by one against the museum wall.
Those lumps are now a very small part of a very big installation that Fischer has organized — or as he says, "choreographed." The Zurich-born, New York-based art star has overseen hundreds of volunteers, from local elementary school students to professional ceramicists, as they made clay sculptures to fill the bulk of the cavernous space — a grand experiment in open-source art-making that seemed by turns both democratic and anarchic.
Working in different shifts over four weeks, the volunteers made everything from classical reclining nudes and realistic animals to fantastic, many-headed beasts, with the odd pizza slice or train set mixed in. In effect, they have been sculpting a city worth of people, creatures, vehicles and odds and ends out of clay.
Only this city is meant to crumble. When the clay dries, many of the sculptures will survive intact. But others for reasons of delicacy or size will fall apart before or during the course of the show, giving the whole installation the feeling of some strange, bombed-out landscape.
At least that's what Fischer expects based on similar but smaller events he organized a couple of days last year at classical academies of fine art in Venice and Paris. "It all becomes one big image, especially once it dries," he said, standing beside a large cat, a bust of a king or queen wearing a crown and a chair that could be read as a throne. "There's all this effort and creation going on, and it still looks like a ruin."
PHOTOS: Arts and culture in pictures by The Times
Which would explain why Fischer doesn't mind the sculptural debris littering the ground. He told dozens of volunteers as much in a short talk that morning, giving them a few pointers.
"You can work together or work alone. We try to stay on the figurative side, it helps to sharpen the experience," said the artist, sounding enthusiastic for the activities to come.
Then he encouraged them not to clean up their detritus. "I know when you work you usually take that stuff away, but this time you can leave any excess on the floor." He ended on one note of caution: "We've had a few bigger structures fall, so stay away from tall things that seem to lean."
One of the first volunteers to roll up her sleeves was Tatiana Wyand, 30, who was returning to complete a couple of life-size figures: one torso and one reclining nude. She was a big fan of the clay from the Laguna Clay Company, supplied by the museum. "This is great clay to work with — you don't need any tools … the clay is so moist it adheres to itself. The texture is amazing."
And she doesn't mind doing this work unpaid? "Not at all. It's amazing to say I have a piece at the Geffen. And it's free material — it's every artist's dream."
Around the corner, Brendan Dugan, a 19-year-old art student at USC, was busy making a friendly-looking Bernese Mountain dog. Beside him stood a pile of a dozen clay bags, each 25 pounds. He had already used about 200 pounds of clay and was now twisting the head into place. "This is not going to move — I made him a little bigger than they usually are," he said.
And why this breed? "I just like their fur," he said, now patting the dog's neck. He found out about the project through school. "I don't know the artist — I haven't had a chance to really look him up."
Many volunteers that day had never heard of Fischer before being recruited through school announcements or museum emails, even though the sculptor briefly lived in L.A. a decade ago (he still has a house in Elysian Park) and became an art-world sensation since then, now showing with Gagosian Gallery.