Ursus Wehrli: Tidying up art
February 2, 2006
Ursus Wehrli shares his vision for a cleaner, more organized, tidier form of art -- by deconstructing the paintings of modern masters into their component pieces, sorted by color and size.Ursus Wehrli
Comedian and cabaret artist Ursus Wehrli is on a crusade to tidy up art. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
My name is Ursus Wehrli, and I would like to talk to you this morning
about my project, Tidying Up Art.
First of all -- any questions so far?
First of all, I have to say I'm not from around here.
I'm from a completely different cultural area, maybe you noticed?
I mean, I'm wearing a tie, first. And then secondly, I'm a little bit nervous
because I'm speaking in a foreign language,
and I want to apologize in advance, for any mistakes I might make.
Because I'm from Switzerland, and I just don't hope you think this is Swiss German
I'm speaking now here. This is just what it sounds like
if we Swiss try to speak American.
But don't worry -- I don't have trouble with English, as such.
I mean, it's not my problem, it's your language after all.
I am fine. After this presentation here at TED, I can simply go back to Switzerland,
and you have to go on talking like this all the time.
So I've been asked by the organizers to read from my book.
It's called "Tidying Up Art" and it's, as you can see,
it's more or less a picture book.
So the reading would be over very quickly.
But since I'm here at TED, I decided to hold my talk here in a more modern way,
in the spirit of TED here, and I managed to do some slides here for you.
I'd like to show them around so we can just, you know --
Actually, I managed to prepare for you some enlarged pictures -- even better.
So Tidying Up Art, I mean, I have to say, that's a relatively new term.
You won't be familiar with it.
I mean, it's a hobby of mine that I've been indulging in for the last few years,
and it all started out with this picture of the American artist, Donald Baechler
I had hanging at home. I had to look at it every day
and after a while I just couldn't stand the mess anymore
this guy was looking at all day long.
Yeah, I kind of felt sorry for him.
And it seemed to me even he felt really bad
facing these unorganized red squares day after day.
So I decided to give him a little support,
and brought some order into neatly stacking the blocks on top of each other.
Yeah. And I think he looks now less miserable.
And it was great. With this experience, I started to look more closely
at modern art. Then I realized how, you know, the world of modern art
is particularly topsy-turvy.
And I can show here a very good example.
It's actually a simple one, but it's a good one to start with.
It's a picture by Paul Klee.
And we can see here very clearly, it's a confusion of color.
Yeah. The artist doesn't really seem to know where to put the different colors.
The various pictures here of the various elements of the picture --
the whole thing is unstructured.
We don't know, maybe Mr. Klee was probably in a hurry, I mean --
-- maybe he had to catch a plane, or something.
We can see here he started out with orange,
and then he already ran out of orange,
and here we can see he decided to take a break for a square.
And I would like to show you here my tidied up version of this picture.
We can see now what was barely recognizable in the original:
17 red and orange squares are juxtaposed with just two green squares.
Yeah, that's great.
So I mean, that's just tidying up for beginners.
I would like to show you here a picture which is a bit more advanced.
What can you say? What a mess.
I mean, you see, everything seems to have been scattered aimlessly around the space.
If my room back home had looked like this,
my mother would have grounded me for three days.
So I'd like to -- I wanted to reintroduce some structure into that picture.
And that's really advanced tidying up.
Yeah, you're right. Sometimes people clap at this point,
but that's actually more in Switzerland.
We Swiss are famous for chocolate and cheese. Our trains run on time.
We are only happy when things are in order.
But to go on, here is a very good example to see.
This is a picture by Joan Miro.
And yeah, we can see the artist has drawn a few lines and shapes
and dropped them any old way onto a yellow background.
And yeah, it's the sort of thing you produce when you're doodling on the phone.
And this is my --
-- you can see now the whole thing takes up far less space.
It's more economical and also more efficient.
With this method Mr. Miro could have saved canvas for another picture.
But I can see in your faces that you're still a little bit skeptical.
So that you can just appreciate how serious I am about all this,
I brought along the patents, the specifications for some of these works,
because I've had my working methods patented
at the Eidgenössische Amt für Geistiges Eigentum in Bern, Switzerland.
I'll just quote from the specification.
"Laut den Kunstprüfer Dr. Albrecht --"
It's not finished yet.
"Laut den Kunstprüfer Dr. Albrecht Götz von Ohlenhusen
wird die Verfahrensweise rechtlich geschützt welche die Kunst
durch spezifisch aufgeräumte Regelmässigkeiten
des allgemeinen Formenschatzes
neue Wirkungen zu erzielen möglich wird."
Ja, well I could have translated that, but you would have been none the wiser.
I'm not sure myself what it means but it sounds good anyway.
I just realized it's important how one introduces new ideas to people,
that's why these patents are sometimes necessary.
I would like to do a short test with you.
Everyone is sitting in quite an orderly fashion here this morning.
So I would like to ask you all to raise your right hand. Yeah.
The right hand is the one we write with, apart from the left-handers.
And now, I'll count to three. I mean, it still looks very orderly to me.
Now, I'll count to three, and on the count of three
I'd like you all to shake hands with the person behind you. OK?
One, two, three.
You can see now, that's a good example: even behaving in an orderly, systematic way
can sometimes lead to complete chaos.
So we can also see that very clearly in this next painting.
This is a painting by the artist, Niki de Saint Phalle.
And I mean, in the original it's completely unclear to see
what this tangle of colors and shapes is supposed to depict.
But in the tidied up version, it's plain to see that it's a sunburnt woman playing volleyball.
Yeah, it's a -- this one here, that's much better.
That's a picture by Keith Haring.
I think it doesn't matter.
So, I mean, this picture has not even got a proper title.
It's called "Untitled" and I think that's appropriate.
So, in the tidied-up version we have a sort of Keith Haring spare parts shop.
This is Keith Haring looked at statistically.
One can see here quite clearly,
you can see we have 25 pale green elements,
of which one is in the form of a circle.
Or here, for example, we have 27 pink squares with only one pink curve.
I mean, that's interesting. One could extend this sort of statistical analysis
to cover all Mr. Haring's various works,
in order to establish in which period the artist favored pale green circles or pink squares.
And the artist himself could also benefit from this sort of listing procedure
by using it to estimate how many pots of paint he's likely to need in the future.
One can obviously also make combinations.
For example, with the Keith Haring circles and Kandinsky's dots.
You can add them to all the squares of Paul Klee.
In the end, one has a list with which one then can arrange.
Then you categorize it, then you file it, put that file in a filing cabinet,
put it in your office and you can make a living doing it.
Yeah, from my own experience. So I'm --
Actually, I mean, here we have some artists that are a bit more structured. It's not too bad.
This is Jasper Johns. We can see here he was practicing with his ruler.
But I think it could still benefit from more discipline.
And I think the whole thing adds up much better if you do it like this.
And here, that's one of my favorites.
Tidying up Rene Magritte -- this is really fun.
You know, there is a --
I'm always being asked what inspired me to embark on all this.
It goes back to a time when I was very often staying in hotels.
So once I had the opportunity to stay in a ritzy, five-star hotel.
And you know, there you had this little sign --
I put this little sign outside the door every morning that read,
"Please tidy room." I don't know if you have them over here.
So actually, my room there hasn't been tidied once daily, but three times a day.
So after a while I decided to have a little fun,
and before leaving the room each day I'd scatter a few things around the space.
Like books, clothes, toothbrush, etc. And it was great.
By the time I returned everything had always been neatly returned to its place.
But then one morning, I hang the same little sign onto that picture by Vincent van Gogh.
And you have to say this room hadn't been tidied up since 1888.
And when I returned it looked like this.
Yeah, at least it is now possible to do some vacuuming.
OK, I mean, I can see there are always people
that like reacting that one or another picture
hasn't been properly tidied up. So we can make a short test with you.
This is a picture by Rene Magritte,
and I'd like you all to inwardly -- like in your head, that is --
to tidy that up. So it's possible that some of you would make it like this.
Yeah? I would actually prefer to do it more this way.
Some people would make apple pie out of it.
But it's a very good example to see that the whole work
was more of a handicraft endeavor that involved the very time-consuming job
of cutting out the various elements and sticking them back in new arrangements.
And it's not done, as many people imagine, with the computer,
otherwise it would look like this.
So now I've been able to tidy up pictures that I've wanted to tidy up for a long time.
Here is a very good example. Take Jackson Pollock, for example.
It's -- oh, no, it's -- that's a really hard one.
But after a while, I just decided here to go all the way
and put the paint back into the cans.
Or you could go into three-dimensional art.
Here we have the fur cup by Meret Oppenheim.
Here I just brought it back to its original state.
But yeah, and it's great, you can even go, you know --
Or we have this pointillist movement for those of you who are into art.
The pointillist movement is that kind of paintings
where everything is broken down into dots and pixels.
And then I -- this sort of thing is ideal for tidying up.
So I once applied myself to the work of the inventor of that method, Georges Seurat,
and I collected together all his dots.
And now they're all in here.
You can count them afterwards, if you like.
You see, that's the wonderful thing about the tidy up art idea:
it's new. So there is no existing tradition in it.
There is no textbooks, I mean, not yet, anyway.
I mean, it's "the future we will create."
But to round things up I would like to show you just one more.
This is the village square by Pieter Bruegel.
That's how it looks like when you send everyone home.
Yeah, maybe you're asking yourselves
where old Bruegel's people went?
Of course, they're not gone. They're all here.
I just piled them up.
So I'm -- yeah, actually I'm kind of finished at that moment.
And for those who want to see more, I've got my book downstairs in the bookshop.
And I'm happy to sign it for you with any name of any artist.
But before leaving I would like to show you,
I'm working right now on another -- in a related field
with my tidying up art method. I'm working in a related field.
And I started to bring some order into some flags.
Here -- that's just my new proposal here for the Union Jack.
And then maybe before I leave you ...
yeah, I think, after you have seen that I have to leave anyway.
Yeah, that was a hard one. I couldn't find a way to tidy that up properly,
so I just decided to make it a little bit more simpler.
Thank you very much.
Comedian and cabaret artist Ursus Wehrli is on a crusade to tidy up art.Why you should listen
Comedian and cabaret artist Ursus Wehrli is the author of Tidying Up Art, a visionary manifesto that yearns toward a more rational, more organized and cleaner form of modern art. In deconstructing the work of Paul Klee, Jaspen Johns and other masters into its component parts, organized by color and size, Wehrli posits a more perfect art world.
His book The Art of Clean Up extends this principle into the physical world, with extremely (though oddly) satisfying results. Click through to see what a bowl of alphabet soup would look like in Wehrli's world.
The original video is available on TED.com