Urs Fischer and 1,000 volunteers go big — and messy — at MOCA

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?

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"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."

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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."

Temporary art

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.

And this is not Fischer's first supersized museum show. Three years ago, the New Museum in New York made a splash by giving him three floors of exhibition space to fill with brand-new work. Art critic Jerry Saltz, for one, was won over. "Fischer's wizardly ability to present objects on the brink of falling apart, floating away or undergoing psychic transformation, and his forceful feel for chaos, carnality and materiality, make him, for me, one of the most imaginative powerhouses we have," he wrote.

But some critics saw in the oversized, slap-dash work all the bluster of the contemporary art market. "Frail japes by the mildly talented Swiss-born sculptor — the international art world's chief gadfly wit since Maurizio Cattelan faded in the role — are jacked up to epic, flauntingly expensive scale," wrote Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker, who suggested the show "express[ed] a practically reptilian institution craving for a new art star."

FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Spring arts preview

Some of this sniping or backlash is being reprised because of the size of the MOCA show, which occupies about half of the Grand Avenue exhibition space as well as most of the Geffen. In 2008 the museum used both buildings for a Martin Kippenberger exhibition, but it has never before given a living artist that honor.

Fischer shrugs off his critics: "I personally think art is too conservative, too boring. I'm disappointed every day by what I can do and my peers can do." He also sounds more open to failure than most. "I can imagine that the [MOCA] show will feel like two different exhibitions, with people liking one and maybe hating another. And that's OK by me."

MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch says that Fischer looked at the history of both spaces "and found ways to take advantage of what they each offer." He added: "This is not just art you put on a pedestal or hang on a wall — the show is about your whole experience. I look for artists who don't just make strong paintings or sculptures but have a vision that extends beyond that."

Grand Avenue is the more personal part of the show, featuring several of his best-known works like the 2004-05 Bread House (a full-size cabin made with real bread) and a series of sculptures featuring skeletons in lively poses. Also expect two large and rugged holes carved into gallery walls, a theatrical sort of visual reframing device that became Fischer's trademark for a time.

The Geffen also has a few of his sculptures, including a new milled aluminum piece that combines a horse and a hospital bed, which the show's guest curator, Jessica Morgan of the Tate Modern, called "an extraordinarily weird image and typical of Urs."

There will also be a full-scale, melting wax replica of a multi-figure sculpture by Italian Renaissance artist Giambologna that was a popular draw at the 2011 Venice Biennale. "There's a wick system inside, so at any point we can drill in and set new wicks to control the burning," said Fischer, who explained that the piece takes seven months in all to burn, so doesn't always need to be remade in full.

Still, the clay installation, an extreme example of how artists today are bringing the creative and collaborative energy of their studios into the museum setting, promises to be the main attraction. It also gets marquis billing outside the museum, with a banner to read: "Urs Fischer with the help of 1,000 people from L.A."

He also had studio assistants in from New York who helped him unload clay bags from big pallets where they were stacked by the dozens. And he brought two cooks who usually work in his Red Hook studio to prepare meals for the volunteers, setting out spreads of olives, cheese and bread before a lunch of grilled chicken and salad.

"I bring my cooks to give a nice service and feeling to this," he said. "We can't pay people, but we want to do our best." (Volunteers will also get their names credited on museum walls and free admission to the museum.)

Theo Taplitz, 10, a Wonderland Elementary student on spring break, didn't care so much about the perks. While his mother and younger brother worked nearby, he was single-mindedly focused on making the bulging and rather frightening eyes of what he called a dwarf-god. "They can scare gods, spirits, humans," he said. "Egyptians held up dwarfs in high positions. Dwarfs were magical."

By this point Fischer himself was making another animal: a small, hand-held pig. He pulled an electronic cigarette from his pocket and pushed it into the animal's face to make a snout. He then took out a nickel and pushed it into the animal's back: "a piggy bank," he said.

And no, it was not meant to be a comment on the museum's financial struggles, though Fischer happened to be talking about the institution's fate at the time. "With all this bickering, you would just never want to see this thing disappear. The Geffen is such a unique place that doesn't exist anywhere. It has soul. It's not cleaned-up. You remember most of the shows you see here."

Then one volunteer turned the corner and got the artist's attention: "Sir, I got a question: Can I do stairs going up here?"

"Sure, just leave enough space for people to walk. I don't want to have to destroy your work. If you keep it in this area, you can go crazy."

Asked later if there would be ropes or such to protect the artwork, Fischer laughed. "To protect the people, yes. To protect the artwork, no," he said. "Their stuff won't be preserved for eternity. My stuff won't be either."

jori.finkel@latimes.com

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