Polished versus soiled, industrially finished or crudely hand-crafted—Urs Fischer makes good use of such contrasts in his work, invariably surprising us with a seedy underside after capturing our attention with finesse. Look more carefully, though, and quite often the ruined or sullied turns out to have been expertly produced, not the product of happenstance but a carefully controlled replica. Fischer’s “dust paintings” contain something of the same contradiction: high production value expended on a representation of the stuff we devote so much energy to eliminating.
Dust has of course famously gripped the imagination of many artists, not least Marcel Duchamp, whose deliberate inclusion of dust into his masterful “Large Glass,” 1915–23, was documented in Man Ray’s 1920 photograph Dust Breeding. What attracts artists to the substance that repels most in everyday circumstances? A thin film made of minute particles, dust is barely there and yet unmistakably visible. Its immateriality and ephemerality place it in contrast to the thingness of most art. Dust applies a monochrome surface, an immediate sepia effect to all that it covers, and it appears without anyone actually doing anything. Dust represents the passage of time and is indicative of stillness, inactivity, a passive resistance to doing.
Fischer has described how these “photographic paintings” in fact came out of a period of intense activity when the artist was searching for a way to avoid his own signature, to reroute his own work away from a clearly authored “look.” The dust would do the work, not the artist, much as it did for Duchamp. The paintings were made between 2006 and 2008, the same time as Fischer’s monumental hole You and the gravelike cast Untitled (Hole) (both from 2007), works that also suggest an emptying out. While the holes suggest an evacuation of the studio closet of ideas or trends, the dust paintings in contrast propose a less aggressive and more contemplative approach to invoking change.
Fischer first thought of these works—along with the photo-illusionistic wallpaper of previous gallery installations—as products of a mechanical process one step removed from his usual recognizable handicraft, but hindsight suggests that they are entirely in keeping conceptually. Screen-printed on a massive scale on shiny aluminium sheets, the dust patterns take on many associations—from a lunar landscape to the erosion of the metal surface on which they are printed. Like much of Fischer’s two-dimensional work, the dust paintings are resolutely sculptural in effect, the tension between the flatness of the form and the multiple depths of the reflective surface and the dust landscape making for an image that remains hard to capture or contain—as elusive as dust itself.