Switzerland’s Ursus Wehrli practices a fastidious brand of high-concept comedy in his picture book The Art of Clean Up (Chronicle Books; $14.95). To stage his eye-popping object portraits, Wehrli deconstructs Christmas trees, chicken soup, and sand boxes, then reassembles their constituent parts into visual punchlines sorted into columns according to color, shape, and size.
The tight compositions might look like the handiwork of a regimented mind operating without an "off" switch, but Wehrli insists his urge to impose rectilinear order on unruly reality ends at the doorstep to his home. "My place is a chaotic mess," Wehrli tells Co.Create. "Some people ask if I suffer OCD, but I’m not a compulsive person."
Instead, the before-and-after shots featured in the slide show above result from Wehrli’s urge to jolt the senses into fresh modes of perception. He says, "What interests me is to look at things from another angle, to see how things look if you change the point of view. Whether it’s on stage or in books, I love to take normal incidents and move some things around. That’s where the comical facet of it starts. We laugh because something is not the way we expect it to be."
Wehrli , who performs in Europe, Australia, and New York as part of the Ursus and Nadeschkin duo, jokes that he rarely gets around to accomplishing much at home in Zurich because he spends so much time putting together awesome-looking to-do lists. "At the beginning of each day, I scribble out a bunch of ideas onto a piece of paper of all the things I want to put in order and all the places I want to straighten up," he says. "Next, I put the scribbles into a proper table on my computer by doing an Excel file, where I can see all the tasks in neat columns, separated by different colors. After lunch, I compare this new list with the list of the previous day. This takes up a lot of time and more often than not, the day is over after that. The only task on the list which is crossed out is the first one: 'Make List.'"
Not surprisingly, Wehrli’s professional devotion to the "place for everything/everything in its place" aesthetic has failed to make much of an impression on his six year-old son. "At the playground next to our house, he loves to build sand castles in the sand pit. Before returning home, I encourage him to sort the sand pit equipment and put them in order. That’s the way I like it! Lately, my boy doesn’t like to go to the playground anymore. I have no idea why."
Wehrli acknowledges that the "outside the box" mantra suited to most creative endeavors doesn’t really work for him. "Normally," he says, "You expect a comedy-minded artist to take something which is straight and turn it into a mess. What I do is exactly the same, but only the opposite."
By the time Wehrli targets an object for one of his conceptual tear downs, he already has an exacting blueprint in mind. For example, he notes, "The Christmas tree took me three hours. When I decide to 'clean up’ an object or a situation, I know in advance how it will look like in the end. Then I just tidy up. It’s as simple as that."
For 25 years, Wehrili has made a living in comedy, but his stripped down visual wit shares more with Joseph Cornell’s meticulously boxed assemblages than it does with the snarky verbiage practiced by most mainstream humorists. "I never intended to do comedy," Wehrili explains. "My intention is more to not take things—or people for that matter—for granted. I was always fascinated by the structure of things: 'Why do things work this way and not that way?'"
It’s probably no coincidence that Wehrli grew up in the tiny land-locked nation that gave us precision watches and Helvetica type. The Swiss mind-set encourages a certain respect for order, he believes. "I wouldn’t deny that there is a certain affinity for neatness in Switzerland. It’s a very small country and there is just not enough space to be messy."
Now that he’s wrestled French fries, fruit salad, daisies, and mounds of jelly beans into submission, what’s next? Wehrli declares that in a perfect world, he’d give the Alps an extreme makeover. "I might have to get quite a lot of planning permissions, but tidying up the Swiss Alps would be my ultimate project," says Wehrli. "I’d rearrange them in size order, perhaps, although the best way to make the Swiss Alps really tidy would be to iron them flat."