The Bricoleur: Kaspar Müller

Kaspar Müller and Federico Vavassori in Conversation with John Beeson and Arthur Fink


For his second solo show at Galleria Federico Vavassori in Milan, Kaspar Müller transferred the majority of his studio to the gallery. On view were makeshift tables covered with plastic trinkets, bottles, and papers; sheets of plywood with abstract smears of paint; mirrors affixed with photos of Müller’s past works or photos he’d taken; a shelf with blank CD-Rs; and materials from a construction site. Here, Müller and Vavassori discuss the exhibition with writer John Beeson and writer-curator Arthur Fink.


Arthur Fink: Before the show opened, you sent us a sequence of images from your studio—I liked the narrative that evolved from them. You could see close-ups of artworks on the walls, arrangements on tables, knickknacks, food, drinks. The second-to-last photo showed the stuff in your studio packed and bubble-wrapped, and the last picture was a shot of the now-empty studio. By that you were suggesting that everything from the mythologically charged studio would be presented in the gallery.

Kaspar Müller: The show is about art’s relation to its environment in general, about how to be creative and what the value of creativity is in this loop between the studio and the gallery. The empty room pictured after the “work” had been picked up is a familiar picture, but here the studio is useless, just a space—in my case, an empty apartment. Usually the studio, after pickup, looks ready to produce new works. The cycle continues.

AF: It’s almost as if, in installing the exhibition, you’ve arranged all the “sediments” of your production process.

KM: Sediments, maybe. Others called it excrements, but there is no concentration and no climax. Therefore I am not sure if it’s the right word. It’s flattened and superficial. The elements are connected to one another, but more by faith than through a process of crystallization or by a mutual objective. I’d rather see this in relation to “collateral damage”—which is usually the “ugly by-product” that no one wants to see, but it’s dishonest to separate what is reciprocal. I read a conversation yesterday in which John Armleder quotes John Cage as saying, “The artist is the collateral damage of the art.” That’s very noble. I’m trying to talk about a redundant process in which the two sides of production become assimilated, even including the shipment of it, more like an occupation or a performance. It’s certainly a bit off in terms of tone, corrupting the peaceful idea of doodling in the studio.

John Beeson: You once told me, Kaspar, in relation to the series of photos you took of Lake Zürich, called Schätze der Erinnerung: “I think it’s important to show that things aren’t so special, so individual—as unique as advertising wants consumer culture’s products and lifestyles to seem, like tools for individualization.” Is that the case here?

KM: Somehow it’s always the case, that sense of melancholy. Also, a lot of things in this show used to belong to other exhibitions, like vanished memories. That’s maybe why, as Arthur mentioned in the press release for the show, in this seemingly autobiographical installation, there’s something anonymous and ghostly. Friendly, though, and familiar.

Federico Vavassori: What you were saying about collateral damage brings to mind the title of your show at Kunsthalle Bern in 2013—I Shrunk the Kids—and several moves you made afterward. The Bern exhibition, perhaps best epitomized by a traffic cone dressed in a bright yellow Polo Ralph Lauren garment, featured for the first time the appropriated Julian Opie pinups we ended up “recycling” for your first show at the gallery in Milan. I was particularly excited about testing the ubiquitous, resilient quality of those images—even though that was not quite the plan until just prior to the opening. That was a bit of collateral damage, I’d say. Some of the issues of value you raised in our gallery show came back on a much-amplified scale in your show at Museum im Bellpark Kriens, Switzerland, in 2015, which could have easily been titled I Blew up the Kid due to the number of objects and pieces of furniture you arranged in the space, in addition to the mazelike feeling of its domestic interiors. Meanwhile, the traffic cone grew up—the kid got upgraded to business class—but what happened to us? Maybe we shrank?

KM: It seems natural to recycle certain parts or works from older exhibitions. It’s not about subversion, nor about pragmatism. It’s more about rhetoric and shifting values, and for me, it turns out to be productive. I’m just trying to be considerate of my resources. The abyss of gallery storage is also a reality.

JB: Speaking of, should we talk a bit about the title of the show? It’s Maintenance, and you said, Kaspar, that you wanted to draw attention to its French roots: la main, meaning “hand,” and tenir, meaning to grasp, to hold, to maintain. Who has what here? What is being preserved?

KM: Both la main and tenir are words that describe a situation in which you have (taken) something in your hand. It isn’t just a step in a process leading toward an objective or a solution, such as repairing something broken. Maintenance is a state or a condition. My friend Jake said to me recently that he sees me as a bricoleur. Funnily enough it’s also French. The word doesn’t sound very flattering at first. It’s the opposite of a watchmaker, whose objects and labor all serve a greater cause—that of the clock working, without which both the watchmaker and his or her tools would be useless. The bricoleur works with things that are already finite and refuses their given determination by looking at them differently. I also like Maintenance because I worked with what was “at hand” in the studio and nearby—a construction site, a print shop, restaurants—which by the way adds a sense of dependency and a micro-political aspect to the seemingly freewheeling construction. It’s less free, less coincidental, and less exchangeable than it seems. On the other hand, the definition of the generic and the specific are almost exchangeable in this installation.

JB: The painted wooden boards come from a construction site near your studio, though you reworked them somewhat. The smiley face on one was printed at a print shop near the studio. There’s a number of takeout boxes and napkins from nearby restaurants on the tables.

FV: It may be interesting to note that two words with distinctly different connotations come from the Italian verb mantenere. Manutenzione is often used for objects, streets, or buildings as a synonym for “conservation,” but stresses the intention, the work, and the means of obtaining it (like Niccolò Machiavelli’s famous description of his De principatibus as a pamphlet about what principalities are, how they are established, how to maintain them, and why they fall). Mantenimento refers to the maintenance of life and/or health (often that of a family member or a lover, for instance alimony or when someone depends solely on his or her partner financially speaking), though it can also describe keeping a promise or vow. It’s interesting that “maintenance” can apply to the material structure of an object/street/building, to love/family relationships, and to spiritual/legal boundaries in general.

KM: I actually got to it via the word maintenant, which is using the French present continuous and is the word for “now.”

AF: A lot of the objects you work with have a certain shabby and dull look—they are aesthetically wrong and already sort of abject with almost no economic or cultural value. I sometimes think of your work as an attempt to give those neglected and weird objects a different reality. You let them play in a new aesthetic zone in which they have an almost aggressive presence.

JB: That said, I feel like the shabby, dull, even cheap stuff in Kaspar’s work—like an IKEA Billy shelf or a knockoff design classic or a blank CD-R—gains a kind of value, which I don’t think of it having otherwise. All of a sudden, I can see those things as valuable, and not just in the sense of an artwork with a higher price tag. A knickknack or knockoff does have a similar cultural value, in the grand scheme, as a famous design object. People, in some cases masses of people, have lived with them and used them, so they are somehow definitive of our era. And then there’s the fact that people are capable of fetishizing even shitty design and bleak contexts, given enough historical distance. But maybe this relates to the aggression you mentioned.

AF: I agree, they do gain a certain value by being put into this new syntax. When I mentioned this shabby or dull quality, I was thinking more of objects like the Homer Simpson slippers found near one of the tables in Maintenance, this strange smiley with a pen in hand, or Jerry Mouse (from Tom & Jerry), which seems to come from a McDonald’s Happy Meal. What fascinates me is how differently I look at these objects in the visual grammar you, Kaspar, create in your work. They really strike me in their presence, like quasi-archaeological objects living an afterlife in the gallery.

KM: It’s a bit like archaeology, but these things aren’t hidden; we just don’t pay attention to them. Sediments, as you called the accumulated objects before, can work as a description of our consciousness of them and their cultural values. Speaking of archaeology, these seemingly familiar things somehow do appear like (or are) hieroglyphics to us, especially in the context of an exhibition. The moment when they suddenly emerge and seem connected and appealing—interesting—is an exciting moment, prone to mystification.

AF: I’m also interested in the mirror-and-photo pieces. Having mirrors in the show generates an awareness on the part of viewers regarding their movement through the space and, in a way, turns them into objects as well. It can also be distracting when looking at the works, because we’re tempted to stare at ourselves.

KM: That’s their function, indeed. They’re also a bit narcissistic on another level because I’m doubtful that people will come very close to the meaning that the photos glued onto the surfaces of the mirrors have for me; there’s no indication, nor description. For example, one shows my parents’ old house, where I grew up. I chose the pictures from my iPhone roll, and I took them some time ago. The library of photos on the smartphone is a commonplace, part of a collective motion and memory, and it’s always close at hand.

JB: Could we talk a bit about commonplaces and clichés? We’re familiar with Daniel Spoerri’s refuse-covered tabletops. I don’t think I’m off base when I say this kind of reference was intentional. For example, the show includes a painting that is obviously a reproduction of a Julian Opie, and you’ve even shown this particular painting before. You’ve also shown various metal shelves with CD-Rs and other trinkets. And when I visited you in the studio, you mentioned Adolf von Menzel, Ei Arakawa, and zombie formalism. Do these references all circulate in the same space and in the same way as the readymade design objects, both authentic and knockoffs, that you’ve shown in the past couple of years? Does the studio—some idealized notion of a site inaccessible to most people where surplus value gets made—also exist in the same space? I mean, I have a feeling that Fischli & Weiss did a work explicitly about the studio—transplanting the studio to the gallery. (Okay, I looked it up. I was thinking of their untitled installations of painted polyurethane objects, which they apparently began in 1982 and worked on for decades.)

KM: They definitely circulate in the same space. And there are always references, more or less intentional, and they’re often works I like as well. Fischli & Weiss’s studio is a good one, though their studio is very different. Their installations don’t include “outside” elements. Even though their installations are “fake,” they are still very real—they are hermetic in their own reality. In my installation, there is no illusion and therefore no concept of hope. Ei Arakawa was a friendly hint between us, because I went to a print shop near my studio to laminate an inkjet print of Adolph von Menzel’s The Artist’s Foot (1876) (the original painting hangs in Berlin) and I liked Ei’s work in Münster—in fact, you worked on Skulptur Projekte, and I went to see it with Arthur. I like déjà vu in art more than intentionally included references. I don’t want to hint specifically at Genzken, Broodthaers, Duchamp, Sturtevant, or Rauschenberg. They have something to say in a more general kind of way. Opie is a one-liner, a cul-de-sac, and that interests me more because, like the other objects, it’s finite, I can add it to the stock. Like the objects, I see it as a vector inside the installation.

JB: You also cast some random knickknacks in tin, some coins and some push pins, and you’ve included a hand-blown glass traffic cone. Why? Is everything we see readymade, even the things you made yourself? Even the things that might seem random or natural or insignificant?

KM: I wanted to give myself a lot of freedom within the limited perimeters of my studio and its closed environment. I didn’t feel I needed to be very consistent in relation to these perimeters, nor exceed them by force. I’d take and add and stack and edit things, even reproduce some and then release them again, almost without judging the translation. It should be a loop. What goes around comes around.


at Galleria Federico Vavassori, Milan
until 27 January 2018

Related Articles
Mousse 71
I Don’t Mind Working, I Do Mind Dying: Anna Witt
(Read more)
Mousse 71
Teach Me How to Dougie: D’Ette Nogle
(Read more)
Animating the Inanimate: Geumhyung Jeong
(Read more)
Ephemeral Building Structures: Michelle Lopez at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia
(Read more)
Mousse 71
Mother Is a Woman: Jes Fan
(Read more)
In-Between Repetition and Variation: Suellen Rocca
(Read more)