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The Art of Clean Up: Life Made Neat and Tidy, by Ursus Wehrli, is a recent release from Chronicle Books and, boy, does it appeal to my inner anal-retentive OCDness. Mr. Wehrli takes “messy” things, things that we don’t usually look at and consider to be in disarray, and rearranges them in beautiful, organized order. Have you ever wondered how many As or Bs there were in an average bowl of alphabet soup? Or the ratio of ketchup to your fries? You’re about to find out:
We talked to Mr. Wehrli about his new book to find out what drives him to clean things up:
I hear you’re actually not as anal-retentive or as obsessive as we might think. Is this true?
Yes, that’s true, I’m afraid to say. I know some people are disappointed that this Mr. Wehrli is not suffering from OCD or a similar disease. However, I can get quite obsessive when it comes to an idea that I want to carry out. I drive my friends crazy if I have an artistic idea in mind. I’m only happy when it’s done.
How did you get started “arranging” things neatly?
I’ve always been interested in looking at things differently and turning things upside down. First, I started looking closely at modern art. I copied some famous paintings and put all the different forms, shapes, and colors in another place on the canvas. Then, I started to tidy up all the objects in the paintings and arranged them in a new way.
For example, I collected all the different squares in a modern painting and piled them up. The green ones in one pile, the red ones in another, and so on. What came out were fascinating new pictures. So my first books were about tidying up art. After that I began to devote myself more to everyday situations and I tidied up parking lots, fruit salads, and a lot of other messy things.
Was there one particular project that proved to be extremely challenging to tidy up?
Of course, there were a few. The parking lot, for example, took me a while. And the sunbathers. All the pictures with a lot of people involved were particularly strenuous. But fortunately I had a few people supporting me. A lot of planning was needed to get some of them done.
I didn’t get to finish my ultimate project, though: tidying up the Swiss Alps. That would be quite ambitious. I could rearrange them by size, perhaps. I’m still working on that one. Granted, the best way to make the Swiss Alps really tidy would be to iron them flat…
You must be a very patient person. How long does tidying up for one of your photographs take? Are there moments of frustration?
No, there are no moments of frustration—tidying up is usually quite satisfying.
Some ideas seem amazing when they first come to my mind but they turn out to be not quite as great as I had hoped. But that’s part of the process. Before I go for the real thing I start by doing sketches and drawings. Normally you see right away if an idea looks great or if it’s better to keep it in the drawer.
What do you hope people will get from your photographs?
There’s no moral or purpose behind my work. People see in my work what they like to see. And that’s ok. If my work supports the fact that our world needs both chaos and order, even better. We need both poles. It’s the balance that makes life worth living. It’s a way to learn to enjoy to look differently at our everyday world.
If you could live in a world of “before” photos or “after” photos, which would you choose + why?
Good question, and it’s not easy to answer. I normally prefer the chaos if it gets too tidy, and vice versa.
Normally you expect a comedy-minded artist to take something that is straight and turn it into a mess. What I do is exactly the same, but only the opposite. I love to question the prevailing state. So, when in doubt, I would go for – the opposite!