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Portfolio: Ursus Wehrli

Everything seems to be in order here…

The German-Swiss are oft stereotyped as an orderly people, unstinting in their commitment to the application of rules. So is it any surprise that, confronted with sunbathers strewn hither and thither near a swimming pool in Zurich, Ursus Wehrli should feel compelled to tidy them up?

Well, yes, it is rather. For Mr Wehrli has made a career out of toppling such platitudinous tags in his day-job as a clown, one half of Switzerland's most famous anarchic comedy duo.

Ursus, explain yourself.

"What I do, basically, is look at things from different angles. That is what I do on stage comedically, and that is what I do in art. I was always fascinated by the structure of things, why things work this way and not that way. So I like to see how things behave if you change the point of view."

The idea for his project "The Art of Clean Up" first took shape in a museum. "I found myself standing in front of a piece by the very messy Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. He's famous for putting all sorts of colours, material and objects on a canvas, like Jackson Pollock. So I tried to imagine what a cleaning lady would do if she had to clean up his studio. How far would she go?

I imagined his workshop would be filled with all those different objects, paint and material, scattered on tables, on the floor and on the walls. How would she know where the mess ends and art begins? I enjoyed the idea that the cleaning lady would clean up everything – even the artworks – and would leave the room neat and tidy."

Wehrli has been "tidying up" art for 15 years – deconstructing the "confusion" of Paul Klee's Expressionist squares, for instance ("The artist doesn't seem to know where to put the colours. We don't know; maybe Mr Klee was in a hurry"), to form more regular groupings of cubes by colour – and now he has moved on to real-life endeavours.

Thus we find him ordering constellations by size of star and re-organising a still-life of fruit by its constituent parts – apple with apple, kiwi with kiwi, and so forth.

So what happened when he asked these Swiss sunbathers to stop lolling around and rearrange themselves, their towels and their umbrellas of a sunny afternoon? "People's reactions were: this guy must be suffering OCD. That, and I wanna be in the picture too!"

'The Art of Clean Up: Life Made Neat and Tidy' by Ursus Wehrli, with photographs by Geri Born and Daniel Spehr, is published by Chronicle, priced £9.99