German artist Ignacio Uriarte knows all about the tedium of life as a 9-to-5 employee, which he ditched to create art riffing on the subject. Süddeutsche Zeitung sat down with him.
MUNICH — When Ignacio Uriarte became interested in art, his work as an employee took a serious turn south. Born in 1972 in Krefeld, Germany, Uriarte studied business administration, and worked for companies such as Siemens and Canon. He took courses in audiovisual arts on the side. Office work and art at some point became an untenable combination, so in 2003 he packed in the day job and became an independent artist.
Since then Uriarte’s work, in which he also deals with time and the monotony of the working world, is regularly displayed in museums and galleries. He currently has an exhibit, entitled “Playtime,” at the Lenbachhaus in Munich, and he has a sound installation, “Eight Hours Count,” on display at the Berlinische Galerie Museum of Modern Art in Berlin. Süddeutsche Zeitung’s first question to the artist is a reference to a panel discussion he will take part in on May 25 entitled, “Does Work Bring Happiness?”
SUDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Mr. Uriarte, does work bring happiness?
IGNACIO URIARTE: It can. At best it helps you realize yourself. At worst you at least have the feeling of having ticked something off the list, of completing a task — a good reason to go home after the workday and put your feet up.
You work with materials that many people deal with on a daily basis: ring binders, printer paper, ballpoint pens. In your sound installation, a droning voice counts from 1 to 3,599 over the space of eight hours — a work day. Why does the world of office workers play such an important role in your work?
I work with the themes that I know best. I worked in an office for 10 years, so I can’t now act as if I’m an artist in the bohemian tradition. Because the materials I use anchor my art in the real world, my work holds a mirror up to people. Everybody can relate to the objects I use.
There are hardly ever any people in your work.
The people are present in the traces they’ve left behind.
In your work there are many moments of self-recognition — for example, in the scribbles called “Black and white squared monochrome.” They could have been done by anyone doodling on a pad during a meeting.
That’s on purpose. The scribbles open the door for unproductive activity at the office — a place that is all about being as productive as possible. We’re expected to be goal-oriented: There is no time for dreaming. In the office it’s a luxury to sit there, fill in the little squares on some squared paper, and empty your head.
But doodles like that could also be a sign of boredom.
Boredom and creativity are closely linked. I get my best ideas in airports when I’m waiting and only have a single piece of paper in front of me. Repetitive activity — for example, finishing one of the scribbles — can also foster good ideas. If you give yourself up to monotony voluntarily you often get good ideas.
Airport of Munich — Photo: Thomas Aichinger/VW Pics/ZUMA
You yourself fled the monotony of an office job. What has changed in your workday since you’ve become an artist?
Actually, my day isn’t that much different from a day at the office, although I start later, around 10 a.m., then work until about 7 p.m. My studio is in the building that used to house the DDR phone company, so there’s neon lighting, drop ceilings — it has the atmosphere of a typical office. Only my desk is different than what you get in most offices. It’s the size of a double bed.
What does a desk reveal about the person who works at it?
Desks are art, projection fields where you can order ideas — and it doesn’t matter if it’s a virtual desktop or a real table. We bring things we feel are important into our physical space and push other things away. A desk is also a statement. It can say, for example: I’m creatively chaotic, and proud of it.
Which work equipment, besides your desk, couldn’t you do without in your office?
To me, a ballpoint pen is quite simply a drawing instrument. You can use it to superpose several layers of different color mixes, almost like a brush. I also love my typewriter. It’s like a piano. Not only can I use it to write and draw, but I can make music with it too. It produces both image and sound.
Artists are flexible, never stop working, and tend towards self-exploitation. So are you a prototype of today’s employee?
There are also very lazy artists. For some of them, art is a kind of oasis of peace and tranquility. But successful artists tend to be more like managers. They have a lot of work to do. But you get more praise as an artist than you do in an office job. In other lines of work you often get only criticism, but artists get a friendly thump on the shoulder even before their exhibit opens.
One of your works is entitled “Ever Higher,” a play on the ideas of growth and efficiency that define our working world. How about efficiency in art?Fundamentally, I believe in efficiency. I think it’s good to be efficient. It makes work easier and leaves more time to make ourselves and others happy. Efficiency also has its place in art. But the question of how much work went into a piece of art cannot be the decisive factor. An artist needs passion, not a controlling division.