Taking tidiness to its most obsessive

Swiss artist/comedian Ursus Wehrli explores the obsession to organize. So, what does he have to say about his own habits? "My place is a chaotic mess."
Swiss artist/comedian Ursus Wehrli explores the obsession to organize. So, what does he have to say about his own habits? "My place is a chaotic mess."
Posted: March 14, 2013

We aspire to be organized. We shop at the Container Store and pay experts to arrange our closets. We Pinterest pictures of clutter-free kitchens and clean garages. We watch TV shows like TLC's Hoarding: Buried Alive, and secretly praise ourselves because we're not that bad.

"There's a tremendous amount of stress that goes with being disorganized and cluttered," said Nina Miraglia, a personal organizer in West Chester who operates the website www.theneatnick.com. "People get excited when they hear that someone can organize their life or their space or their schedule."

In Swiss artist/comedian Ursus Wehrli's new book, The Art of Clean Up: Life Made Neat and Tidy, he takes our organization obsession to a new level, offering a fruit salad deconstructed by fruit and arranged by size, an alphabetized bowl of alphabet soup, and a parking lot organized by color.

In an interview with The Inquirer, Wehrli discussed his oft-frustrating efforts to straighten up his own home and how he'd "clean up" some iconic Philadelphia art.

Question: In your previous book, Tidying Up Art, you "organized" masterpieces by Van Gogh and Picasso, to name a few. How did that come about?

Answer: The idea came to me 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 colors, material, and objects on a canvas. I tried to imagine what a cleaning lady would do if she had to clean up his studio. How far would she go? How would she know where the mess ends and art begins? I enjoyed the idea of the cleaning lady cleaning everything, and leaving the room neat and tidy. And I enjoyed even more the idea of the artist's face when he entered the studio the next day.

So I took a painting by Joan MirĂ³, for example, and collected all the different forms and shapes and arranged them by size and color. Or I took the messy picture of Van Gogh's bedroom and stored the furniture on the bed or under the bed. Now there's some room to vacuum.

Q: Which artist was most in need of a cleanup and why?

A: Jackson Pollock, definitely! Cleaning up his work took me a while. At the end, I decided to go all the way and put the paint back into the cans.

Q: What do you think draws people to your books?

A: Perhaps my work is an answer to a complicated world. It is very simple and yet complex at the same time. In our everyday lives, we often spiral from one crisis to another, so readers may find it relaxing to see life simplified.

Q: Is your house super-organized?

A: That's what people keep asking me. The thing is: I'd love to be a tidy person, but my place is a chaotic mess. I love to make lists, and that's the reason I get nothing done.

For example, at the beginning of each day, I start by doing a to-do list of all the things I want to put in order. I usually start by scribbling out a bunch of ideas onto a piece of paper.

Next, I try to 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 in different colors.

Once I have finished this, it's already noon. After lunch, the first thing I do is compare this new list with the list from the previous day. This also takes up a lot of time.

By the end of the day, the only task on the list which is crossed out is the first one: MAKE LIST.

Q: How about your kitchen cabinets? Do all the cans face the same way and stuff like that?

A: No, but I am proud to say that I am master of filling up the dishwasher in an organized manner. I always try to group things that belong together. Even in the cutlery compartment, I always put the forks with the forks, the spoons with the spoons, and so on.

This saves time later.

Q: Do you consider yourself more of a comedian or an artist?

A: I am happy that I don't have to bother with these types of descriptions of myself. I don't care really. Whether it is on stage or in books, I do things that inspire and interest me. Yes, there's often a touch of humor in it, but that's not on purpose. It's just the way I see things.

Q: Have you been to Philly? What would you do to the Rocky or LOVE statues, for example?

A: I wouldn't touch the Rocky statue. I don't want to get in trouble with Sylvester Stallone.

But the LOVE statue is a real mess. The letters are not aligned, the 'O' is lopsided. . . . It urgently needs to be straightened up. How? I would just put the letters in a line and put them alphabetically: ELOV. Fixed!

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