Wolfgang Ullrich

Philip Wiegard’s Ethic of Cooperation


It goes without saying that more work goes into art than what can be seen as a finished piece or action in an exhibition space. Interviews, for one, are part of it, as are public appearances, project developments, and financing strategies. Today, though, not even those are enough. What has changed is the role artists play and their understanding of what they do. Many of them no longer lay claim to any elevated special status, instead building extensive networks and drawing on others’ expertise in diverse fields. The result, however, is that creative processes are more complicated: artists must renounce the gesture of positively absolute power, of complete independence, and instead show consideration for all those with whom they interact. And the more firmly they believe that everyone involved is essentially equal, the more an idea of fairness becomes. Artistic work then consists in no small part in an ongoing negotiation of what all sides perceives as fair. What’s needed is an ethic of cooperation.


Such an ethic is central to Philip Wiegard’s work. It forms the foundation of his projects, and it doesn’t play out only behind the scenes, either. By picking up on forms of work associated with craftsmanship and recreational creative pursuits, Wiegard aligns himself with a tradition of appropriation art, and so the contributions of others are always an explicit concern in his art. For example, he will make paste-paper wallpapers—a premodern and almost extinct technique—in workshops with children, many of whom take special pleasure in the repetitive procedures of pattern-making. Yet the fact that he pays them for their work should be seen not only as a token of his appreciation, it also raises the critical question of whether the revival of an obsolete technique brings back another thing of the past as well: child labor. And are even children now altogether subject to the logic of economics?


Wiegard, that is to say, wants to start a debate on what might come closest to an idea of fairness. Instead of remunerating the children, perhaps it might be fairer to list their names in exhibitions showcasing the wallpapers, honoring them as proud collaborators? Or might it not be better if, in exchange for their labor, he made room in the workshops for their own unguided experimentation with the materials? By raising questions like these in each new project and arriving at fresh answers rather than compensating the participants in accordance with a predetermined scheme, he sharpens the focus on the subject of fairness. Unlike, say, Santiago Sierra, whose actions are limited to a critique of exploitative forms of compensation, turning the spotlight on grievances yet also reproducing the exploitation in ways that are not unproblematic, Philip Wiegard delineates specific standards of collaboration.


The concern with fairness extends beyond questions of acknowledgment and remuneration, as his work in FIMO, a modeling clay that’s popular with various hobbyist scenes, illustrates. By using a material that has been as far outside the hallowed halls of fine art as one can imagine and that, in fact, typically features in decorative handicrafts, Wiegard is dealing with artifacts made by people who (just like children) rank way below artists in status, making it all the more difficult to devise a practice that achieves balance and equality.


When artists like Roy Lichtenstein or Richard Prince tapped aesthetics similarly distant from fine art—the work of cartoonists in one case, the biker scene in the other—for their appropriation art, they were still intent on that absolutist artistic gesture, so much so that they did not bother about fairly sharing the rewards with their unwitting sources. They did not even ask whether they were free to use something; faced with claims that they had violated other creators’ rights, they refused to recognize them in any way, apparently seeing everything outside and below art as fair game available for them do with as they saw fit.


If that approach is increasingly seen and condemned as arrogant and classist, Philip Wiegard’s practice is apt to underscore the point. He integrates the major or minor stars of the FIMO scene whose motifs he finds interesting into his creative processes from the outset; he consults with them to define the terms of his use of their works, proposes how to share any proceeds with them, and even concludes loan agreements when he wants to exhibit their objects. But that’s not all. It’s also important to Wiegard not to be perceived as a kind of conquistador of the clay-modeling scene, someone who autocratically decides what he likes, whom he will put on the map, and what he will consign to oblivion. That’s why he started working with FIMO himself; he watched tutorials to learn from the pros and, having become a pro himself, produced tutorials of his own in which he demonstrates his techniques and tricks in handling the material. Thanks to YouTube and TikTok, where Wiegard posts his tutorials, he has emerged as a star clay artist in his own right and a member of the scene in good standing—not a stranger who is distrusted or possibly suspected of sinister interests.


And by finding a way to share his knowledge about the modeling clay rather than simply appropriating FIMO artifacts, he has opened up additional avenues of creative engagement. The work “Sunset Suites” (2021), for example, consists of a series of FIMO pictures that clay artists made based on one of Wiegard’s tutorials and that reveal their creativity in how they adapt the setting-sun motif they have learned from him. In exhibiting these pictures, Wiegard once again switches roles: the teacher becomes a curator who draws the art world’s attention to the creators. But where the appropriation art tradition would brand their works as exotica, inviting the fine-art community to savor its putatively superior taste, he does everything in his power to make viewers appreciate their formal qualities and embrace them as an enriching contribution to contemporary art.


For evidence of how serious Wiegard is about this undertaking, consider the fact that he struck up a collaboration with people from the clay modeling community for several of his FIMO pictures. Their motifs as well as effects he learned in their workshops are an equal- ranking and sometimes even visually dominant part of the pictures, and their authorship is specifically mentioned in the notes accompanying the works. In several instances, the compositions are designed to set off their contributions from the remaining areas, arguably suggesting that they’re being staged not unlike the donor figures in medieval paintings: as elements of a different reality without which the picture would not exist and which is therefore acknowledged within it.


These works, then, not only represent an impressive culmination of Philip Wiegard’s ethic of cooperation, they manifest it in their physical facture. And the more that ethic extends beyond a mere procedural concern that figures in the background of the work of art, the more clearly it contrasts with the inconsiderateness that was often a hallmark of modernism. Wiegard exemplifies a new kind of artist, one who has taken the insight to heart that he must give back to the people or scenes from whom or which he takes something. In this sense, fairness also implies sustainability: indeed, the ethic of cooperation is inspired by an ecological thinking in cycles and interconnected wholes. Being an artist today means establishing such ecology in an effort to overcome inequitable and unfair structures and practices.


Translation: Gerrit Jackson