Urs Fischer: Burning down the house.
Feature by Alison Kubler

VAULT speaks with Urs Fischer one of the most significant contemporary artists working today about his conceptual practice exploring sculpture and installation and his penchant for setting things on fire.


When I speak to internationally celebrated Swiss artist Urs Fischer in Los Angeles a few days before Christmas it is a 36-degree Queensland day, the kind of heat that warrants noting. The conversation opens, politely, on the topic of the weather: about Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Malibu fires, evidence of which is all over the city, from ash falling in West Hollywood to the charred hills surrounding the city. We speak about bushfires, there and here (I send him photographs of the burnoff happening at my house and we discuss the importance of hazard reduction), fire, destruction, rebirth and renewal, which proves an entirely serendipitous yet appropriate introduction to a deeper conversation around Fischer’s much-lauded sculptural works made of wax.

In March, the National Gallery of Australia will unveil its most recent significant international purchase, Francesco (2017), a sculptural portrait by Urs Fischer of respected Italian art curator Francesco Bonami standing atop a refrigerator, looking intently at an iPhone in his hand. The sculpture is designed to be burnt: wicks are inserted at various points on the work; all of the wicks can be lit simultaneously to expedite the process, or the life of the work can be extended with limited burning. It can be burnt continuously or sporadically. There are no parameters, but it is designed to burn to a puddle of wax, like a candle. The NGA’s acquisition is the first of Fischer’s iconic candle sculptures to join a public collection in the Southern Hemisphere.

Jaklyn Babington, NGA Senior Curator, Contemporary Art, says, “Fischer’s practice is a unique and inimitable expression within today’s globalised art world. At its core, his style is a wonderfully macabre choreography of the image: its construction, a staging of its demise, and an exploration of the possibilities of its resurrection. In this way, Fischer’s iconic candle sculpture Francesco is set in a continuous cycle of creation, ruination and renewal – providing us witness to the birth, life and death of an artwork.” Fischer elaborates, “There is no beginning and no end. It’s always whatever stage the work is in that’s the right state, in a way.” When the work is left to its logical conclusion – a pile of melted wax – it is arguably in its most perfect state. Reduced and exhausted, the sculpture becomes a metaphor for life concluded, or extinguished.

Francesco forms part of an ongoing series of wax portraits, which includes collector Peter Brant, artist Rudolf Stingel and, most recently, co-founder of Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Dasha Zhukova. The artist began working with wax in the 2000s although the early incarnations were crudely carved figurative forms, experiments in materiality and temporality, as compared to the latter, more realistic works. He explains, “As a kid I always liked candles, like when my parents would have a big dinner party with candles. It was a fascination with fire, you know. Not a big fire, but just like, the flame, the dripping. So that’s one thing. With the first works I used candles in, I used actual candles as a way in which to activate [the work].You can activate something just by putting a candle on it, in the same way in which a room activates.”

For Fischer’s contribution to the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011 he created three wax candle sculptures: Rudi, a portrait of the artist’s friend Rudolf Stingel; Untitled (2011), a chair from the artist’s studio; and most memorably, an extraordinary reproduction of Giambologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women (1582), right down to the marble patination on the original that resides in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. Produced in Kunstgiesserei, an art foundry at St Gallen in Switzerland, with a team of artisans and the aid of 3D computer modelling, the appropriation was a highlight of the Biennale. Rudi was installed opposite, as though in contemplation of the masterwork, while the inclusion of the chair, cast from an office chair in the artist’s studio, seemed to read as a self-portrait.

Fischer explains, “When I made my first candle I started to work with figuration: sculpture and life-size figuration. The first ones were not even made from a mould or anything. This first one I did [in the style of Francesco] when they became actual portraits of people was of [the collector] Peter Brant standing behind an empty chair.” Fischer went on to explain that this portrait, Untitled (Standing) (2010), expanded into a dual portrait of Brant and his then wife, Stephanie Seymour. After they separated he made another. “The second one I made was Peter sitting on a chair, Untitled (Seated); the chair was from his vast collection of furniture. He likes furniture. So, it was kind of personal. So in one he occupies the space and in the other he stands behind it.”

Fischer notes that the portraits are most often of people he knows well.
He doesn’t solicit commissions, as it were, thus the selection of subjects is very personal. “[Francesco] is an old friend of mine; I’ve known him for 22 years. He’s a very interesting man, you know? He does actually stand like this, staring at his phone. I am always looking for an ‘image’; he is always staring at his phone. So that’s how I saw him.” Our conversation turns then to Wim Wenders’ film, Until the End of the World, and how, apropos of nothing, Prince’s song ‘1999’ is forever connected with the film in his mind. We talk about the ending of the world and how Wenders’ film prefigured contemporary culture’s device obsession.

Bonami stands upon a fridge – Fischer observes wryly that “appliances make great pedestals” – but here the fridge, full of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, is not only an armature but also an allusion to art history’s still life tradition and memento mori sculpture and panting. “I’m a big fan of [the Italian sculptor] Della Robbia [1399/1400–1482]. I always loved his ceramics of fruits and vegetables. So the fridge is filled with ‘life’. It’s not part of the front of his sculpture; it’s kind of the back of the sculpture. It’s not a marble pedestal, because it’s not a monument. Same with my choice of the colour red [for the body]: I just thought in grey it looked a little boring; it became too much like a statue.”

In their examination of the impermanence of existence, Fischer’s wax portraits describe, too, the nature of the commercial art world and commodification of art. Babington says, “The works explore the conundrum of the commercial art world in which art, a much-vaunted super commodity, can be reduced to ashes – literally – and with it, its value can be eroded.” To appropriate a museological term employed to determine the value of artworks for the purpose of insurance, through Fischer’s almost ritualistic burning the ‘whole of life’ of the artwork is ostensibly rendered null and void. It is, quite literally, spent. There is something wonderfully pagan about this wanton burning: something distinctly punk in spirit.

In line with the anxiety around the fluctuating values associated with contemporary art, Fischer has ensured that each sculpture comes with the opportunity to be endlessly recast. With each remoulding the subject can be miraculously regenerated, so that the process of birth and destruction, creation and destruction may begin again. Embedded here in the work then is a deeper meditation not just on life and its ending, but also narcissism, like a literal imagining of Oscar Wilde’s painting at the heart of the Picture of Dorian Gray. As each sculpture becomes more grotesque, its owner can reflect on the fleeting nature of their own youth and beauty. And long after the subject is dead the work can rise again and again, like a veritable phoenix from the ashes.

Francesco will arrive in March. Let the burning begin.

 

Urs Fischer
Francesco, 2017
Photo: Stefan Altenburger
Courtesy the artist, Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich, Moretti Gallery, Florence, and Sadie Coles HQ, London. © Urs Fischer


Installation view
Urs Fischer
Francesco, 2017
Piazza Signoria, Musei Firenze, Florence, 2018
Photo: Fulvio Orsenigo


Installation views
Urs Fischer
ILLUMInations, 54th Venice Biennale, Venice, 2011
Photo: Stefan Altenburger


Installation views
Urs Fischer
ILLUMInations, 54th Venice Biennale, Venice, 2011
Photo: Stefan Altenburger


Installation views
Urs Fischer
ILLUMInations, 54th Venice Biennale, Venice, 2011
Photo: Stefan Altenburger


Installation view
Urs Fischer
ILLUMInations, 54th Venice Biennale, Venice, 2011
Photo: Stefan Altenburger


Installation view
Urs Fischer
ILLUMInations, 54th Venice Biennale, Venice, 2011
Photo: Stefan Altenburger


Urs Fischer is represented by Sadie Coles, London,
Gavin Brown, New York and Rome and Gagosian,
New York and Europe.