Divinity unto Destruction—on Urs Fischer’s wax sculptures “What if the Phone Rings?” and “Untitled (
At a certain point in human history, the point of art (at least good art) was to render one’s creation—and thus one’s self—immortal. In Lives of The Artists, the (arguably) first work of art history (1st edition published in 1550; 2nd in 1568) by the (arguably) world’s first art historian, Giorgio Vasari, Vasari details the biographies of some of the Italian Renaissance’s most luminous artists, from Leonardo to Titian, Giotto to Michelangelo, Parmigiano to Donatello. Although each artist’s biography reference is frequently made to a variety of things—the religious stature of their patrons, the beauty of their creations, the worth of their commissions—one concept that comes around and around again is immortality and the essence of the eternal. Vasari’s word for this is divine, which takes its root from the Latin divinus, meaning “godlike.” Vasari thusly proclaims a small drawing by Perino del Vaga to be “divine;” he asserts that a certain picture of Raphael’s “…was indeed divine, not a painted thing but living.” The countenance of Lisa Gheradini (aka Mona Lisa) in Leonardo’s Mona Lisa displays “…a peaceful smile more divine than human; Leonardo was truly “the most divine of artists.” As Vasari believed that his Lives of the Artists would be read and studied beyond his own lifetime (a surmising that proved accurate), the very fact that Vasari chose to write about this particular group of artists made them special, unique, and, in some cases, immortal. Their actual bodies would decay and their minds would rot, but, after its creation, the work they made would live on.
Divinity and immortality, however, are viewed very differently circa 2015, perhaps especially in the case of art. We live in a world of virality and Instagram; of scrolling and pop-up and limited- time installation. Certainly artists still want their works to outlive them, but how they desire to accomplish that goal varies from artist to artist. Some submerge marine life in formaldehyde, title it “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”; others draw highly stylized portraits of rock stars and lauded cultural figures; still others paint scruffy, beautiful images on walls and cars, on the sides of trains and buildings. There’s no right or wrong way to try and attain the divine; it’s up to each individual artist. But the impeccability of a subtle smirk on a piece of stretched canvas measuring a mere 30 inches by 21 inches is certainly not the only way to achieve artistic immortality circa 2015, if it ever was. Mastery and genius will always be essential but how one arrives at those considerations changes from decade to decade, century to century.
One of the ways Urs Fischer, a 41 year-old Swiss artist currently living in New York City, achieves the divine, then, is through the active destruction of his art. Although primarily known for his sculpture work, Fischer works in a variety of mediums—among them painting, digital production, and video art—and his accolades are extensive, including three appearances in the Venice Biennial and solo shows at the MOMA in Los Angeles and New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. 2004’s “Bread House,” one of his more memorable recent works, actualizes the work’s title: a life-size one room cabin, entirely made from loaves of sourdough bread. Idiosyncratic and inventive as it is, it’s perhaps not surprising that Fischer’s artwork also often sells for the (low) millions of dollars. To sum it up in a single phrase, dude’s legit.
For the greatest of artists, though, legitimacy begets experimentation, boundary-pushing; with approval comes the desire to see where the proverbial line is truly drawn. In this sense, Fischer is a great artist. Significantly, his two works “What if the Phone Rings?” (2003) and “Untitled (The Rape of the Sabine Women)” (2011) interrogate how time canvases everything with obsolescence, with decrepitude. Only Fischer hurries up the process via that most primal of human discoveries: fire.
Essentially both “What if the Phone Rings” and “Untitled (The Rape of the Sabine Women)” are, on a large-scale, exquisitely rendered candles. The former represents Fischer’s first work in the chandlery department and (for a work designed to be destroyed) it stands the test of time: idea successfully outlives object. Consisting of three life-sized wax sculptures, each of a different woman (blond hair, brown hair, red hair) in repose, “What if the Phone Rings?” is designed for incineration, as at various parts of the body each of the women is suffused with candle wicks. The work doesn’t really “start,” then, until each wick is lit and it begins to fall apart. What follows is a confrontation between the eternal and the ephemeral. And since that devastation takes a while to complete, it’s hard to not read into the smoldering of a variety of things, most notably the “divine” nature of Fischer’s departing artwork. At the artist’s bidding what was once a painstakingly rendered sculpture will soon be a waxy lump of waxy lumpiness. Its essence will be nothingness, oblivion. Certainly it’s always tempting to overstate time’s significance, especially in terms of works of art, but “What if the Phone Rings” demonstrates that even as something dissipates our thoughts about it (and its dissolution) remain. To paraphrase poet (and art-lover) Wallace Stevens, what’s left is simply the way we felt about what we saw. That feeling, then, takes precedence over all else—and watching a thing decay is no doubt just as important as watching it made.
To briefly interject here, with that most subjective of limber trees, I: I’ve never actually seen any of Urs Fischer’s waxworks in “real life,” never studied their slow disappearance within the austere flesh of an art museum. My fascination with Fischer’s work has solely manifested itself through photos and YouTube clips on the internet. Thus when BACKWORDS initially asked me to write about Fischer, I hesitated; I might love the way his work is presented on the internet but do I actually know it? More importantly, do I know it well enough to write about it? To further complicate things, I’m not an art critic by any stretch of the imagination. I’m a writer, sure—mostly a poet— but I didn’t go to art school and I’m certainly not an artist (at least not of the visual variety). I’ve been enrolled in exactly one art history class in my life, as a junior in college; I dropped out after three weeks. Too much to learn, too many long, weird names to memorize…and the once-a-week, three-and-a-half-hours-at-a-time class was on Thursday night also. Thursday night was two-for-one night at Shooters, the kinda seedy but still kinda fun bar just a block off campus. Art history didn’t have much of a chance.
Yet after some mulling, all of the above (or its lack) actually served to harden my resolve to write about Fischer’s wax sculptures. Namely because, as referenced above, the nature of Fischer’s waxwork deals less with Art and more with Time. What I mean by that is this: every morning we wake up and look at ourselves in the mirror, then judge a part of our entire existence on that singular glance—we look tired or we look okay or maybe, just maybe, we look great; we need to shave our beard or pluck our eyebrows or snip our nose hairs; we need a haircut or we need to grow our hair back out. What we don’t notice, though, because, however briefly, we’re staring at ourselves every single day, is how we’re aging, we’re getting older, everyday we’re closer to the end/the hand of God/death/whatever you want to call it. In a distorted, sensationalized way Fischer’s wax sculptures make the viewer—in this particular case, me, myself and I—realize that fact. I’d further argue that it makes no real difference seeing them on-site, at a museum, or through a dusty computer screen, scruffy pixelated images included. The point—the aging, the inevitability, the time, the time, the time—seeps through no matter its presentation. Even people who know next to nothing about art (aka me) can understand and appreciate Fischer’s waxen statements. It’s a testament to both the artist’s concept and the form that concept is embedded in.
As originally featured at the Venice Biennial, 2011’s “Untitled (The Rape of the Sabine Women)” found Fischer working within a similar frame of temporal-elusiveness as “What if the Phone Rings,” only this time it had a direct historical antecedent. “Untitled (The Rape of the Sabine Women)” takes its parenthetical from a sculpture initially completed in 1583 by the Flemish sculptor Giambologna, one entitled “The Rape of the Sabine Women.” In fact, Fischer’s 2011 rendering is virtually identical to the 1582 original, albeit with one substantial difference. In order to stand the test of time, Giambologna’s work was made out of marble, a type of rock frequently used by sculptors due to its steadfast resistance to chipping and shattering. Fischer’s “Untitled (The Rape of the Sabine Women),” then, was largely composed of wax and, just like “What if the Phone Rings,” it was wholly designed to chip, shatter, unexist. Why, out of all the sculptures new and old in the world, Fischer chose to recreate and destroy Giambologna’s piece is somewhat indebted to happenstance; in a 2013 interview he admitted that, “[w]ith the Giambologna piece, I looked at so many sculptures that it’s kind of random I ended up with this one. I needed it for a certain scale of the body—I wanted a certain height for the sculpture. It didn’t start with this sculpture; it came from a totally different thought process. At some point, I thought I’d add a classical sculpture. The other things fell away, and the classical sculpture became bigger and bigger.” That being said, both Fischer and Giambologna’s sculptures take as their central premise an act of sexual abduction, one that broadly set the stage for the subsequent Roman Empire. So “random” as Fischer’s choice of sculpture might have originally been, what’s being melted to nothingness is noteworthy in the sense that the original work by Giambologna represented a subversive power dynamic and that dynamic is being eradicated in the 2011 rendition. Something is being said about conquest and coercion in Fischer’s version; whether this aspect of the work is “random” or not is left for the viewer to decide.
(To interject first-person-wise again: I don’t totally buy that Fischer’s decision to use Giambologna’s “The Rape of the Sabine Women” was 100% random. Or if it was I’d decree that such randomness actually has, at its heart, a veneer of cultural authenticity that not even Fischer himself is cognizant of.)
There is also a stark voyeuristic aspect to “Untitled (The Rape of the Sabine Women),” as directly across from the Giambologna sculpture is a solitary, bespectacled man—one also made out of wax, one also slowly burning—ostensibly watching the incineration opposite him unfold. The irony, of course, is that as the man ogles the sculpture’s decimation he himself is also being decimated. Time, Fischer seems to suggest, is beholden neither to beauty nor power; those who study the past will inevitably become a part of it sooner or later. To believe otherwise is foolish; ashes to ashes, dust to dust, again and again, over and over.
Following “Untitled (The Rape of the Sabine Women)” Fischer has further delved from time to time in waxwork—he’s burned a life-size version of himself, as well as one of the artist Julian Schnabel; still others exist as well—but it’s with “What if the Phone Rings?” and “Untitled (The Rape of the Sabine Women)” that his creation-via-destruction motif seems most successful. Both of those sculptures edify the viewer covertly, subversively, sans a heavy hand, and to state that they achieve a certain divinity via their active destruction would not be inaccurate.
In his 1967 book Store Days American sculptor Claes Oldenburg asserted that he desired “…an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.” In a somewhat similar vein Michelangelo is believed to have stated that “[a] great sculpture can roll down a hill without breaking.” What both Oldenburg and Michelangelo are arguing for, fundamentally, is that the idea of the thing matters as much as—if not more than—its creative culmination. To divide the essential from the inessential is the hallmark of a great artist, one that understands the power of “a starting point of zero.” And what one finds at the bottom of the hill should be, in the end, what was created at the top. By choosing not to exist in any reasonable sense of the word Urs Fischer’s “What if the Phone Rings?” and “Untitled (The Rape of the Sabine Women)” achieve a greater mode of existence. And that each sculpture fully forms itself only in one’s mind is the wealth of Fischer’s supreme achievement. Whether we like it or not, we take time with us everywhere we go; no art gallery can contain it. Not even artistic divinity can. But the fact that Fischer’s wax sculpture work makes us realize this is, I believe, a true source of power. Time has come today.
Jeff Alessandrelli is the author of the full-length collection THIS LAST TIME WILL BE THE FIRST. Other work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Gulf Coast, Boston Review and five chapbooks. The name of Jeff’s dog is Beckett Long Snout. The name of his micro-press is Dikembe Press.