The simultaneously intimate and show-stopping figurative waxworks of celebrated contemporary sculptor Urs Fischer boldly—memorably—reinvent the memento mori. The waxworks constitute a recognizable strain of the artist’s varied practice, using his characteristic unconventional and frequently ephemeral materials. Fischer employs an intricate suite of techniques to create his life-size wax figures, including 3D scanning and casting. Impressively, these sculptures combine a faultless artistic technique that brings out the specific physical qualities inherent to wax with a rigorous philosophical approach. The integration of strategically located wicks into the likenesses renders them candles, testament to time’s relentless melt. The haunting work at hand, which was produced the same year that Fischer’s trio of candle sculptures wowed at the Venice Biennale, features Fischer’s friend and fellow eminent artist Rudolf Stingel appearing worn by age or carved by time. Over the course of a 2012 solo exhibition of Fischer’s work at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi, the likeness of “Rudi” Stingel—positioned in intimate conversation with a waxen rendering of Fischer himself in an homage to one of their formative conversations—was set alight and gradually melted to the ground in a meticulously timed metamorphosis, a surreal drama of disintegration. The work’s existential honesty inverts classical norms: the likeness does not strive for an ageless perfection, nor does the art object aim for an eternal timelessness. Rather, as an artist, a human, and a sculpture, Stingel is a perpetually unfinished project: an inexorably melting surface replete with possibilities. Writing for Frieze, art critic and curator Tom Morton astutely noted that Fischer’s oeuvre embodies “an anti-preciousness that produces that most precious of things, a work that really works” (T. Morton, “Roll With It,” Frieze, Issue 86, October 2004, p. 141). Visually and intellectually riveting, the work at hand is one such precious piece.
In the present work, Stingel’s uncanny and gorgeously material likeness—unmistakably waxen but perfectly and unnervingly realistic—sits back contemplatively in an office chair. On the floor beside the figure, a small candle sculpture of a wax-cast beverage has begun to pool at its base. From a depression at the crest of the figure’s head, where Fischer maneuvered a wick and lit it for a gradual melt, emerge tendril-like drippings of wax. The drippings fall down the figure’s jacketed back and collect in flakes on his shoulders. Were the elegant likeness to be progressively melted to completion over the course of many days, as it has been in the past, the visage would soon be rendered a faceless lump, the recognizable Stingel summarily abstracted and anonymized. Cavities and disfigurations would form throughout the figure until the wax had puddled, the exhibition had reached completion, and the figure could be recast and repainted. Fischer painstakingly constructed the waxwork figure of Stingel through a fastidious collage of processes. The artist produced a 3D scan of his friend, rendered the scan in urethane foam, sent the foam to a foundry for a negative cast that would serve as a mold, and finally used the resulting mold to cast the figure in colored cutaneous wax. Fischer inserted wicks into the form’s shell, testing the wick and wax multiple times to determine their burning periods. As Massimiliano Gioni, who curated the artist’s 2009 solo exhibition at the New Museum in New York, pointed out: “Urs’s commitment to the work is beyond any reasonable level. Of course, all great artists think that way” (M. Gioni quoted by C. Tomkins in “The Imperfectionist,” The New Yorker, October 19, 2009, p. 35).
Ultimately, however, the compulsively meticulous sculptorcedes artistic authority, putting his painstaking creation in the hands of his mercurial and most entropic collaborator: time. Introduced into the artistic process through fire, time functions as both collaborator and material; meaning shifts and metamorphoses, becoming its own malleable and endlessly unfinished material. As it twists and transforms in a return to its basic waxen physicality, the sculpture is rendered untidy, non-hermetic, and mortal, and thus in a sense fundamentally—existentially—more human. Embedded in the likeness’s waxen flesh is an echo of the transience-symbolizing candle that frequents traditional vanitas still lifes. As a double standing in for an absence, Fischer’s figurative waxworks also recall the wax effigies that were used in royal funereal processions in the middle ages. As the pieces approach a dripping oblivion, the permanence and corresponding reverence of the art object is intriguingly troubled. Caroline Bourgeois curated the 2012 exhibition Madame Fisscher at the Palazzo Grassi, a solo show of Fischer’s work that featured the present sculpture. In a text included in Madame Fisscher’s exhibition materials, the curator perspicaciously declared of the artist: “He is undoubtedly the greatest sculptor of suspended time” (C. Bourgeois, Urs Fischer Madame Fisscher, Palazzo Grassi, Francois Pinault Foundation, April 24, 2012, p. 6).
While Fischer’s poetic waxworks are among his most recognizable artistic strains, the innovative artist works in many scales and styles. He also employs a dizzying range of media—installations, sculptures, photographs, and paintings—and materials, including bronze, glass, wood, Styrofoam, clay, mirrors, and of course the more impermanent substances of wax and food. Fischer, who has become a voracious reader of art historical texts, often references traditional art historical genres in his work, from still-lifes and nudes to portraits and landscapes. While his impassioned practice is diverse, it has an unwavering ethos at its core: “consideration of the nature of substances, the act of making, and the unpredictable processes that can result from combining the two” (“Urs Fischer,” The 2006 Whitney Biennial Catalogue, The Whitney Museum of American Art, 2006, n.p. [accessed online]). Fischer’s open-ended, process-based approach has led the artist to balk at the term “retrospective,” instead preferring to view his solo exhibitions as “possible scenarios of how [he] works[s]” (U. Fischer quoted in M. Vetrocq, “Urs Fischer Explores the Theme of the Double in His Solo Survey at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi,” BLOUIN ARTINFO, April 16, 2012, n.p.). What is evident across Fischer’s oeuvre, and with particular force in the work at hand, is that the celebrated contemporary sculptor has forged a fresh, visually and philosophically stimulating mode of experiencing sculpture that has invigorated the art world with a singular magic.