Urs Fischer’s Francesco (2017): On ephemeral art and material culture

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Sophia Halloway


Urs Fischer, Wax sculpture, Ephemeral art, Material culture, Art


Material culture studies is defined as the study of human culture through artificially constructed objects that have survived in physical or representational form. But what happens when there is no surviving object? How does material culture account for works whose material nature is fleeting, malleable, and ultimately perishable? Ephemeral art—works of art made from perishable mediums such as wax, food, or even found rubbish—is increasingly present in museum collections of contemporary art. This diversity in media has enriched contemporary art practice, but has also created a number of complexities for arts professionals, raising questions on how best to collect, conserve, and interpret these works. A material culture analysis of ephemeral art reveals why contemporary artists create works of art that deteriorate more rapidly than their traditional counterparts, and how these intentions have changed over time. Drawing on the case study of Urs Fischer’s Francesco (2017), my research findings indicate that the value of a material culture approach to ephemeral art is derived from analysis of the trajectories of matter comprising a work. Fluctuating critical and popular interest in materials reveals our changing cultural relationship to ‘stuff’, and under this premise a work of art designed to deteriorate can be just as revealing as an enduring object.

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