Lot 5
  • 5

Urs Fischer

1,200,000 - 1,800,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Urs Fischer
  • What if the Phone Rings
  • wax, pigment and wicks, in three parts
  • blonde: 41 3/4 x 55 7/8 x 18 1/8 in. 106 x 141.9 x 46 cm; brunette: 78 3/4 x 21 1/4 x 18 1/8 in. 200 x 54 x 46 cm; redhead: 37 x 39 x 21 1/4 in. 94 x 99 x 54 cm.
  • Executed in 2003, this work is number one of an edition of three plus one artist's proof, and is accompanied by a fabrication manual.


Sadie Coles HQ, London
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2003


Sadie Coles HQ, London, Urs Fischer: need no chair when walking, January - March 2003 (the present example)
Miami, The Sender Collection, Home Alone, November - December 2011 (the present example)


Exh. Cat., Zurich, Kunsthaus Zürich, Urs Fischer: Kir Royal, 2004, pp. 140-141 (brunette), pp. 142-143 (redhead), pp. 145-146 (blonde) and pp. 205-206, 213, 221 and 232, illustrated in color [in installation at the Kunsthaus Zürich, 2004] (another example)
Brenda Richardson, "Down the Rabbit Hole in Zurich," Parkett, no. 72, 2004, p. 59 (brunette), p. 60 (blonde) and p. 63, illustrated in color [in installation at the Kunsthaus Zürich, 2004] (another example)
Exh. Cat., New York, New Museum, Urs Fischer: Shovel in a Hole, 2009, pp. 52-53 (brunette), pp. 54-55 (blonde) and pp. 56-57 (redhead), illustrated in color [in installation at Sadie Coles HQ, London, 2003] (the present example), pp. 58-59, illustrated in color [in installation at the Kunsthaus Zürich, 2004] (another example), p. 270 (redhead), illustrated in color [in installation at Sadie Coles HQ, London, 2003] (the present example) and p. 339 (brunette), illustrated in color [in installation at the Kunsthaus Zürich, 2004] (another example)
Exh. Cat., New York, New Museum, Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection, 2010, pp. 48-49 and 52-53 (blonde), illustrated in color in installation (another example)
Exh. Cat., Berlin, Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart, Body Pressure: Sculpture Since the 1960s, 2013, cat. no. 7, n.p., (blonde), illustrated in color (another example)

Catalogue Note

Urs Fischer’s internationally acclaimed What if the Phone Rings of 2003 is a definitive example of the surreal drama that envelops his art. Posed and reclining in the manner of neoclassical sculptures of the ideal female form yet evoking the Pop aesthetic of Andy Warhol’s Marilyns and Jackies, Roy Lichtenstein’s Girls and Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nudes, three life-size figures composed of wax are pierced by numerous candle wicks specifically intended to be lit. Over the artwork’s lifetime these gesturally hewn, fleshy bodies slowly melt into cascading veils and pools of wax; a sculpture animated by creative destruction. The fire that consumes their coarsely voluptuous female forms lends the project a viscerally physical and existential bent, calling into question the meaning of art and its legacy. Executed in 2003, the same year as Fischer’s first inclusion in the Venice Biennale, What if the Phone Rings denotes a hugely formative moment in his career: widely exhibited on the international stage, this is one of the artist’s most thought-provoking and celebrated works.

Each exhibition of What if the Phone Rings is governed by the consuming effect of heat and its physical impact on each waxen sculpture. Wax, therefore, allows Fischer to make a completely radical proposition whereby slow disintegration and material metamorphosis foregrounds time as the major conceptual and corporeal implication for the work of art itself. Taking on the symbolic value of the candle as an emblem of transience in the tradition of vanitas still lifes, Fischer here forges a new, tangible expression for this timeless artistic inquiry. Subverting the notion of un-waning beauty and the immortal status of a work of art in comparison to fleeting human mortality, Fischer presents the viewer with a true momento mori. The traditionally ageless and forever perfect status of the art object is inverted, and instead weighs in a delicate balance between the phenomenological and the eternal. 

Fischer’s wax sculptures are created by a nominally traditional process of subtraction. Starting with a Styrofoam block, Fischer sands, cuts with scissors, files, and grates to excavate the beginnings of human form. Idiosyncratic of Fischer’s intentionally provisional aesthetic, these female nudes are roughly hewn with feet and hands morphing into block-like pedestals. The carved Styrofoam blocks are then sent to a foundry to make a negative cast that provides the mold for the colored wax. This process transfers the intentionally coarse surface of the Styrofoam onto the silky smooth cutaneous wax. Long wicks are then placed inside the shells of the women’s bodies, in turn making them into giant candles. Finally, both wick and wax are tested to determine their burning periods:  what appears initially as fleeting and indeterminate is actually couched in a painstaking working process.

Though diligently modelled in preparation for its final waxen form, the end point of the work knowingly voids Fischer’s own craftsmanship. This fascinating process draws meaning away from a contemplation of the finality of their form and leads the dialogue towards a tactile, human emphasis on materiality, mortality and transience. By lighting his female nudes, Fischer ignites a physical transformation, or even transfiguration, in which these naked human forms metamorphose into elegant and organic fountains of wax. Recalling Ovid’s description of Apollo and Daphne as immortalized in marble by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1622-25, the notion of Eros and the desiring gaze is forestalled in Fischer’s work via the organic transformation of melting wax.  Indeed, though calling upon the history of art through the depiction of the ideal female form and classical nude, these wax effigies, simultaneously nymphs and sirens, ultimately slip and morph in an organic manner as though alive. This process of flux and progression towards pools of wax challenges the entire concept that art can ever exist as a finished object.