Snowman Standing in the Summer Garden

By Gu Qianfan, translated by Long Xingru, Image Courtesy of MoMA

Peter Fischli: If Everything Is Sculpture Why Make Sculpture 

MoMA / New York

from June 11 2018

Curated by Peter Fischli, “If Everything Is Sculpture Why Make Sculpture?” is perhaps the most unique of MoMA's summer exhibitions.

The exhibition takes its title from a painting by the French Fluxus artist Ben Vautier, which is also displayed in the Sculpture Garden, alongside some 20 works that together contemplate the question: if everything is sculpture, why make sculpture?

This exhibition marks the 13th year of the “Artist's Choice” programme, a series that invites contemporary artists to curate exhibitions drawn from MoMA's collection. Fischli is the first artist to have chosen the Sculpture Garden for the exhibition. Some of his own works are also displayed, including Brochure Box (2017) which mimics the plastic leaflet boxes we might find holding exhibition brochures – in bronze. The boxes sit unobtrusively by the forward wall of the exhibition, or shelter under plants in the garde. A further Fischil work is a wall of the exhibition that has found itself in the outdoor recreation area: it stands out amongst the chairs, leaving us to wonder whether this is another artwork, or an exhibition under construction? By moving a work outside of the Garden, Fischi's attempt encompasses the boundary between curatorial and artistic practices: not making art in the convenional sense, more an intervention of institutional critique; he challenges the division between the inside and outside of a museum, redefining the exhibition as being open to all regardless of location. He invites us to rethink the context of sculpture today.

The most significant work of the exhibtion is a specially designed sculpture: Snowman (2016). Designed by Fischli and his long-term collaborator David Weiss, the piece comprises three large snowballs – an actual snowman – encased in a freezer with a glass door. Weiss passed away from cancer in 2012, bringing a sad close to nearly 33 years of collaboration. As an artist duo, Fischli/Weiss' most renowned work is a video piece, The Way Things Go, which they produced in 1987. Shot at their studio, the thirty-minute video documents a set of everyday objects and mechanical components that have been deliberately organised into a a sequence of events: rolling, burning, overlapping and triggering one another, generating domino chains of physical and chemical transformations. Objects featured in the work shift forces in the process of dismantling and decomposition.

The piece elegantly juxtaposes the contradictory notions of artificial precision and natural coincidence, and condenses the nature of entropy in a figurative way. Similar to The Way Things Go, the duo's works tend to raise existential questions with simple, unpretentious objects.

The original version of Snowman produced in 1987 was a site-specific work, commissioned by a thermal power plant in Saarbrücken, Germany: the freezer-encased snowman stands in front of the factory, and the power plant's energy (paradoxically generated in the form of heat) keeps it frozen. The snowman is an ironic gesture towards environmental issues: on the one hand, the piece takes great pains to contribute to the process of global warming, but on the other hand, it seems to reach a state of energy conservation, right in front of a power plant.

The sculpture itself is not actually made from snow, but rather a frost-coated copper container filled with water. Humidity within the box is quite high, and so within a few days, water condenses and freezes onto the surface of the container, transforming it into a charmingly wintery snowman. Every morning, the display receives a new batch of distilled water and the snowman's smile is reset. And to prevent the glass front of the display freezing over, a fine mist of water is sprayed inside the tank.

Unlike the 1987 version, the snowman sited in the summer garden seems to tell a story beyond the themes of energy and environmental issues. Viewers confront a dramatic contrast between the “summer” and “winter” climates. The appreciation of sculpture often implies a sense of permanency, yet the temporal nature of this piece highlights the uniquely transitory experience of the seasons. To look at Snowman is like the funny taste of out- of-season fruit. Moreover, the work resonates with the title of the exhibition title. The premise of “Everything Is Sculpture” lies in the ability to comprehend shape, colour and texture: in this sense, everything on earth, natural or artificial, is a sculptural creation. Why do artists still need to create? Fischli proposes an introspective investigation towards the nature of art. To some degree, simply rolling and piling three spheres of snow would make a snowman, a model of artificial sculpture – or somehow a metaphor: the snowflakes and the snowdrifts are already sculptural beings. The Snowman is not made from nature, but from the permanent self-questioning of human beings.


Snowman, copper, aduminum, glass water, and coolant system, 218 × 128 × 165 cm 1987 / 2016