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How a “Snowman” Lasted the Entire Summer In Chicago

The icy Fischli/Weiss art installation on top of the Art Institute survived the swelter of the Windy City and will go on display next in San Francisco

(The Art Institute of Chicago)
smithsonian.com

If you think about it, snowmen are really coal-eyed folk art, but the ephemeral works are fated to melt and drip down the sewer grate long before they can ever end up in an art museum. But at least one snowman has found its way into the hallowed world of fine art, and after a stint on the roof of the Art Institute in Chicago this summer, the piece is on its way to the San Francisco Museum of Art, Sarah Cascone reports at artnet News.

Simply titled “Snowman,” the sculpture is the brainchild of Swiss art duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss, who originally conceived of the eternal snowman in the late 1980s, as a commission in front of a powerplant in Saarbrucken, Germany. "Snowman," fittingly, explores the idea of an unending source of energy, as the icy figure sits in a frozen vitrine, or glass display case, so long as it is plugged in.

“A copper snowman is used as a base, and filled with cooler liquid, and the box is filled with humidity and builds out after four or five days,” Fischli explains to Bob Eckstein at The New Yorker. For his part, Eckstein, author of The History of the Snowmanwhich highlights the snowman's colorful history of full of sex, scandal and murder—writes approvingly of the creation. He credits the duo for elevating the snowman by bringing it into the modern art world, saving it from the degradation it’s undergone during the 20th century (unsurprisingly, he’s no fan of Frosty and Snowden). 

"Snowman" made its American debut at the Art Institute's roof in May, and each morning, caretakers refill the fragile snowman's tank with distilled water and recut its smile, eyes and form its nose. David Matthews at DNAInfo reports that, for the most part, once it’s plugged in the snowman forms on its own. But there are hiccups. At one point the snowman grew an icy fang. It has also grown a big wart on its nose.

While some see the art piece as a straightforward comment on climate change, Fischli says that’s not really the point“The snowman may be a metaphor for our climate crisis, but it’s running on electricity, so it’s a contradiction, because it’s also contributing to global warming,” he tells Eckstein. “But the piece is about taking care of something and protecting it . . . and being dependent on something. Someone else has to take care of him. And the contradiction between artificial and nature, because I’m making snow from a machine.”

The exhibit ends on October 15th when "Snowman" moves to the San Francisco Museum of Art and then to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The traveling exhibit is part of a recent renaissance of Fischli/Weiss work in the United States. The duo has created humorous art installations that comment on modern culture since the late 1970s. Though Weiss died in 2012, Fischli has carried on their legacy, overseeing exhibits of their work in recent years, including a retrospective of their work at the Guggenheim in 2016. Besides "Snowman," their most well-known work is a 1988 film called “The Way Things Go” a 30-minute film of a crazy Rube-Goldberg chain reaction involving trash bags, tires and fire created from objects found in their studio.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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