Project 15 - Urs Fischer

Urs Fischer works across a wide range of media to create poetic drawings, objects and installations, handcrafted forms that often show the pencil marks, seams and folds of their construction. Fischer created a series of new works for his ambitious installation on Cockatoo Island for Project 15. In 2007, before most visitors had been to this haunting island in Sydney harbour, Fischer invited them to experience the old convict prison grounds as the stage for an eerie installation of enigmatic sculptures and carnival hall forms. A strange, dreamlike experience, the works seemed to manifest absent figures and evoke the island’s past.

Dating back to 1839, the island's old convict prison grounds is a place layered with forgotten tragedy. Closed down in 1869, the prison site later housed a reform school and facilities for homeless, orphaned and delinquent children. In Fischer’s installation, visitors encountered a large sculpture positioned in the central courtyard of the old prison grounds. Long, sinuous, branch-like forms were suspended in the air, swaying with the wind and casting linear shadows in motion. This enigmatic structure was shaped from fragile, ivory-coloured fibreglass. Curator Adam Free described its shifting organic appearance as ‘bleached bone, tree root and then alternately intestinal, arterial’.

Off the courtyard, doors were opened to the public, leading into the many spaces of the old prison buildings. Sculptures were hung mid-air in three of the spaces. In one, casts of two roughly hewn, chipped, powder-white hands were nailed together and strung by thick metal wire. In another room, a cast of a partial head and hand, painted a bright musk-lolly pink, was hung upside down. Echoing these broken figures, in one space an old dressing table, washbowl and chair were balanced together in the centre of the room. Fischer had shattered the objects and reconstructed them, their forms reshaped by fractures, gashes, tears and breaks. In another space, the old prison hall facing onto the courtyard, a full-sized fibreglass skeleton was hung from the ceiling by wire, like a ghost-train apparition.

Visitors moved through the exhibition towards a final destination. To the side of the old prison grounds, inside the roofless remains of an old stone military guardhouse, Fischer had installed a monumental cast of a grey cabinet. On the top of the cabinet, he added tufts of the long grass that grows wild around the guardhouse, blending the object with its surroundings and making it hard to discern whether it belonged in the space. The doors sat slightly ajar and compelled visitors to peer inside. Lined with a mirror, a historic tool of the artist and the illusionist, it created a startling effect.