Unless you don’t have access to electricity, candles seem to go in and out of fashion. One minute your house is full of them and their (pesky) holders, and then the wind blows and you have nothing to seal your letters with. For makers and buyers, statistics suggest that sculptural candles are having a moment during lockdown, but rather than just a trend, like the candle in art throughout the centuries, does this have a symbolic meaning?

Words by Lara Chapman

Juliette Minchin, La veillée au candélou [The Candlelight Vigil], 2019, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris, courtesy of the artist

Everywhere I look, I’m seeing candles. These aren’t your bog standard, cheap-as-chips dinner candles or tealights, these are big, fat, maximalist candles – candles shaped like shells, candles of your dog, candles resembling multicoloured exotic vegetables, candles giving you the finger, candles inspired by ancient temples, TikTok-trending DIY swirly candles, candles that look suspiciously like pastel-coloured sex toys, candles that are marbled, twisted, bulbous, busty, striped, vulva-esque, carved and knotted. It seems that sculptural candles are having their time in the spotlight or (wink wink) should I say candlelight… and their waxy bodies are whispering softly, “baby won’t you light my fire.”

Looking past the waxy seductiveness (and Instagrammability) of the fantastically kitschy decorative candles, my question is: why now? Candles have been around for eons, shedding light in our lives since the Romans stuck a piece of string in some leftover fat from cooking meat (called tallow) and lit it on fire – ignoring its reportedly dire and pungent smell – in approximately 500BC. For the intervening 2,520 years, candles have evolved through a number of materials – from whale fat and cinnamon wax to paraffin and beeswax – and manufacturing innovations, but what has remained consistent in candles until now, has been their steadfastly cylindrical and slightly tapered form. So why, in the hellish fire of 2020, did candles begin to morph into all sorts of shapes and sizes?

It would be easy to read our current penchant for candles symbolically – a search for light in a time of great darkness. The candle market as a whole has grown 22% in the last year according the sales tracking company NPD. Candles are a simple way to return your bedroom-cum-office or living-room-cum-nightmarish-homeschool back into their homely selves when the sun disappears. “Candles instantly transform a space, they create such an ambiance when lit and even when sitting around they are a symbol of romantic possibility,” says Piera Bochner, who makes kaleidoscopically colourful candles in the shape of beautiful vegetables, including romanesco, bumpy gourd and snake squash. “Since we have all been stuck at home for almost a year now, the ability to change the feeling of your environment is so desirable, people are craving that.”

Vegetable candles by Piera Bochner, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist

While the appeal of a candle-lit lockdown is certainly one aspect of the candle surge, I suspect there is more at play where sculptural candles are concerned, since any old dinner candle would function to create a mood. Given the price tag of these items, which ranges from €25 to €250, there must be more going on. To paraphrase artist Richard Hamilton, just what is it that makes today’s candles so different, so appealing?

To truly get to the wick of understanding this, perhaps we must look to the chandlers (as candle makers have historically been known) who patiently weigh and melt down wax pellets, concoct wax recipes through rigorous trial and error, measure melting temperatures, stir in dyes, conduct drip tests, pour wax into moulds, wait for drying, unmould, clean the surfaces and watch this magical material go from hard to soft, to something in between – an almost plasticky substance that is flexible, sculptable and texturally intriguing – over and over again.

Many candle makers have ventured into this waxy world from other creative disciplines – architecture, product design, styling and animation, to name a few – and as more creatives turn their attention to wax as a primary material for making, it is no wonder new forms and innovations are emerging. But why the attention on wax?

‘Small Sculpture Candles’ by Natascha Madeiski, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist

Wax presents a solution to the problem from working from home as a maker, without access to the usual workshops and spaces. It doesn’t need much equipment and is very accessible. Natascha Madeiski, a designer/architect, began making her Sculptural Candle series whilst locked-down in Switzerland. “I call it my ‘Covid project’,” she explains. “It is something you can do from start to end under these circumstances.” Her candles – which resemble emerald green, charcoal grey, very pale pink and rich cream blocks of carefully cut, carved and stacked stones – are created using home-made silicone moulds. Likewise, stylist Callie Pettigrew has been pumping out candles of various shapes, colours and marbled combos and new mould designs from her kitchen since establishing her candle company, Studio Dine, during the second UK lockdown. She estimates that she has made 600-700 candles since starting the enterprise two months ago, but she laughingly says that her kitchen is getting a little chaotic now.

Although candles are currently enjoying the attention of the design world, artists have long recognized the beauty and potential of this archetypal object. For centuries, images of dripping, self-engulfing candles have been used in memento mori artworks to remind us that we must all face death. The painting Still Life with a Lighted Candle (1627) by the Dutch Golden Age painter Pieter Claesz eerily depicts the final moments of a candle’s life, its slightly oozing stump of body is just centimetres away from extinguishing itself, burning out forever. Candles, if they could speak, would softly tell us that life is fragile and fleeting.

Urs Fischer. Leo (George and Irmelin), 2019 Gagosian, Paris

Certainly, this symbolism is what draws contemporary artists Juliette Minchin, Urs Fischer and Maria Abramović to candles. Minchin’s sculpture The Candlelight Vigil (2019) is, essentially, a giant candle constructed from 300kgs of wax, 130 wicks and a metal interior supporting box. In watching the slow destruction of the performative artwork as it melts over several days, Minchin hopes the audience will reflect on their own temporality. It can “trigger the process of empathy, this strange feeling of projection of the human in the work,” says Minchin. More literally, Fischer’s candle sculpture Leo (George and Irmelin) was exhibited and set alight in October 2019, at the Gagosian in Paris. The larger-than-life sculpture is a portrait of Leonardo DiCaprio and his parents. Lit through a wick in the head of the life-like sculptures, the figures start to melt away, dramatically oozing a black wax, encased in the interior of the candles, down their pastel bodies.

Those who buy them—and they sell for almost as much as $1 million—can get the whole thing refabricated at cost ($50,000, in 2017) and delivered back to their home, ready to be melted again, and ordered again, and melted again, ad infinitum.

Another artwork harnessing the dramatic symbolism of candles is a performance that Abramović is reportedly preparing for her 2021 show at London’s Royal Academy (postponed from 2020 for obvious reasons). According to the art dealership Widewalls, Abramović will be charged with up to one million volts of electricity “to the point she can extinguish a candle by simply pointing at it”. Explaining the process, art fabricator Adam Lowe says that if it is done properly the electricity “comes out of your fingers and puts out a candle a metre away from the person. But if it goes wrong, it is a killing machine."

The candle, it seems, is the perfect medium to contemplate our inevitable demise, and sculptural candles are transitioning from galleries into homes at a time when death is at the forefront of public consciousness. Consider the sculptural candles as mini, domestic momento mori artworks to remind us that the grim reaper is knocking at the world’s door.

TWIST candle by Lex Pott, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist

And yet, there is a strange irony at play. Sculptural candles are frequently covered by the media in listicles with headlines like “9 Candles We Want Right Now That Are Too Pretty To Burn” (Refinery29, October 2020) and “Playing with fire: the candles too beautiful to burn” (Financial Times, December 2020). This idea of being “too [insert nice adjective here] to burn” suggests that sculptural candles should only be used decoratively rather than functionally. If their aesthetics (and their price tags) sidestep their primary function – to be burnt down to a pool of wax – are sculptural candles no more than escapist products which give a cheery capitalist sheen to ideas of death and destruction?

TWIST candle by Lex Pott, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist

Asking the candle makers how they feel about the idea of their work being “too pretty to burn” triggers varied intensities of responses but a unanimous consensus that they should, at some point, be burnt. Lex Pott, whose clever two-in-one TWIST candles were launched in 2020, thinks that it is “a horrible expression!” and compares his candles to a beautifully presented meal at a restaurant where you admire the food but then eat it “because that is what it is made for.”

Janie Korn believes that most people tend to keep her fun and pop-art-esque candles. The desire to preserve Korn’s handmade “magic candles” is understandable as they are often commissioned in the likeness of something dear to the buyer – the face of a loved one, a pet, or a nostalgic object – and there is something slightly violent about the notion of setting that alight. Even she was once reluctant to burn them. “At first I thought ‘how dare you burn something that I have put all this painstaking labour into!’” Korn explains that each candle takes 1.5-5 hours to make, “but now I’m changing my philosophy. Seeing them burn looks really cool so I’ve started to burn more of my own candles. I think it is a ceremony. It is an opportunity to release something, sort of like an effigy, and I hope more people do burn them.”

Janie Korn

In a similar synergy, Bochner offers this insight: “What I love about candles and specifically sculptural ones is that tension of function and form. It is pretty unique to candles that their function causes them to self-destruct. They become an experiment in ephemerality and dematerialism, whoever has the choice of lighting a candle has control over its existence.”

And with this idea of control we can return to pondering the sculptural candle boom. In the early 2020s – when decisions of what we can and cannot do are dictated by tiny viral respiratory droplets with deadly potential – it is not surprising that we turn to objects that we have a measure of power over. A simple flick of a match, the gentle fffffwooooshhh as the wick catches and the candle melts away, reshaping itself from upright to lusciously drippy. We can choose how much, for how long and for what occasions this destruction takes place. Buying a fun candle may seem like a simple or even mundane act (and perhaps it is and I’ve been waxing lyrical for nothing, having had too much time for overthinking on my hands), but I believe, that inscribed in this object is a question of personal agency – if only a tiny amount – at a time when agency is in short supply. To light, or not to light, that is the question.

Janie Korn