Erwin Wurm – »Performative Sculptures«

 

Curated by Severin Dünser and Alfred Weidinger

21er Haus, Vienna

June 2 – September 10, 2017

 

Attempts at Liberation in the Fog of Sculpture

On Erwin Wurm’s Performative Sculptures

 

“You can try to find the sculptural quality of everything. Whether anything comes of it, is another matter. Is there a limit to sculpturality, and if so, where does it lie? I have been thinking about these things for decades.”1 So says Erwin Wurm in conversation about his work. And indeed, for over 35 years he has been on an artistic Odyssey aimed at expanding the classic concept of sculpture.
It all began with sculptures of wooden slats Wurm banged together with nails in the early 1980s. He then painted them in bright colors, in a fashion similar to the style of the “Neue Wilden” (New Fauves) who were active at the time. Classified as “Neue Skulptur” (New Sculpture) the works were the exact opposite of what was hip at the time, such as Minimal or Conceptual art. But soon these novel ideas also became part of the canon, and Wurm sought again to liberate himself from his association with “Neue Skulptur.” So he discontinued his previous approach to work and tried to overcome the pathos and gravity of art.2 He abandoned the sublime and looked for a different tool with which to redefine his art. What he found was the paradoxical.
In the late 1980s, Wurm began to use garments as the basic material for his sculptures. He placed jackets, trousers, shirts and the like over cubes and cylinders. What made these works effective was their reference to the human body as opposed to the alienation of that same body when imposing a geometrical form upon it. In 1990, he developed this idea into the Hanging Pullovers which were no longer bound to an object, but hung on the wall picture-like, and were lent a sculptural character by being folded in a specific way. Conversely, some garments were folded and then placed in boxes. These were followed by the first “instructions”—drawings and notes to explain how the garments should be folded. In these garment-objects Wurm, on one hand, alluded to the classic methods of sculpture while also making an everyday item into a work of art by depriving it of its function. On the other hand, he shifted the focus away from the object itself to the sculptural process of creation, which was then potentially transferred to the recipients.
Then in the video Still I from 1990 we see a man standing motionless. He has covered his head with a bowl that hides the play of emotions on his face. The video is looped, creating a static impression that runs counter to the medium itself. Here for the first time, using a technique alien to the art, Wurm turns a person into a sculpture—a method that would soon become characteristic of his approach to sculpture.
The Dust Sculptures also saw the light of day in 1990. These consist of white pedestals with dust on their surfaces. But the dust is not everywhere, for there are also blank spaces as if something had stood there for a long time but has now disappeared. Normally of course, sculptures are put on such pedestals in exhibition rooms. With the Dust Sculptures Wurm has had them disappear or moved elsewhere: in our heads, where they must be imagined in all their immateriality. What the artist addresses here is time as a potential sculptural quality, and which expresses itself quite literally through the dust. In addition, Wurm introduces the principle of reproducibility to his creative work—after all, the dust sculptures can be produced again by other people according to exact instructions—and consequently he removes them from transience, while he also satirizes the exhibition business with dust-dry humour.
In Fabio zieht sich an (“Fabio Gets Dressed”), 1992, a man removes all the clothes from a coat stand and puts them on. Consequently, he disappears from the picture as a shapeless, swollen figure. In this piece, Wurm combines his point of departure, clothing, with an actor who performs a sculptural action within a certain time limit. The act of dressing is heightened and becomes a metaphor for sculpture (in that the work deals with volume); Wurm has joined the abstract process of creation with an everyday act and infuses it with social importance.
That same year he also produced the video 59 Stellungen (“59 Positions”) in which garments are put on in 59 different ways and in certain positions. As with Still I the people in the video remain in one position and move only minimally. “For the first time aspects such as ridiculousness and embarrassing behavior were added. Normally, you would like to produce brilliant, serious art, but I noticed that the ridiculous, the embarrassing and the frail are fundamental states of people that interest me more.”3
From here it is only a small step to the One Minute Sculptures, which have been produced from 1997 onwards. In these works, Wurm invites his audience members to themselves become sculptures for the space of a minute. In an interaction with certain objects following the artist’s instructions and comments, poses are adopted and become charged with meaning. The simple arrangements often involve complex questions or brainteasers: for example, think about Montaigne while pressing a felt pen against the wall with your head; guess the mass of a piece of wood that you are lying on; or think about your own digestion while lying down and balancing a bottle of toilet disinfectant on your head. But the instructions can also be simpler: say, being a dog, eating a sausage; drawing a pullover over your head like a terrorist. As well, subjects are asked to depict abstract topics as a kind of monument, such as the theory of labor, the organization of love, the theory of painting or the speculative realist. Paradoxes of a certain ridiculousness have become an integral part of the One Minute Sculptures. Techniques that had been featured in earlier works—the inclusion of observers who perform the work within a specific timeframe (and do so repeatedly), the use of everyday objects and the use of video and photography to capture sculptural actions—were all combined in the One Minute Sculptures.
These were followed by photo series such as Instructions for Idleness (2001) and Instructions on How to be Politically Incorrect (2002), which emphasized the socio-critical aspect of Wurm’s oeuvre again. Also produced at this time was Fat Car (2001), a “life-sized” car, which is bloated and somewhat too well-endowed to meet any ideal of beauty. Fat House follows the same principle: it is simply overweight and overflows at its sides. Once again the artist takes a basic principle of sculpture—namely, the adding of volume—as his starting point. He then transfers the human equivalent of overeating and getting fat from everyday life to the visual world of sculpture. The adipose status symbols of prosperity represent obesity in society and its underlying reasons such as addictive consumption and overproduction. You might say they are vanitas themes, symbols of transience.
In contrast, Wurm did not infuse any human characteristics into the Narrow House of 2010, let alone human proportions. It is not bloated, but has been compressed. Narrow House is a copy of his parental home in its original size—but shrunk down to a width of 1.1 meters. As a prototypical building from the 1960s in Austria, it symbolizes the widely realized dream of owning one’s own home, along with the attendant feeling of confinement that was manifested in petty bourgeois, stuffy and depersonalized living spaces. Finally, the artist goes one step further in the direction of inner feelings with the series Bad Thoughts from 2016. These shapeless clumps of material in tied-up garbage bags reject any ironic reading. The black surface hides from sight the objects inside, and only the amorphous bulges provide clues as to the bags’ content. In their material quality as bronze casts they suggest a heaviness that in combination with the title brings to the viewer dark moods and imaginings. There is something similarly and suggestively introspective about a body of work that Wurm was been working on with increasing intensely since 2011, namely the Performative Sculptures.
These include the previously mentioned Hanging Pullovers from 1990, and Pillow from 1992. The cushion can also be “worked” according to drawn instructions and turned “into a face,” “chicken,” “neck,” “ass” or ”someone squatting”. Wurm continued this group of works from 2012 with House Attack. This comprises models of European and American houses, some of them well-known buildings or by famous architects, and some anonymous buildings with which Wurm has a personal connection. The artist made the models out of clay and before being cast, he subjected them to further treatment: he attacked them in every conceivable manner. He might bash in a model, or sit on it and thereby squash it. For example, he lay down on his parental home and squashed it out of shape thanks to his body weight; he jumped onto the Fools Tower (a psychiatric hospital in Vienna), inflicted gashes on San Quentin prison, dug a hole into the high-security prison Stammheim, and aimed a kick at a German World War II bunker. In other words, certain types of buildings—those associated with the function of correcting behavior—are maltreated. The destruction of the closed shape—and thus the shell that keeps life in a certain order—becomes a rebellion against conformism and regulation. For Abstract Attack (2013), Wurm let sausages loose on the houses. The sausage is likewise a symbol of Western consumer culture. And it is an abstraction of food, as it is hardly possible to tell just what its innards are comprised of. The title Abstract Attack derives from this analogy, and provides an ironic spin on the almost Modernist austerity of House Attack.
From 2015, Wurm has developed two additional sub-groups to the Performative Sculptures, namely Furnitures und Objects. For Furnitures, he focuses on items such as sofas, armchairs, lounges, chests-of-drawers and refrigerators. Objects comprises such items as a soap dispenser, a wall clock, a mobile phone, a tape measure and a pistol. Here again Wurm follows the same principle that he used for House Attack. He makes models out of clay – which in the case of the Objects sometimes go beyond the size of the original—and he finds ways of acting violently towards them, even including running them over with a car. At the end he often casts the damaged models in bronze, aluminium, iron or synthetic resin, or he coats them with paint.
A final subgroup completes the Performative Sculptures. The works of Beat and Treat are begun in 2001, but are anticipated as early as 1995. However, unlike the other Performative Sculptures there is nothing mimetic about them. They are not based on houses or other objects. Their starting point is a material in its raw industrial form: the block of clay. The artist works the block with the entire force of his body. As the title infers he “beats and treats” the clay, going wild over it until the work is finished. It is hardly surprising that he has used the title Zornskulpturen (“Anger Sculptures”) to describe these works.
In the Performative Sculptures the artist seems to give free rein to his aggression; in other words, he portrays an expression of anger towards something. As in his earlier works he borrows from everyday life when he transfers such outbreaks of anger to the creative sculptural process. In doing so he exaggerates the principle of the sculptural gesture and satirizes it. Similarly, in these works allusions are made to the ridiculous and the embarrassing—after all, losing one’s self-control and destroying things in order to get rid of bottled up anger usually tends to happen in private. And if it does happen in public, onlookers generally feel embarrassed.
Erwin Wurm emotionalizes sculptural creativity here. At the same time, he psychologizes the observers’ point of view as they scan the objects for traces, and attempt to draw conclusions about the artist’s motives, his darkest depths and state of mind at the time of the sculptural action.
It is important for Erwin Wurm to be physically involved himself again: “I have noticed that many artists hardly do almost nothing at all themselves, but rather let their works be produced by others. That really strikes me. It irritates me because I have lost contact to my work, so to speak. And so I am trying to regain that contact, by creating everything myself, or at least for the most part by myself.”4 Naturally, one can argue that Wurm has many of his works performed by others—such as the One Minute Sculptures—and that this is a fundamental part of his oeuvre. Others might object that new ideas are largely developed during hands-on experimentation, an experience that cannot be made up for by abstract planning, and is indispensable for the continuation of a complete work. In addition, Wurm has never relinquished his role as author: even when visitors are allowed to perform his sculptures the artist remains the author of the work.
His Performative Sculptures are not only charged with emotion, they are also charged with authorship. Indeed, in this body of work authorship is overdrawn. And as an expression of this authorship the impacts of the artist’s body upon the material can very definitely be read as gestures. These gestures transport the aura of the unique, but simultaneously question them in their reproducibility by being cast. That said, the direct nature of the gestures supports the maintenance of an authenticity of expression. What is at stake here—and this is similar to gestural painting in Arte Informale—is the transparency of the gestural impulse, the energy transferred to the material. In emphasizing the creative process, implications of direct personal expression and speculations regarding traces of the apparently unconscious are thus connected here.
Through this exaggeration Erwin Wurm’s gestures can also be read as critical allusions to the myth of the artist, even though the artist himself leaves us in the dark about the status of his actions. Nonetheless, gestural expression is receiving greater attention again today as it unites qualities that counter the digitalization of everyday life with something refreshingly physical.
The main impression left behind by the Performative Sculptures is the emphasis on a creative process by which Erwin Wurm makes the physical objects in this body of work almost literally collide. The moral of the story? Things lack permanency, but by opting to take action it is possible to take control of one’s life. What Wurm advocates in other words is critical reflection of one’s own actions in the context of society, so as not to become an object (rather than a subject) oneself. But as Erwin Wurm himself once said: “My work deals with the drama of the triviality of existence. Whether you try to get a handle on it through philosophy or a diet, in the end you always draw the short straw.”

1 Erwin Wurm in interview with Tobias Haberl, “Gott sei Dank gibt es noch die dunkle Seite,”“ in: Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, no. 46, 18 Nov., 2016, p. 25.
2 See Erwin Wurm in conversation with Max Hollein, “Photography Knocks at the Door,” in: Aperture, autumn 2013, p. 50.
3 Erwin Wurm in interview with Brigitte Neider-Olufs, “Die Welt wird zunehmend breiter,” in: Wiener Zeitung, 15 Oct. 2010.
4 “I have come to realize how much contemporary art suffers, or has suffered, from the fact that artists’ studios have been transformed into manufacturing workshops. I have noticed that many artists do almost nothing at all themselves, but rather let their works be produced by others. That really strikes me. It irritates me because I have lost contact with my work, so to speak. And so I am trying to get that contact back again by creating everything myself, or at least for the most part by myself.” – Wurm/Hollein 2013 (as note 2), p. 51.

 

Exhibition catalogue:
Erwin Wurm – Performative Sculptures
Edited by Stella Rollig, Severin Dünser and Alfred Weidinger
Including Texts by Severin Dünser and Stella Rollig as well as an interview between Erwin Wurm and Alfred Weidinger
Grafikdesign by Atelier Liska Wesle, Vienna/Berlin
German/English
Hardcover, 29 x 22,5 cm, 216 pages, numerous illustrations in color and b/w
Verlag für moderne Kunst, Vienna, 2017
ISBN 978-3-903114-40-1