Erwin Wurm trumps every hand of every game. In the art scene he acts the joker who is always one joke ahead. Yet as the creator of lopsided cars, adipose detached houses, one-minute sculptures and absurd photographs he’s not the jester you’d think he was, but a sensitive observer of reality and its translator into the language of art. Erwin Wurm is quite simply the wild card—even if that’s the one thing he would deny.
„Selected, in Wallpaper“ © Erwin Wurm, Courtesy of Hatje Cantz
“…There’s been a bit of a delay,” is the first thing that Erwin Wurm says down the phone on an icy day in January in Berlin, which in Vienna would be an icy day in Jänner as Austrian people would say. Oh well, I think, we’re off to a great start. But a delay is still better than being behind the times, which Erwin Wurm is certainly not in the slightest. Instead he is very modern, amusing and serious at the same time. Space displaces time and vice-versa; Wurm’s dialogs take place in the spaces in between: the Wurm-hole is, so to say, the Wurm-iform appendix, an absence on the one hand, and a surplus on the other. “Sculpture,” says Erwin Wurm, “is not what I originally wanted to do, I was more interested in painting, but I was accepted to study sculpture at the Academy in Salzburg, and since then of course I have been trying to deal with painting issues through sculpture.”
Erwin Wurm & Walter Van Beirendonck © Jesse Willems, courtesy of Middelheimmuseum
Wurm’s works are widely known. But most people have probably unwittingly seen Wurm’s take on the world: the Red Hot Chili Peppers were inspired by his so-called “One Minute Sculptures” for their “Can’t Stop” video, for which Wurm had people pose with everyday objects in bizarre situations, and then photographed them. So instead of attempting an object-oriented or even objective stock-take of the Wurm cast, we put ourselves at the mercy of the subjective direction of the processes that gauge his work.
Erwin Wurm, „Misconceivable“ © Jesse Willems, courtesy of Middelheimmuseum
In Erwin Wurm’s work there are basically two directions: the fattening and stretching of spatial dimensions on the one hand and the extreme reduction, minimalization and abstraction of the subject over time on the other. His oh-so literal “fat car” (“fettes Auto”—the Greek word autós means “self”) and “fat house” (the Greek word oikos means “house”, and afterwards economy and ecology) do not by any means blur or extend the limits or forms of artistic or social activity. On the contrary, it almost seems as if they reveal the actual contours of certain configurations of art, society and politics, in the same way as the world maps of the Worldmapper project by the University of Sheffield, which, in recent years, has illustrated geo- and socio-political dialogs: corresponding to different statistical features (life expectancy, income, internet access, surviving on less than one dollar per day, etc.) the world map then seems amorphous, stretched out here, swelled up and shrunk there or long and drawn out. Like in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” (1966), only through magnification do the details become visible, only excess enables such high concentrations, together distilling to an essence of the sculpture in question, thus conveying in artistic vocabulary the tiniest common denominator of meaning.
Erwin Wurm, „Big Pumpkin“ © Jesse Willems, courtesy of Middelheimmuseum
Erwin Wurm’s “One Minute Sculptures”, which, if you like, don’t even exist, surge towards opposing directions. They develop in and exist only for one minute (the Latin word minutes means “decreased, reduced”) and only outlive through the medial transposition into the materiality of photography. In terms of content they mostly show extremely fragile gestures, which themselves are to such an extent performative, so that they could barely be held for longer than this minimal meticulously planned time frame, awkward and often perishable, because they involve food products, whereby the fruits which are being lain on as part of the abstract balance are exactly those that carry Wurm’s sculptures and make them prolific. It’s about the balance “between distance and instance,” as Wurm explains to me, as well as the balance between different cultural and artistic spheres and media, whether it be between time and space, sculpture and photography, the art world and pop culture, museum and print media (in 2008 he designed an issue of Zeit magazine). “All of these connections happened by chance,” says Wurm.
„Selected, in Wallpaper“ © Erwin Wurm, Courtesy of Hatje Cantz
In order to be able to keep this balance, describe their dynamics and do justice to them, of course it’s also primarily about translation or, even more rudimentary, about translatability. While Erwin Wurm previously worked more together with other artists and authors—such as Werner Schwab who fell to his death on New Year’s Eve 1993 in Graz, whose alter ego in the so-called faeces drama “People Annihilation or My Liver Is Sick”, was called Hermann Wurm—in order to keep a discursive balance in his work, over the years he has become “…increasingly schizophrenic. One increasingly watches oneself,” says Wurm. But, he doesn’t think much of artist fashion, he tells me, everyone would have to now also be a scientist themselves and provide their own theories. If, however, we think for example of a piece of work like “Hold your breath and think of Spinoza”, which orders the spectator to hold their breath and think of the philosopher who stated the impossibility of free will—“…nowadays there are neuroscientists who research exactly that…”—and so it quickly becomes clear that Mr. Wurm is very much the master of his own dialog and, also during our conversation, has total control over its axioms and theorems. However, he is neither sentimental nor over the top, but rather delicately complex, more comic strip than a striptease of the soul. The comic strip, says Wurm, plays a central role, especially where it’s about the transmission and transformation of its contents into different contexts. For a visitor to the exhibition in Bonn context-less quotes from unsavory characters like the right-wing fascist H.C. Strache (Freedom Party of Austria politician and MP in the Austrian National Assembly) will remain unsatisfactorily oblique; a Peking spectator—as the exhibition is moving on to the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Peking’s art ghetto 798 with a stopover in the Essl Collection in Klosterneuburg near Vienna—whose eye is already trained in the outrageous works by Li Wei, will cotton on quite quickly to what the “Hamlet” series could be about, in which a man is standing on his head, being swallowed up by the pavement. The idea of the comic is to make a fool of the narration. As well as reducing things to a minimum, Wurm’s work, however, is not just about forces and transmittals. “Thought transmitters (make you happy) assistant and artist” (“Gedankentransmitter (macht froh) Assistent und Künstler”) is simply a pen, the ends of which the assistant and artist have stuck into their ears. You won’t find a more fascinating and simple commentary on media theory than that.
Erwin Wurm © Jesse Willems, courtesy of Middelheimmuseum
We carry on our conversation, about ateliers above canned goods factories, fathers who were criminal investigators, addition and subtraction. At the end of the interview I ask Erwin Wurm what his thoughts on wild cards are. “Wild cars…?” he asks. No, I say, cards, jokers, tricksters, variables… Erwin Wurm laughs: “Nothing at all… my mind is totally blank.”
His “Renault 25/1991” and the slant, with which it manages to take the curve despite the laws of centrifugal force, only serve to add a few wild cards, by reducing them by a further symbol into the essence of wild self.
Erwin Wurm, Middelheimmuseum, Antwerpen, 29.5. – 25.9.2011
Erwin Wurm, “Wear Me Out,” ed. Middelheimmuseum, Antwerpen, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Interview with the artist by Sara Weyns, Hatje Cantz (comes out July 2011)
Erstes Bild > Erwin Wurm, „Melting Houses“ © Jesse Willems, courtesy of Middelheimmuseum
(This article was published in Style and the Family Tunes, Spring 2010.)
Text > Paul Feigelfeld