Erwin Wurm is an Austrian man, born in 1954. According to Oxford Art’s Dictionary of Artists, he has worked as a “performance artist, photographer, [and with] body art.” His entry defines his work as “pointing out the presence of a consciousness before the object” (Wurm). In general, this means that he is more concerned with the viewer than the object they view. Wurm uses everyday objects and imagery to immerse viewers in what become far-from-everyday experiences.
A Fad Magazine article from February 2019 discusses his recent exhibition in New York.
The exhibit includes the Fat Cars series, One-Minute Sculptures, and a collection of other drawings and sculptures from his life’s work. Wurm’s work is described as “varied intersections of the physical and psychological · at times manifested in a sense of the surreal or absurd” (Westall). His work attempts to invite viewers into engaging with familiar objects in unfamiliar ways.
Wurm’s journey to reaching this mode of expression is documented by Elizabeth Wetterwald for Parachute Magazine.
She describes his regard for the human form: “first evoked in the work by empty clothing, then concealed beneath clothing and deployed as unstable material, before becoming visible to the point of constituting one of the essential motifs in the work today” Wetterwald). Wurm’s interest has never strayed from everyday objects, although the specific objects and the manner of expression have changed radically over the course of his career. Now, calling the act of posing for a photograph a ‘sculpture’ – as dictated in One-Minute-Sculptures – challenges the medium entirely.
Is a static object performative? As in Artist Sleeping for Two Months, is a static person performative? This final question comes from Wetterwald: “At what moment can we say that sculpture becomes performance?” (Wetterwald). After viewing the artistic portfolio of Erwin Wurm, I am tempted to say that there is no difference at all.
The first piece (Appendix A) is taken from Wurm’s One-Minute Sculptures. It is an image of a near-empty toilet paper roll, centred, standing upright on one end, and resting on the waist of the blue jeans of a bent-over participant. The lower half of the frame only captures the butt-region of the participant, and the toilet paper roll, while the upper half is empty white space, presumably of the gallery wall. The blue jeans are faded in the middle, creating a triangluar area that is more lightly coloured than the rest of the garment, which points to the bottom of the frame.
The primary function of this piece is to have gotten the viewer to act. They take a tube, they bend over, they place it on or near their bottom. The act is that they are putting toilet paper on their butt; an act people (usually) perform every day, when pooping. The first reading of the work, considering it is to be done in a gallery setting, is that Wurm is linking the act of defecation to the act of creating art. Many artists struggle with the concept of “what is art”, and to compare the artistic expression here to a base, human action, is to challenge the concept that only “talented” or “special” individuals are capable of the creation of such works.
On the contrary, the second piece (Apendix B) is taken from Wurm’s Melting Houses. Guggenheim – Melting is a resin sculpture of the Guggenheim museum, where it is transforming at its base into a static puddle. The upper end of the museum is still intact, although tilted down and to the viewer’s right as though it had been melted by a source of heat on that side. The entire piece is white.
Unlike the prior photo-sculpture , Guggenheim-Melting is certainly beyond what many viewers may consider to be in their abilities. It is a realistic sculpture of a surreal situation; the Guggenheim gallery will never melt, not in the way that is depicted here. But, it can be understood as a prediction or wish, that Wurm is further encouraging the deconstruction (read: “melting”) of a gallery system, where core artists are exalted and viewers are something else.
Wurm’s works challenge the viewer; he is concerned with what is considered “high art” and subverts expectations by simultaneously conforming to and resisting what is defined as being artistic. His One-Minute Sculptures series are simple, often comedic or otherwise absurd representations of objects in a space. This is what sculpture is: objects in space. However, by choosing the everyday subject matter that he often does (office supplies, produce, and human models, for example) he is distancing himself from a tradition of naturalistic marble-carvers.
I am drawn to performance: this is why I am studying theatre. It excited me to see this artist encouraging action in a gallery setting, a place for viewing. Traditional theatre and traditional studio art are similar in their obsession with the “gallery line”, where the artists and the audience are separate and do not interact or have anything in common. But, to truly affect someone, there must be this interaction. I am already affected by Wurm’s works simply by the concept of being able to interact with them. I can only imagine the experience that those viewers must have had, and ideally, challenged their notion of what defines an artist, and what degines art. It is my hope that Wurm is attempting to make all people remove their own identity as viewer and realize that they can also pick up the toilet paper roll and call themselves an artist, too.