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Wurm holes everywhere

Erwin Wurm's experiments make the self-evident squint and smudge logic and sense.

To coincide with a major retrospective of the Austrian artist in Hamburg's Deichtorhallen, Werner Spies paid him a studio visit.

Body art has been an Austrian speciality since the home-made splatter fests of the Viennese Actionists. But the overwhelming success of Erwin Wurm comes as a welcome break from this trade in macabre gusto-gore. A man of many talents, he exorcises their ritualistic, blasphemous sorcery and poisons us to the secretions with which Schwarzkogler, Nitsch, Brus and Mühl chose to anoint their royal household. Wurm ushers in his brand of mocking enlightenment with nothing but a dry, closed body.

"The artist begging for mercy" (2002) c-print. © Erwin Wurm: VG BILD-KUNST

This attack on the Viennese house gods has raised a few heckles. In hostile studios, comments are dropped here and there that compared with the Actionists, Wurm offers nothing but surface. Of course Wurm is surface. He wants to be surface, but one so highly polished that it's impossible to keep a firm footing. And as for the spleen of his fellow artists, I can only refer to the Austrian cabaret artist Hans Peter Heinzl who said, "In Vienna, people even envy you your cancer."

Wurm, in his precise and matter-of-fact turn of phrase, talks with glee about this inexhaustible resource, the self-hatred of the artists and intellectuals. It fuels his work, this envy complex, which comes on tap in a city held tight in the grip of monarchy and church for seven hundred years. So living abroad is out of the question. He is as dependent on his heimat as Thomas Bernhard (more). Wurm's equivalent to Berhard's indignation at the "arty dinner party" in "Cutting Timber"/"Woodcutters" or – in "Old Masters" – of the misanthropic brooding in front of the Tintoretto in the Bordone room at the Kunsthistorische Museum, are his bizarre tableaux which, as in "Der Landadel" (landed gentry), showcase the collapse of society.

In this city, the artist appears to have found the place he was looking for. On the ground floor of a building in Taborstraße in Vienna's 20th district, the visitor is greeted by Palmer's Textile company which promises "sensual items for day and night", Kreps Leather Goods, and the Min Jiang shop advertising sweaters at knock-down prices. These are the sort of shops where Erwin Wurm would find components for his work. Or more precisely, it is in places like this that you will stumble across many of the things that have found their way into his stagings and photo works. Because Erwin Wurm prefers to use things that fall into his hands. He likes to purge things of their utility value, he says. Which is why he likes things, objects, materials that people generally overlook, perishable fruit, stationery, brooms, bags or bits of furniture. He would never go near luxury items. His alchemy relies on the inconspicuous. Anything with material appeal, with the aura of rarity and patina would only mar his ambush on banality. Which is why it comes as little surprise that one of Wurm's portraits is of the French author Frederic Beigbeder whose novel "99 francs" exposes the true face of marketing with much caustic cackling. The temporal sculptures which poke fun at functional usage are there to point out the worm holes that are everywhere and in everything.

"Leopoldstadt" (2004) c-print.
© Erwin Wurm: VG BILD-KUNST

The artist tells me that the sweaters and bits of clothing that he uses at specific moments in time should be replaced regularly with contemporary items. This is to guarantee that they retain the invisibility they would have had when they were first used. Because, he says, his starting point is the overlooked. I point out that this is exactly what Duchamp prescribed for his Readymades. Duchamp told me that the bottle rack and the other objects which he used at particular times should be renewed and replaced at regular intervals. The triviality of a bottle rack would, 50 years down the line – we were sitting in Duchamp's apartment in Neuilly in 1965 – find its equivalent in a plastic bucket. The bottle rack on the other hand, had become a curiosity, as the function of this object which had once graced every wine cellar in France had long since disappeared from common knowledge.

In the spartan studio, which has all the tidiness and files of an architect's office, it is almost impossible to imagine the quirky, boundless wealth of imagination that runs riot in Wurm's head. Almost everything we look at deals with twisting gestures, things and faces. When I mention Karl Valentin, Wurm is pleased. He has a hilarious way of knocking people off balance, a la Magritte, stuffing an apple into the mouth of Pater Liborius (photo series) in the Benedictine monastery of Admont – and in the process turning the cleric into an Adam ready to choke on the very symbol of temptation.

"Fat convertible", 2005, mixed media.
Photo: Courtesy Galerie Xavier Hufkens, Brussels / Vincent Everharts © Erwin Wurm

France was one of the first places to get people excited about Wurm. A video (at YouTube) by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers brought him widespread popularity. "Can't Stop" features the band re-enacting all number of his screwball gags in series of hilarious mini-takes. These alogical vignettes echo Christian Boltanski's "Saynetes comiques", Rebecca Horn's "Berlin. Übungen in Neun Stücken" (watch videos here) and Robert Longo's "Men in the Cities" where his neighbours, like mannequins held on strings by some exterior force, try out exalted poses on the studio roof. The fascination of body language, which remains a foreign language, stretches from the Surrealists back to the photographs that Charcot, Freud's teacher, took of hysterics at the Salpetriere in Paris in the late nineteenth century. Body as lapsus, we encounter it again with Bergson, in the sketches of Karl Valentin, and not least in Kafka's writing where the articulation of legs and arms drifts apart.

In "Rendez-vous des amis" Max Ernst has Breton, Aragon, Eluard and friends resort to an imaginary sign language to express things for which no language exists. Bodies and things lose their graspable functions with Wurm. It's as if an endless second of shock stands between wanting and moving. The artist does not proceed spontaneously. The countless philosophical references in his scribbled notes and installations summon us to inspect his work for precise influences. There is no overlooking the relationship to Descartes' mechanistic perception of the body, not to mention La Mettrie's treatise "L'homme-machine". Every gesture is dependent on the will.

"One minute sculpture" (1997) c-print. Sammlung/Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris © Erwin Wurm: VG BILD-KUNST

The principle is simple: Wurm loves a paradox, he turns everything on its head. He turns trousers into waste-containers or minimalist sculptures. The friends and models who appear before the camera are fitted with prosthetics. Pencils and fountain pens spill out of nostrils, mouths and ears. Pullovers of every colour and pattern hang on the wall. Animal-hide bellows spring to mind, as does the flayed skin of Marsyas. Wurm issues precise instructions for displaying the pullovers. They play on recent art history which Wurm, like he says, knows very well. And it's always good to meet an artist who doesn't insist on being the first and only person to take a particular path, but instead allows tradition into his work with a wink.

The well-versed Wurm knows perfectly well that this game with textiles and craft is not new, as a short-term memory might have one believe. Oldenburg, Morris, Beuys and Trockel all tried their hand at these techniques. Dada, Arp, Taeuber, Piacabia took recourse to this pin-pricking practice to undermine the Avantgarde. Did Max Ernst not call himself "Max Ernst tricoteur" in the Dada years in Cologne?

Wurm begins with Dada, with the early Dada collages, based on knitting and crocheting patterns. For this reason everything in his work that one might want to explain formally, that looks like Arte povera or Minimalism, recedes into the background. What he's after are interesting associations, the concave form into which the pullover is folded is an intentional echo of the first Readymade, the pissoir with which Duchamp taxed the taste and critical facilities of the jury in 1917. In a series of photographs we see clothes put on wrong. Bodies distort sweaters and suits into bizarre cephalopods. Straight-jackets spring to mind, as do the extravagant gymnastics of the Dadaists and the Surrealists playing with prosthetics and ectoplasm and extraterritorial corporeality. Bodies and gestures step over the borders of respectability. As Max Ernst, Picasso, Miro, Hans Bellmer, Claude Cahun and Bunuel demonstrated.

"The Artist who swallowed the World, when it was still a Disc" and "Fat House" Photo: Rastl/Deinhardstein/ MUMOK © Erwin Wurm

In contrast to all this extravagance Wurm offers us pure irrelevance. This is important for the effect, to make people laugh. Because extravagance yields less readily to the ridiculousness into which Wurm wants to pull the world around him. This also explains why he was so quick to quash his early enthusiasm for Viennese Fantastic Realism. In the photo series and in the videos, we see a man, Fabio Zolly, on a one-way textile street swelling into a Russian doll. He puts on one set of clothes over the next. The result makes one think of "Übergewicht, unwichtig: Unform" (overweight, unimportant: unform), which was the title of a theatre piece by Werner Schwab, the friend who was so influential for Wurm in the old days in Graz.

But there are other associations. Talking to Wurm it becomes clear that this compulsion to wear and carry everything one owns can also be read as a reference to migration and homelessness. This zest for all things obese comes to a head in the spherical figure "The artist who swallowed the world". Like an exorbitant marzipan Mozartkugel it nears the compressed planet "Adorno as Oliver Hardy". Just like in "Bohemian Girl" where Laurel and Hardy are stretched and flattened, this is all about burlesque distortions of images of the body. Wurm has created an alphabet of elite bodily contortions. With the Uri Geller touch, he bends everything, simulating the curvature of the world. He presents an orange VW bus, twisted apparently by the telekinetic powers of the Indian guru Mahesh Abayahani. The claim is at least as credible as Yves Klein's famous leap into the void, or Beuys' four-day isolation with a wild coyote.

"Telekintetically bent VW-Van" (2006) © Erwin Wurm: VG BILD-KUNST, Bonn 2007

Wurm presents his absurd operations, and this goes for the fat house or the Porsche, with perplexing confidence. Nothing he shows strays far from the linguistic convulsions so beloved by his friend Schwab who died young. Because as scintillating and engaging as the visual aspects of Wurm's works are, we sense that these all suggestions refer back to a linguistic Baroque, a play with syllogisms. One thinks of the 'Parolde in liberta' of the Futurists, which did away with syntax and logical connections. Wurm finds images for grotesque figures of speech whose variations are systematically played out in the writing of Elfriede Jelinek, Bernhard, Ernst Jandl (hear poems) or Friederike Mayröcker. The artist encourages us to join in. He provides his audience with the basic equipment and instructions so that they might re-enact the quirky scenes. The effect thrives on participation. It is the challenge to imitate the grimacing character heads of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt or pathological distortions, to make a fool of oneself, that differentiates his from Beuys' approach who clearly had a strong influence on Wurm. Unlike Wurm, Beuys always remains his own officiant. He allows no one to enter the chancel. The props which Beuys left behind after his performances were certainly not intended to encourage participation. Beuys the artist signed, so to speak, in his absence. He leaves behind discarded props, orphan objects.

Wurm's experiments on himself, which make the self-evident squint, that smudge logic and sense, are amusing and thought-provoking at once. Because the gags and the "One Minute Sculptures" lead to the madhouse of society's behaviour. What would be more fitting in Vienna than to fade into all this clowning about the knowledge about Breughel's "Kinderspiele" in the Kunsthistorische Museum. Erwin's stagings are a catalogue of bodily lack of discipline, of alienation, ticks and spleen. He brandishes it like a contemporary biblia pauperum against the blunt illiteracy of his and our time.


Werner Spies (born 1937) was a professor of 20th century art at the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie. From 1997 to 2000 he was the director of the Musee National d'Art Modern at the Centre Pompidou. He has organised numerous exhibitions in Paris, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart, Tübingen, Tokyo and Berlin. He is a member of the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache and Dichtung and is a member of the French legion of honour.

This article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on February 24, 2007.

The Erwin Wurm retrospective at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg runs until 2 September, 2007.

Translation: lp

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