Erwin Wurm

Jan 15, 2015

“Everything is sculpture,” says Erwin Wurm, and the Austrian artist puts that motto into action. Since studying sculpture in Salzburg and Vienna in the 1980s, Wurm has been reinterpreting the art form according to his needs and ideas. Going beyond its classic, three-dimensional shape, he turns even two-dimensional media such as drawings and photos into sculpture. Questioning accepted definitions, Wurm likewise challenges our perception of everyday objects: cars and houses become wobbly objects that are inflated and soft; a slice of bread morphs into a miniature stage on which rests a knob of butter sculpted into an actor; a sweater becomes a sculpture through interaction with a human being. The latter refers to Wurm’s seminal work, One Minute Sculptures, an ongoing series that brought him renown, especially after it inspired the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s music video, ‘Can’t Stop.’

One Minute Sculptures become sculptures only when a spectator interacts with it. The sweater is exhibited alongside explicit instructions on how it should be worn. The wearer then freezes in that position for as long as 60 seconds, transforming the sweater into a static, yet dynamic, sculpture. This simple concept can have a profound impact, especially on the performer. Wurm stumbled upon this realization when he tried mutating into a sculpture himself. The emotions that it generated convinced him to pass the challenge on to his audience.

We met the 60-year-old artist during his One Minute Sculpture exhibition at Städel Museum in Frankfurt. Just before we sat down with him, we interacted with the sweaters ourselves to understand the intended impact of the installation. We discussed how sculpting compares to gaining or losing weight, and how art serves as a chronologist of our time.

Wertical: Your works are often just finished when the spectator interacts with them, which means you need to observe your audience to see the final work. Since you’re not present throughout the process, how do you see these interactions? Are they documented on film?
Erwin Wurm: There is a lot of documentation, but it’s not necessarily made by me. So I am not the archivist myself. Galleries, museums and curators send us material and there has long been a website featuring One Minute Sculptures made by all different kinds of people. They uploaded them themselves.

WE: Is it because you’re not very interested in the interactions and reactions?
EW: Well, the work is arranged very precisely. I wrote and drew manuals. And it’s actually only my sculpture when it’s realized in the way I noted it. Many people just do anything they want. They fool around, for example. It’s fine, too, but it’s just not my sculpture then. And it actually doesn’t even matter how the sculptures are made in the end. That’s not what my work is about.

WE: And even when people try to make a sculpture in the way you intended, it can still look different because of the way they understand the instructions.
EW: That’s true. It’s very interesting.

WE: But if it’s not about how your sculptures look, what is it about?
EW: About what my works trigger. There are many factors that get awakened while performing the sculptures. Many people attach a fun factor to it. But I have to say that the fun factor is not really in the foreground for me.

WE: What is instead?
EW: Psychological phenomena, moments in which you surrender yourself, power, rejection, infinity, claustrophobia, ridiculousness, eventuality and the marginal things that always accompany each and everyone of us. I like to dig into people’s complex selves.

WE: How did you come to take this approach in order to address these topics?
EW: It took a while until I realized it. I began involving visitors into the exhibition quite late. In the beginning, I and some friends did all that I now ask the visitors to do. The very first time I involved third parties was in Bremen, Germany. I asked people working at the venue to become part of my work. After this experience, I made a step towards the audience. And the idea emerged as I realized that it’s interesting to involve spectators because their contributions include parts of their personality and their expectations of what it should be.

WE: Are your One Minute Sculptures really sculptures or are they performances?
EW: I always say they are cross-formable sculptures as they are sculptures as well as performances. It’s actually just for strategic reasons that they are officially labelled as sculptures. In fact, everything I do – the drawings and also the photos – it’s all sculpture although it may not be a sculpture by definition.

WE: A drawing and a photo are two-dimensional. How can these media be sculptures, which are usually three-dimensional?
EW: I tried to question the term sculpture. I am not the first artist to do this. There have been others before me creating all different kinds of works that they eventually described as sculpture.

WE: How did you develop your own definition?
EW: When I made the works with the sweaters in the early 1990s, I showed manuals next to them. That way, the gallery staff knew how the sweaters should be hung up or installed. The manuals took on a life of their own and eventually became artworks themselves. And as the manuals were intended to end up as part of the sculptures anyway, I asked myself, why are they actually not described as sculptures, too? From that moment on, I proclaimed them as sculptures. It’s the same with One Minute Sculptures: you have the drawing, and next to it a pedestal offering the platform to follow the instructions, and finally, you form a sculpture. And then there are also the photos of people doing the sculptures. So there are different media presenting the sculptures and so they are in fact all sculptures.

WE: You actually wanted to become a painter. What made you change your mind?
EW: I wanted to study painting, but it was the system hindering me. I applied at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg. At that time, you had to do an admissions exam which was the basis for some professors to decide what discipline of study would be best for you. I was assigned to sculpting.

WE: How fortuitous.
EW: Yes. At least in retrospect. Back than I was quite surprised. I didn’t regard sculpting as interesting at all.

WE: What did your early works look like? Have you always had a loose approach to sculpting as it wasn’t your core discipline?
EW: Yes. I learnt how to do sculptures in the classical sense, but I already broke out of traditional structures with the materials I used in the early 1980s. Waste became my material out of necessity as I couldn’t afford anything high quality. With my early works, I expressed a contrast to prevailing doctrines. Back then, minimalist and concept art was taught. But I didn’t want to class myself alongside concept and minimalist art. I was bored by it as it was all around. Everybody was doing either this or that. In the art world of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, there was a lot of pathos attached to art and I am absolutely against pathos. I think it makes people small – a piece of art is more enriching when it challenges the spectator to deal with himself, his weaknesses and mortality than making him or her freeze with respect.

WE: Is your work a kind of self-therapy?
EW: I have always had very high expectations of myself and tried developing good ideas to do good works. But eventually I realized that the best works only emerge if I work out of myself, including all my thoughts, problems and conflicts. And when I applied a personal approach, it proved right. But it’s definitely the more difficult way as you expose yourself. And so it’s indeed a sort of self-therapy.

WE: In a subtle way.
EW: Filtered through humor.

WE: You use and explore the human body as a sculpture. For example, The Artist Who Swallowed the World is a sculpture of a man with a round belly looking like he did indeed swallow a globe. Are you critiquing issues such as beauty ideals and obesity? Or do you like the form as a sculpture?
EW: It’s mainly about my interest in sculpting. When I sculpt, I am adding and removing volume. If somebody gains weight, he or she adds volume, if somebody loses weight, he or she reduces its volume, too. So, you could actually say picking up weight and slimming is a sculptural work, couldn’t you? From this approach, I developed all my ‘fat’ works – the fat people, as well as the fat car and the fat house. Adding volume is also a social process. Today, the ‘advanced’ society is trained – they live their lives consciously and eat healthily. The questions connecting social phenomena and sculpting have always interested me. And thus, these two poles are present in many of my works.

WE: Are you your own sculpture?
EW: I eat very consciously.

WE: In order to sculpt yourself?
EW: {Laughs} And to live for a long time.

WE: What does time mean for you?
EW: The meaning of time shifts. It’s all relative, or better to say, abstract. Time doesn’t really matter if you have got things straightened out with yourself. Time is always connected to longings and desires. And with age, time gets more prevailing as you have less of it because you are embedded in your structure of working and your private life. And of course, your personal time will eventually expire, too.

WE: Time and mortality also play a pivotal role in your works. You tell curators to update certain things that could eventually develop into relics of a certain era in time.
EW: I think every piece of art is subject to a certain time. There is a design vocabulary that’s valid now. But within a relatively short span of time, this can be outdated. A new one emerged and suddenly, the old one is interpreted in a different way. Aesthetics of a time go past. They can come back after a few years, but that’s not given. So you can tell when a piece of art has been made from its design vocabulary. Thus, every piece of art is always an expression of a certain time period. And that’s what makes the piece of art so interesting.

WE: But you tell the curators of your shows to replace certain objects that might reveal the year they were made in order to be up to date…
EW: Let’s take Marcel Duchamp and his work, The Bottle Rack, as an example. This piece of art has long since become iconic while Duchamp actually wanted to present the everyday normality of this product. But due to the time that has passed by ever since, the product itself has become a curiosity from the 1920s and an icon. It doesn’t have its original everyday character any more and thus, the meaning of the artwork is different, too. If you liked to express Duchamp’s approach today, you would actually need to re-interpret his works; you would need to find an equivalent everyday object. I also have this feeling when I look at all the Fluxus artists such as Kienholz, for example – the materials they used are all curiosities from a certain time; now, their meaning has changed. When I did my sweater series, I suggested to the curators that they should throw away the sweater after twenty years and replace them with new ones so that the sweaters are never sweaters from a certain period of time and the whole piece of art gets connected to this period of time. But in fact, nobody does it. No one dares to throw away a part of the artwork.

WE: You once said that you always feel like leaving this structured world that we live in. How does this other world look like?
EW: If I knew where to go, I would already be there and could tell you precisely how it looks like. But if you are doing art, you are already creating your own world in a way. I have always thought, you will interpret the world. You are doing this, too, for sure, but you are also creating a parallel world.

Artist’s website