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Erwin Wurm

Pushing the boundaries of sculpture

Austrian artist Erwin Wurm is known for his humorous approach to formalism. In his artworks he extends and alters reality in ways that can be experienced as intriguing, funny or disturbing. He portrays objects of everyday life, things that look familiar, but that have been manipulated and distorted, combining playfulness with a profound sense of the absurd.  

Although his sculptures are humorous, sometimes even ridiculous, they are often critical of Western society and lifestyle.

I am interested in the everyday life. All the materials that surrounded me could be useful, as well as the objects, topics involved in contemporary society. My work speaks about the whole entity of a human being: the physical, the spiritual, the psychological and the political.

Pieces like Truck, where a truck curves up against the building take something we all know and distort it by enlarging, curving it, or slimming it down. “I will often use humor to seduce people”, he admits. “To get them to move closer, but it’s never very nice when they look closer."

If you approach things with a sense of humor, people immediately assume you're not to be taken seriously. But I think truths about society and human existence can be approached in different ways. You don't always have to be deadly serious. Sarcasm and humor can help you see things in a lighter vein.

Wurm’s body of work includes performance, video, photography, drawing and classical sculpture, often in combination. His artistic language echoes that of comic strip or science fiction images; it is clear and simple and easily accessible to the public. At the same time, his pieces showcase a cynical criticism.

The artist is particularly well known for his his interpretation of sculpture as a form of action. Since the late 1980s, he has developed an ongoing series of One Minute Sculptures, in which he poses people in relationships with everyday objects, prompting the viewer to question the very definition of sculpture.

To make a One Minute Sculpture, the viewers must surrender themselves to the feeling of being awkward or uncomfortable. Following the artist’s hand-written and cartoon-like instructions the audience can themselves briefly become sculptures, by taking up often absurd poses involving everyday objects. Whoever chooses to do one of Wurm's One Minute Sculptures holds the pose for a minute. As the sculptures are fleeting and meant to be spontaneous and temporary, the images are only captured in photos or on film. The positions people are asked to assume are often difficult to hold, which can make a minute for a One Minute Sculpture can feel like an eternity.

By involving the public in the design of the sculpture Wurm transforms it into an open field of action. Public participation is necessary, their actions shape the form of the art. This way he aims to encourage the individual to participate in social action instead of passive consumption. 

Time is an important factor in many of his pieces. He explores it in all kinds of different ways: from his shortest-lived works, the "dust sculptures", to large-scale installations, in which fixed architectural shapes are dressed in knitted pullovers.  

Clothing as a sculptural theme, the outline, and the filling out of a volume is also of prime importance in his work. Wurm believes the creation of sculpture is adding and subtracting material to an object – the alteration of mass and volume. He thus describes humans gaining or losing weight as a sculptural act. In his works he puts this idea into practice by layering clothes over each other or by representing objects as fat, obese, or inflated.

His series of sculptures titled ‘Fat Car’, depicts "puffy, obese, life-size sculptures that bulge like overfilled sacks". The first of his Fat Car series was actually developed in collaboration with designers from Opel, but they were unsuccessful in achieving the kind of shape that the artist had in mind. In order to create his desired look of ‘fatness’, the artist uses polyurethane foam and Styrofoam covered with lacquer. Wurm has also produced a Fat House at near full scale.

His “fat” works of art are meant to critique Western culture's need for material objects. Wurm once noted that many people are obsessed with having bigger houses and bigger cars, which is exactly what he creates. However, his Fat Cars and Fat House are not big in an appealing way. Although these pieces look funny, there is pointed criticism behind them about how ridiculous the owners of such things are to the artist.

He explains how diet and philosophy are two parts of our daily lifestyle: one is something that plays out in our physical reality and on the other something that we deal with spiritually. He thereby extends the term "diet" to include cars or clothes - a diet based in consumerism and excess. 

My work is about the drama of the pettiness of existence, whether one approaches it through philosophy or through a diet. In the end we always draw the short straw. 

The artist does not only inflate things. In 2010 Wurm "shrank" his parents' house. The design of this house was typical of the 1950s, but a fraction of the width and filled with shrunken furniture. Everything including the hallways, the bedroom, the living areas, even the toilet, were unusually compressed.

Growing up in the 1950s in post-war Asutria, he lived with his parents; his mother was a stay-at-home mom and his father a policeman. In this context it was very difficult for the artist to express himself both at school and at home. The limited worldview of his childhood strongly affected Wurm's philosophy of art and Narrow House is a physical manifestation of this fact. When the viewers walk through, they feel the tension and claustrophobia that Wurm experienced as a child on a daily basis. Through the installation, Wurm raises questions about space, posing as he says: 

some deep and disturbing questions about the terror that comes from having our personal space constricted, restricted, or invaded.

Erwin Wurm has had a profound influence, not only within the realm of the visual arts, but also on other performing artists. In the 2003 Red Hot Chili Peppers music video for "Can't Stop" the members of the band carry out five of Wurm's One Minute Sculptures. At the end of the video, a sign points to Wurm as an inspiration. Due to the popularity of the video, Wurm's work also quickly boomed in popularity. 

Again and again, Wurm has succeeded in creating spectacular signature works such House Attack (a house on top of another building) and Misconceivable (a deformed boat). With his architectonic interventions and large-scale sculptures, particularly in public space, Wurm has opened up new possibilities in the field between sculpture and architecture.

His works always hint at a critical, analytical consideration of the concept of sculpture itself. He skilfully navigates the boundaries between object and performance, architecture and design, sculpture and photography, artist and public, all the while providing a broad basis for reflection on social and cultural questions.

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