Published  26/02/2019

Erwin Wurm – interview: ‘I’m horrified about our environment, about our future’

Erwin Wurm – interview: ‘I’m horrified about our environment, about our future’

The Austrian sculptor, famed for sheathing social commentary in comic forms, talks about absurdity, handicraft, the mass media and the future


Entering Erwin Wurm’s exhibition New Work, at London’s magnificently appointed Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, the first piece one comes across is a miniature pair of human legs, topped with a moss-covered block of rock. Part of the Austrian sculptor’s ongoing Stone (2018-) series, its droll, surreal appearance belies the message concealed within. “We Germans and Austrians,” says Wurm, “we are all carrying the weight of history. Which not only comes through the fact of the first and the second world war, but also through German philosophy, which was always very heavy, very strict.” The Stone sculptures turn this theoretical millstone into a literal one.

This sheathing of the serious within the slapstick has long been a hallmark of Wurm’s practice, which often involves the transformation of sculptural volume. His Fat Cars (2001-) take swish automobiles, those symbols of capitalist extravagance and mass consumption, and puff them up until they are swollen and bloated; his Narrow House (2010), by contrast, squeezed a typical Styrian dwelling to a slimline form, in a comment on Austria’s postwar small-mindedness.

Erwin Wurm, Fat Mini, 2018. Mixed media, 138 x 180 x 340 cm. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg. © Erwin Wurm/DACS, 2019.

The One Minute Sculptures (1997-), in which viewers are instructed to perform bizarre actions with everyday objects for a single minute, redefine sculpture as an act rather than an object, present for a short moment before dissolving. The tasks – which include bending one’s head into a litter bin while lying on the floor with a chair leg balanced on your face, or stuffing two white asparagus tips up one’s nose – are often demeaning, and gesture towards the absurdities of contemporary existence. As Max Hollein, director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, has said of Wurm: “The artist has succeeded in conveying to a large audience, in a hugely suggestive way, the tragedy of its own social condition.”

Erwin Wurm, Untitled (P08), 2018. Polaroid 80 x 56 cm. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg. © Erwin Wurm/DACS, 2019.

The present exhibition is Wurm’s largest in the UK to date, and spans numerous facets of his practice. A pair of One Minute Sculptures is on loan from the Tate, along with several large-format Polaroids of previous enactments with super-saturated colours and a rippling, watery effect. There is a new iteration of the Fat Car series, in the form of a dark-green Mini so smooth it is reflective, a set of Stone sculptures and a huge array of Wurm’s sketches, many featuring the sort of bodily distortions common throughout his oeuvre. In the gallery’s light-filled upper chamber, Wurm has assembled an array of delightfully grotesque new ceramic works, which imprison isolated parts of the human body in strange fleshly masses, glazed with glass to give them a slimy sheen. They appear as if they have been frozen partway through the process of their own destruction. 

I spoke to Wurm ahead of New Work’s opening at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac.

Joe Lloyd: You are an artist known as a sculptor, so it is interesting to see such a large section devoted to works on paper. How do you approach drawing?

Erwin Wurm: I’m not interested in portraying people, in portraiture, but rather in capturing things that interest me. For example, once when I was walking around, I saw a guy and he looked like an older Kevin Spacey, so I called him Kevin Spacey’s father. Another one is the face of [Edward] Sexton, the English tailor who became very famous in the 1960s and 70s, who made clothes for the Beatles. He doesn’t know it, but I used his face. So it’s just things that interest me, things that are leading me somewhere. It’s about our time, our society, my time, my society. And sometimes it can be absurd. It’s like an exercise.

Erwin Wurm, Double Navel, 2018. Ceramic, glaze (ceramics), acrystal (pedestal), 140 x 81 x 45 cm. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg. © Erwin Wurm/DACS, 2019.

JL: This distortion of the body also features in your new ceramic works.

EW: They are related to form that has been disturbed and destroyed – in a way they have something to do with the Fat Cars. And they’re non-human forms, or shall we say changed human forms, modified human forms. They’ve become, not exactly abstract, but something else. Some look as if they have been melted, some not. Someone told me today that it’s as if they have been turned inside out. Every piece features a specific part of the body, like a nose or a head or an ear. It’s as if the borders of the body have been neglected, and it has become something else.

JL: The glazes are extraordinarily slick and shiny.

EW: The glazes are in glass. We tried out many different techniques, and I found the one I liked the most. It’s a very distinctive glaze that starts to glow when you burn it really quickly. It’s like a living organism moving by itself. And, all of a sudden, it creates something else. 

JL: Why did you decide to start working with ceramics?

EW: With most of my work, I start alone, but then other people come and finish it – making the mould, casting and so on. But with the ceramics, as with drawings, it’s very direct. I can do everything myself. And that’s why I like it so much. During the last few decades, so many artists have stopped working directly with their pieces, instead employing lots of assistants. But I think this is a mistake because you lose the connection to your work.

Erwin Wurm, Selfportrait, 2016 – 2017. Watercolour and crayon on paper, 29.7 x 21 cm. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg. © Erwin Wurm/DACS, 2019.

JL: So, you have come to the importance of using your own hands in an act of creation?

EW: Yes, and when you work directly, you can see mistakes much more easily. I strongly believe that form leads the work. At the very beginning, there is a concept, but then the process of doing it, of creating the work, becomes very important. Sometimes, it’s even better than the concept. There is a sentence by Gerhard Richter, which I never used to understand. He said: “My paintings are smarter than I am.” I think I now know what he meant, because he’s following very carefully – especially with his abstract paintings – the way he sees. So I’m finding it more and more important to be very involved in my pieces.

JL: As well as new work, this exhibition features two of your One Minute Sculptures, taken from the Tate collection. How does one collect such an intangible artwork?

EW: Well, there’s the drawing on the pedestal, inviting people to follow the instructions! They’re now 22 years old. I try to keep them very clean and very rigid, and with some exceptions to show them only in museum contexts. I’ve created 109, 110 different positions – I could have made thousands!

It’s an interesting change of perspective, a paradigm change, because when you walk through a museum [as a visitor], you encounter artworks as a subject. But when you realise a One Minute Sculpture, you turn into an object, which is a very different thing. You’re fulfilling someone else’s wishes, not your own, which interferes with the idea of free will and plays with authorship. They’re very much about the psychology of weakness and embarrassment, too. Of course, it’s easier with the one downstairs where you have to put a bucket on your head, as you can’t see the people staring at you!

Erwin Wurm, Inhaler, 2018. Ceramic, glaze 60 x 42 x 24 cm. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg. © Erwin Wurm/DACS, 2019.

JL: How important is documentation to the One Minute Sculptures?

EW: When I started the One Minute Sculptures in 1997, I realised that they were ephemeral. Which is not too good for the art world, because they don’t exist. So, I thought I would make snapshots. But then, immediately, the history of photography was knocking at my door, and I wasn’t interested in that, but in sculptural issues. I gave up photography for a certain number of years. I’ve only now returned because I found a shop, close to my studio, where they have this gigantic Polaroid camera. They could only do black and white, so I tried to find a company in the US that could do it. It was exhausting; it was expensive! You need three men, you need a camera the size of a closet, and you need all these lights. The process of taking a photograph with it lasts around a minute, so it has an interesting relationship to the sculptures.

JL: Everyday objects – whether buckets, cars or clothing – recur through so much of your work, which is otherwise very varied.

EW: I had a big variety of different works from the very beginning. I realised that one idea is not that fun, nor that interesting in the art world. You have to take your ideas and continue them, try to get better at addressing them all the time, and bring in new ideas that have certain connections to the earlier ones. There’s a whole system that’s going on. From the very beginning, I wanted to make 3D sculptures, performance sculptures, video sculptures and photography sculptures, as well as text works and drawings.

Erwin Wurm, Untitled (P14), 2018. Polaroid 80 x 56 cm. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg. © Erwin Wurm/DACS, 2019.

JL: What do you think is the thread that links it all together?

EW: The connection is the notion of the sculpture. That’s the basic red line for my whole body of work. Which means two- and three-dimensionality, mass, volume, skin and surface, movement, and time. Michelangelo said that when he finished a sculpture, it could be rolled down a mountain but still survive for 500 years. He was thinking in eternities. Our lives now are very different; everyone and everything lives in a shortened period of time. I want to find a way to work with this, to create short-lived sculptures. As well as this, I want to create artwork involved in social issues: with advertising, luxury objects and the idea of icons as invented by the 20th century’s mass media. And I’m also interested in the question of where art takes place.

JL: Where do you think are the places for art these days?

EW: Obviously, there are museums and galleries, and I firmly believe in the need for public art, in the cities and on the street. But then there’s also the mass media, and the internet, though I’m too old for the internet! I’ve made sculpture photos for magazines, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers used my work [in the video for their 2002 single Can’t Stop]. This was interesting, because my work became known internationally through these other avenues.

JL: You’ve also worked with the Parisian fashion house Hermès, and garments are a recurring feature in lots of your work. From where does your interest in clothing stem?

EW: This came from a very simple idea. We have a skin and clothes are our second skin. And houses and cars are a third skin, to protect us and to define us. It’s about the self and these eternal layers, about this iconic self-reflecting, and how we deal with this psychologically. One of the first pieces where I made this happen was 59 Positions (1992), where some friends and I pulled sweaters over our bodies and over pieces of furniture to make sculptures. And I found it interesting because though the human body is all there, pieces of our personalities were cut out. And many of my pieces speak about this cut of the body and the personality, which is everywhere in our society. Advertisements give us this illusion of freedom, and we believe it, which is more than ridiculous.

JL: What does it mean to create art in a period of great unrest and uncertainty?

EW: Our times are horrifying. I’m not only an artist, but also a father. And I’m horrified right now about our environment, about our future and the future in general. Many people think my work is funny, but I think my tool is the idea of the absurd, like with Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, and also paradox. Let’s take the Fat Car. In it, I combine two systems, the technological system of the car and a biological system – and that’s the future, in any case, but this can go in the wrong direction. That’s what our future offers, this paradoxical fusion of systems, and it’s frightening. I realised that, when I make the cars fat, they turn into human faces, and also the house Fat House. For that reason, I generated them so that the car is talking, the house is talking, they are speaking and reflecting themselves, asking questions, whether they’re piece of art or a piece of architecture.

Erwin Wurm: New Work is at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London until 23 March 2019.

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