It is a rare trait for an artwork to create an atmosphere of both whimsy and profound contemplation. Yet Austrian artist Erwin Wurm’s work does just that, moving beyond generally accepted notions of “sculpture” and into what he calls “explorations of the potential of sculpture.” For instance, the One Minute Sculptures, Wurm’s best-known works, consist of people posing in odd or unusual positions (or just generally looking strange and awkward) and holding those poses for a minute, before returning to their normal routines. Some of the most famous of these mini-performance works involve sticking office supplies in a person’s nose, mouth, and ears, sitting perched atop a pole in the corner of an art gallery, and laying on top of someone on a sidewalk.
Erwin Wurm: Wear Me Out presents a number of the artist’s recent creations, including drawings and paintings, sweaters for ceilings and walls, and weird furniture created specifically for the purpose of drinking liquor. The ceiling and wall sweaters are very clever in that you can’t really tell what they are—the knit material covers the entirety of the ceiling or wall—until you notice a random sleeve hanging down or a neck hole in the corner. By far the most intriguing works, though, are the Drinking Sculptures.
The full title of these sculptures is Performative Sculptures: Drinking Sculptures, the public is invited to open the drawers, take the glasses and bottles out and drink. The piece is realized when the performer is drunk. No further explanation needed. The altered furniture pieces themselves are both clever and aesthetically pleasing. For example, a wooden 1970s desk or TV stand, turned on its side, acts as a chair, while a chest of drawers, laid flat on the floor, offers precarious accommodation (the drinker’s legs are confined within the piece up to the knees). By turning normal furniture into something else, something unexpected and sometimes deviant, Wurm plays with the dichotomies of function and dysfunction. “The reversal of functionality or the virtual 360-degree rotation, which makes the piece of furniture dysfunctional, and which then gets a function again as furniture, is like a circle which restores it. And I found this absurd rotation very amusing,” he notes in the book’s interview section. These works are not only comically interactive, but also fraught with socio-cultural connotations. Like all of Wurm’s work, they raise the question of what society perceives as “correct” and “incorrect” behavior. Sitting on or standing in upturned furniture (or sitting on artwork at a gallery) while getting drunk is incredibly taboo. In encouraging such behavior, Wurm draws attention to just how much society shapes the individual. In fact, in the interview, he refers to “so-called individuality,” implying that true individuality is impossible to achieve.
Interweaving the comically absurd with the philosophical, Wurm takes everyday life and turns it on its head. As he describes it, his work is “about the drama of the pettiness of existence.” Drawing attention to the absurdity of this pettiness, he forces us to consider our own ridiculous investment in it and in society in general.
Erwin Wurm: Wear Me Out
Edited by Middelheim Museum, Antwerp/Gemeentemuseum, The Hague
Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2011
148 pages, 118 color illustrations, €39.80