PRINT February 1999



Listening to the Viennese artist Franz West speak about the viewer’s relation to the art object, I was instantly taken back to an unpleasant experience I had as a boy in Vienna. As I was trying to get a closer look at a painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (I think it was a Brueghel), a stentorian voice came out of nowhere: Step back! Obviously, museums all over the world have to keep visitors from touching the objects, but nowhere is the method as frightening as in Vienna. Since West’s art is all about touching the works, I can’t help but see it as a reaction to these scary Viennese museum attendants. It’s as though West were the anti–museum guard, whispering Come closer! Grab this work of art!

Much of what’s interesting in Viennese culture—from the Aktionisten to Thomas Bernhard—seems to have come out of a violent reaction to institutions, whether the church, university, or state. But West’s response to the traditional museum is in no sense violent; it is, rather, playful and generous. The viewer is invited to participate—physically—in the experience of the artwork. Considering the ascent of participatory art in the ’90s (recently christened esthétique relationelle in France), it seems important to uncover its roots. Recently, I met up with West, an amiable and unpretentious man in his early fifties, to discuss one of his installations in the “Arkipelag” exhibition in Stockholm. We talked about his Paßstücke, the strange-looking tools (for what?) that “viewers” are invited to grab and take with them into a partitioned-off room covered in newspapers and equipped with a mirror. To see oneself in the mirror carrying an incomprehensible object is kind of fun; but when another person arrives with a second object, the situation gets truly peculiar.

Daniel Birnbaum


Early on I realized that the purely visual experience of an artwork was somehow insufficient. When I started to work as an artist, I wanted to expand the traditional boundaries of sculpture and found inspiration in Fluxus, although that movement didn’t have much of a presence in Vienna, where I have always lived. I wanted to go beyond the purely optical and include tactile qualities as well. My works aren’t things one just looks at, but things that the viewer is invited to handle. That’s a crucial aspect of the series of works that I call Paßstücke—which means pieces that fit into something else, like cogwheels. The term is taken from engineering, but when I was giving shape to these objects I was also inspired by Viennese building ornament.

For a long time I had to leave these works aside, because I couldn’t show them. The idea that people should touch the artworks just wasn’t acceptable to Austrian gallery owners. They would say: If visitors are encouraged to touch your works, they’ll think they can touch everything in the gallery. So I moved on to other things, but I’ve continued to work with the Paßstücke all along. They are presented in different ways depending on the city and country in which they are to be displayed. I use newspapers from the places in question—an idea that comes from my youth (a number of discos in Vienna used to paper their walls with them). I would go to these places when I was sixteen, having done everything I could to try and look older. But, anyway, there are many reasons for me to use newspapers: On Kawara’s use of them was an important influence, for example. And there’s a line from Jean-François Lyotard that has stuck in my memory: “I open the newspaper and see the world.” But I’m not addicted to newspapers myself; in fact I’m not such a big reader.

I used to have lots of Paßstücke in my attic and basement. I would try to sell them just to get rid of them, and finally I more or less gave them away. Now that I have a little more autonomy I can finally show the work the way I’d hoped to all along. Of course, in the beginning it wasn’t so clear to me how the whole thing should work. The pieces would break, and then I would give the people who bought them new ones. Today they are of better quality.

These papier-mâché works somehow hover between the mechanical and the organic. I see them not only as parts of a machine but also as human forms. Anyhow, the idea was to go beyond the subject-object divide and produce things that somehow exist in the ambiguous no-man’s-land between those two positions. There are lots of artists who have produced creatures that inhabit a similarly ambivalent zone between the artificial and the organic. One thinks almost immediately of Hieronymus Bosch, who created some very strange creatures. In Bosch’s case, of course, there’s no irony involved.

There have been many theories of art that try to break down the border between art and the world, but I don’t find such attempts to be particularly meaningful. Art remains art. I really see my works as quite compatible with a l’art pour l’art philosophy. One may think that I try to bring the art object out into the world since my works sometimes appear to have a practical function, but really it’s the other way around: Things in the world can, under certain special circumstances, enter the realm of art. And, in fact, once they have entered this realm they are art. Joseph Beuys thought differently about this, and so he developed his theory of social sculpture, which I can’t say I’ve ever really understood.

There is a certain irony to many of my works. But this word is often used in a way that tries to make the work seem less serious, tries to render it harmless. That’s not how I wish to be understood. To me, irony implies a critique of the traditional expectations of art as untouchable and sacrosanct. Cultural objects that are presented in museums demand a certain distance, which marks their status and commands a certain level of respect from the viewer. The ancient problem of subject and object, which probably can be traced back to Plato’s idea of the philosopher’s eye and the eternal idea, is something that my works attempt to dismantle. But there is, of course, something much more personal going on here as well. Although I knew many artists when I was young, the very idea of becoming one was something that made me nervous. I couldn’t really see myself entering this serious realm in a straightforward way. My Paßstücke, and really all of my works, are about entering into the realm of art. Yes, the very act of entering has become my theme.