Erwin Wurm

Galerie Sylvana Lorenz

For the past five years, Erwin Wurm has envisaged sculpture as the sum of simple, quotidian, automatic gestures: folding and refolding clothes, or hanging them on lines, or removing objects so that their traces appear in the dust. Like many other contemporary artists, his work is built from the little things that make up his environment. He makes art in the simplest possible way—almost without doing anything at all. Wurm continuously brings us back to the question: “How to make a sculpture out of ‘nothing.’” With an esthetic that is a kind of ground-zero of sculpture, he dresses a pedestal in a raincoat, or fixes the soft material of a sweater, folded in geometric configurations between two nails, without sewing or artifice. Such gestures speak of a desire to inhabit space with bodies that are present but somehow invisible, their forms dissolved.

This exhibition made clear that this apparently Minimalist work is actually indebted to Actionism and performance art, a Viennese tradition to which Wurm’s entire generation is heir. Along with his installations, the artist makes videos in which the body, in or under an unbelievable quantity of clothes, is no longer discernible; it has become an undifferentiated mass, misshapen to the point of absurdity—a play on forms, in which the clothes undergo the most extreme distortions. In this exhibition, the artist extracted and showed—for the first time photographically—all the configurations in one of these videos, presenting 59 aberrant shapes, each formed from a different piece of clothing (pullovers, trousers, undershirts, shirts).

These videos developed from Wurm’s desire to make sculptures that last only 20 seconds. In this way, neither nostalgically nor romantically, the artist underscores the precariousness of images and objects in the media; in an infernal cycle, they are always ready to he replaced by others. Though these living sculptures are reminiscent in some way of the work of Gilbert & George, in their irony and absurdity they recall the films of Jacques Tati.

In this work it also seems as though he were stripping all the aspects of a single person down to his most unutterable and shameful elements (sexuality, anguish, madness, childishness, pride . . . ). Camouflaged, the covered body refers as much to clothing as a second skin as it does to the desire to protect or conceal oneself.

In photographing each of these 20-second sequences, the artist negates the ephemeral nature of each living sculpture, which in the video would follow one after another. Stills: each shape frozen at the moment of appearance. Grouped into three sets of 16 photographs each, thumbtacked to the wall, this presentation looked like a scrim of TV screens with a simultaneous freeze-frame on all 16 channels. In contrast to this installation of photographs, a television set on the floor of the gallery showed a man playing a pinball machine, an action that the artist had organized at an exhibition at the Hochscule fur Angewandte Kunst in Vienna, where this person was invited to play every day for ten days, eight hours a day. This time, the living sculpture was a permanent action, introducing a physical dimension—not to say pain—into the show. The progressively hypnotic, automatic gestures suggested someone who had spent hours looking at a flickering TV screen: the body-as-machine, the machine-as-body.

Jérôme Sans

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.