San Francisco

Erwin Wurm

The one-minute sculpture, Austrian artist Erwin Wurm’s trademark form, is as easily identifiable and digestible as a brand name. These instruction-based artworks, in which participants are asked to engage in silly and mildly humiliating acts, are eminently camera ready. Yet Wurm’s work is deceptively pop in tone—while superficially humorous, it deals with darker psychological, philosophical, and religious ideas than its outwardly lighthearted style might imply.

Like the bulk of Wurm’s projects, his first US museum survey, “I Love My Time, I Don’t Like My Time: Recent Work by Erwin Wurm,” is both playful and austere. Glossy photographs and videos showing individuals enacting instructional pieces are elegantly installed in large rooms. The photographic and video works exist somewhere between dematerialized art object and documentation, yet Wurm has classified himself as a sculptor. The term is most logical in relation to the show’s most formidable work, Fat House, 2003, a full-scale, A-frame, fairy-tale cottage with walls that bulge like the marshmallow flesh folds of the Pillsbury Doughboy. Characteristically, Wurm tempers this cartoonlike structure with something serious—the abject nature of corpulence. The artist characterizes the process of growth or expansion as inherently sculptural. Here, a home enters the realm of fairy-tale horror.

A video, I Love My Time, I Don’t Like My Time, 2003, is projected inside the house. It features Fat Car, 2001, a chubby, white four-door that speaks, via computer animation, through its front end. The image evokes kids’ show whimsy, yet the strange, poetic phrases the car spouts in a deep, serious male voice—“Got a haircut”; “A gift of the sun”; “He saw himself kissing with passion”—are culled from drug-dealer slang. Not just fat, but phat.

A photograph displayed behind the house depicts the show’s curator, René de Guzman, as if obese. In an instruction that Wurm has used before, he asked de Guzman to don layer upon layer of Bubble Wrap. By titling the piece Curator/Imperator, 2004, and enlarging the photo to just over life-size, Wurm suggests that size may indeed matter, at least where power is concerned.

If pieces like the house and video combine to form a major work, Wurm’s reliance on small, quasi-ordinary gestures renders it ephemeral nonetheless. The sense of spectacle is bleached away by the whiteness of these and other objects in the show, and perhaps by their display in a clean gallery context. The whitewashed square platform on which the artist has inscribed a few of his “Instructional Drawings,” serves as a pedestal on which audience members may dangle coat hangers from their mouths or squeeze with a friend into a single sweater.

The latter position is as intimate as it is uncomfortable: Wurm’s work generally exists in a zone where seemingly playful explorations occur within strictly prescribed parameters. The beauty of this project, however, is the way that it functions as a sugarcoating over some difficult ideas. Fittingly, the show is lorded over by a wall of ninety drawings from the ongoing series “Thinking About Philosophy,” started in 2003, each of which features a delicate line drawing of a figure, usually a person with an impassive, inscrutable expression, and a hand-scrawled text that reads, for example, THINKING ABOUT SCHOPENHAUER. These drawings are so subtle as to be almost invisible, and are displayed in a grid that extends up a massive wall, out of reading range. Wurm knowingly nudges us to look there anyway, daring us to comprehend what cannot be seen.

Glen Helfand