JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by RVB Books (here), to accompany a retrospective exhibition held at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) (originally March 4 – June 7, 2020, reopened June 17, 2020, here). Hardcover, 21×26 cm, 320 pages, with 619 image reproductions. Includes essays by Simon Baker and Laurie Hurwitz (in English/French) and a short biography, on a separate insert. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Photography about photography is often criticized for being too inward looking and insular for its own good. When artists explore the conceptual and optical questions of how we see (or how cameras see), how photographs function, and how the innate characteristics of photographs can be deliberately undermined – rather than using their cameras to interact with the world at large – the results are typically intellectually rigorous (and sometimes brilliant) but the visuals can also be perplexing and hard to comprehend. Making abstract or intentionally intricate ideas manifest themselves as compelling pictures is difficult to pull off with consistent flair.
Erwin Wurm’s photographs wrestle with issues adjacent to those of photography about photography – his interest lies in making sculptures about sculpture, and using photography (and to a lesser extent, video) to both enable that investigation and document his results. Over a career that now stretches back four decades, Wurm has playfully experimented with what sculpture is, what it can (and cannot be), and how it is defined in the first place, using both performance and participation as methods for unraveling its boundaries and limits. The resulting works (and photographs of those works) are evidence of his unpretentiously inventive imagination and his consistent use of conceptually-rigorous improvisation that masquerades as irreverent fun. “Dry” and “dull” are criticisms that aren’t usually leveled at Wurm’s wide ranging output.
This thick photobook delivers a comprehensive retrospective survey of Wurm’s work in photography and video, gathering together individual photographs, grids and series, contact sheets, video stills, and other image arrangements into a dense compendium of imagery, all of it interrogating the nature of sculpture. In one of Wurm’s earliest photo projects, from 1990, he used a rectangular stencil and the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag to mark square forms on ordinary chairs, desks, and floors in an apartment, creating the appearance of something removed. These “dust sculptures” were all absence and imagination; any sculpture we might envision was never actually there. Wurm then went on to recreate this effect outside in New York, Cologne, and Vienna, leaving empty rectangles on cobblestones, sidewalks, and public plazas, amplifying the illusion of removal – it was sculpture without presence.
Simplicity (and economy) have consistently been at the heart of Wurm’s artistic efforts – ordinary materials, cheap found objects, available stuff, and the human body itself (his own, and those of others) have all been used by Wurm to create ephemeral sculptures. In 59 Positions (which first took form as a video and later became still photographs), Wurm used old clothes to reinvent the human form. In the twenty minute video, Wurm and his friends push themselves into the colorful clothes in every way but the normal manner, with legs and arms in the wrong places and the stretchy materials extended and distorted into strange headless shapes. As sculptural objects, they are surprisingly intriguing (and even beautiful), the human body transformed into something weirdly bulbous and distended, almost like a faint echo of Hans Bellmer’s poupée.
In subsequent years, Wurm returned to the “body as form” exercise again and again. He had two people inhabit one garment in Double, enhancing the sense of awkward absurdity. In 13 Pullovers, Fabio Getting Dressed, and Me/Me Fat, he explored how multiple layers of clothing changed a person’s shape, which then led to further sculptural explorations of inflated fat objects. And years later, he came back to bodies, this time overpainting mostly nude portraits of male artists from Vienna, the gestural interventions adding new layers of distortion. In each case, Wurm pushes the expected form of the human body in unlikely directions, turning it into an unexpectedly malleable material for art making.
Wurm is perhaps best known for a series of works (in both video and photography) he called One Minute Sculptures. These setups were instruction driven – Wurm would ask participants to act out certain positions or movements, the exercise to be accomplished during the brief time of a minute (and recorded on film when the desired results were achieved), and as with his earlier projects, Wurm employed everyday household or office materials, like boxes, chairs, buckets, bottles, brooms, sticks, and food as his primary props. The poses were unnatural and decidedly offbeat: a bucket on the head, a chair leg balanced on an eye socket, tea cups balanced on the bottom of feet, a bicycle laid across a body, a headstand sitting in a chair. The artistic results were oddly awkward, clumsy, and often embarrassing, but they also had an inherent dynamism and performative riskiness that seemed fresh and original, especially when seen in contrast to the traditions of more static sculpture. Unlike the precariously perfect Equilibres arrangements from Fischli & Weiss, Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures had a resolutely human element, where physical comedy (or outright failure/break down) seems just moments from potentially occurring. While most of these works were made in the late 1990s, Wurm went on to reprise the effort in galleries, museums, and even churches around the world, as well as out in the streets, the possibilities for improvisational sculptural participation seemingly limitless.
For Wurm, what emerged from all of these efforts was a renewed artistic interest in how constraints and instructions could be a basis for experimentation and problem solving. In 2001, he began making absurd arrangements in hotel rooms, using the available furniture and space as his studio. That same year, Wurm also made a series of works entitled Instructions for Idleness, which found him acting out phrases like “watch TV all day long”, “don’t wash the dishes”, “change shirts rarely”, and “don’t even close your mouth while eating”. These were followed in 2003 by Instructions on How to be Politically Incorrect, with set-ups including “pee on someone’s rug”, “spit in someone’s soup”, and a man stuffing his head down a woman’s sweater or carrying a bomb in his pants. And his irreverent playfulness then continued a decade later with a selection of Noodle Sculptures, where cooked pasta is strewn across his own head, as well as atop various artworks in his personal collection. While the structures are different in each of these projects, they all find Wurm exploring how unlikely activities, limits, or processes can take shape as art.
As a visual sourcebook, Erwin Wurm Photographs delivers an expansive set of imagery, in both final and more intermediate forms. The catalog has a no nonsense design, with puffy letters on the cover (that recall Wurm’s fat sculptures), and page after page of photographs and film stills inside, with titles and dates placed in the gutter to minimize distractions. My only complaint with the volume is that it is roughly chronological rather than strictly so, with projects following the broad arc of time, but jumping around a bit within any handful of years. This makes it quite hard to see the clear step-by-step progression of Wurm’s ideas and projects, which is too bad, as that through line of logic and conceptual evolution is what many will most want to discover in this book.
What comes through most strongly in this compendium of work is how restlessly and relentlessly Wurm has challenged the established foundations of sculpture. For four decades, he has been testing the definitional edges of the medium, nearly always with unassuming wit and wry intelligence. While Wurm’s photographs can seem to document an endless stream of oddball situations, this volume proves the genuine method underneath the apparent madness – it’s hard not come away impressed by the sharpness and breadth of Wurm’s cleverly cheeky mischief. And along the way, he’s inventively used photography as an enabler, rebalancing the notion of time in sculpture.
Collector’s POV: Erwin Wurm is represented by Lehmann Maupin in New York (here), Galerie Thaddeus Ropac in London, Paris, and Salzburg (here), and König Galerie in Berlin (here). Wurm’s photographs have only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade. While prices have ranged between roughly $2000 and $15000, these data points may not entirely reflect the market for his best work. As a result, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.