In the late ’70s, Roman Signer made a very short film starring a man and a bucket. The bucket falls from on high, the man gets out of the way just in time. By contrast, many of Erwin Wurm’s recent photos (documents of performances of the improvisatory “one-minute sculptures” he has been making since 1988) imply small-scale disasters that have already happened. A woman lies prone on the sidewalk, her face pressed into a plastic washbowl (Taipei outdoor sculpture, 2000). A man has seemingly collided with a wall; bent forward, his head swallowed up by stones and mortar, his defenseless rear protrudes ignominiously into the road (Cahors outdoor sculpture, 1999). Elsewhere, another hapless citizen of the same ill-fated town has apparently been laid low by a falling vinyl banquette. There he lies, the offending item of furniture pinning him to the cobblestones (Cahors outdoor sculpture, 1999).
The large scale and high production values of these recent images contrast with the casual, snapshot quality of Wurm’s 1997 “One minute sculptures” photo series, which also featured in this mini retrospective of the artist’s lens-based work of the ’90s, along with key video pieces from earlier in the decade. In 59 Positions, 1992, stretched garments morph human bodies into bizarre, truncated shapes: Henry Moore meets Hans Bellmer at the rummage sale. In Fabio Getting Dressed (entire wardrobe), 1992, Wurm’s protagonist stoically squeezes himself into layer after layer of clothing. His movements slow and his temperature rises, but careful tuckings-in, buttonings-up, and pattings-down help him retain a dignified air. In Memory, 1994/2000, the camera’s orientation and the deployment of objects on screen play tricks with viewers’ expectations about gravity: Water streams upward, objects fall horizontally, up turns out to be down, and down is sideways.
Wurm’s deft sight gags may tap viewers’ funny bones or challenge gravity, but they are not exclusively exercises in levity. His recent works in particular suffuse humor with melancholy. In the video Adelphi Sculptures, 1999, Wurm shuffles through a repertoire of “one-minute sculptures” joylessly, almost in desperation (shoe is wedged between wall and head; body is maneuvered under plush armchair; felt-tip pen is poised on toe of shiny shoe, etc.). The video was shot in a bedroom at Liverpool’s once magnificent Adelphi Hotel (where, incidentally, many of the first-class ticket holders for the Titanic are said to have spent their last night on dry land). Wurm disconsolately clutches onto his absurd but reassuring sculptural rituals in a lonely place of transit. In one exercise, he attempts to fake his own disappearance by hiding in a wardrobe: The door is closed, and the viewer is left staring at a mirror.
In grafting problems of sculptural process and construction onto existential predicaments, Wurm’s works echo the oxymoronic concerns of two other masters of the successful fiasco and the noteworthy nonevent – Signer and Ben Vautier. With all three, the “work” of art is dispersed, existing simultaneously and inseparably across concept, performance, and documentation. Related to this is their common preoccupation with failure, or more precisely, the sense of an inevitable shortfall between the aspiration to make art and the results of that aspiration. (Many of Wurm’s works call to mind a statement accompanying an early ’60s performance by Vautier: The artist sees nothing, hears nothing, and says nothing, thus “only my pretension is visible.”) Such artists give birth to what Freud theorized in his 1927 paper “Der Humor”: a state of mind in which the superego, changed from persecutory agency into benign parental comforter, “speaks kindly words of comfort to the intimidated ego.”
Erwin Wurm showed at Photographers’ Gallery, London, UK between December 7 2000 – January 21 2001
Copyright Rachel Withers & Artforum International Magazine, Inc. 2001