ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Erwin Wurm - 2007 - Over gaten en bulten [NL, interview],
Holes and Bumps
A conversation with Erwin Wurm
The Austrian artist Erwin Wurm (b.1954) is best known for his One Minute Sculptures (objects, beautiful drawings and/or sets of instructions that invite people to become a sculpture for precisely sixty seconds) and his works in the form of swollen, melted or bent objects, such as houses or cars. In his current exhibition at Xavier Hufkens in Brussels, Wurm is exhibiting a selection of outfit-wearing Mind Bubbles, two bronze sculptures entitled Anger Bumps and Envy Bumps, a headless but fully-clothed mannequin that seems to have an erection, a group of photographs and a fountain that looks like a severed arm (water shoots upwards from its raised middle finger).
- In a review of your work I read that you ‘free objects from their everyday context and give them a new meaning’. The word ‘meaning’ is useless for me. I prefer to talk about form.
Erwin Wurm: The meaning of what I do usually escapes me. A work always turns out differently. What’s really important is ‘die Folge in der Arbeit’: the change that becomes visible in the evolution of your work. If you have an idea you should try to follow it, rather than trying to gain the upper hand. Gerhard Richter once said: ‘My work is smarter than me’. He’s right. It’s a kind of running behind the thing. Sometimes you catch it, but then you don’t know whether this is positive or negative. It’s like remembering an old girlfriend, but you don’t recognise her when you finally meet… (Pointing.) These are the Mind Bubbles, which are like the speech bubbles you find in cartoons. They are empty and full at the same time.
- They look like potatoes. Were they made before or after your giant floating potato?
Erwin Wurm: After.
- How did you make such a huge potato?
Erwin Wurm: We made it by hand around a metal skeleton, using Styrofoam and polyester. It was a mess. It’s difficult to create an unspecified form.
- Did you know Le Corbusier also ‘designed’ potatoes?
Erwin Wurm: Did he?
- He was looking for a shape for windows or openings in the walls of his buildings and he wanted them to be non-forms. So he ended up with the silhouettes of ‘potatoes’, which actually resemble the way children try to draw windows.
Erwin Wurm: I remember a task that I was given as a student: to position five objects in a room as if they had arrived there by coincidence. I didn’t succeed. At one point, I even threw them over my shoulder, but it still didn’t work… I don’t know why I’m telling you this.
- Because a potato has a shape that isn’t clearly defined but, at the same time, is utterly essential. There’s no mistaking a potato.
Erwin Wurm: That’s it. So we kept on struggling until somebody advised me to scan a real potato. It was like a door flying open! Suddenly the world looked anew!
- Surely this can’t have solved all your problems? Because you then had to find a potato that looked like a potato.
Erwin Wurm: (Laughs.) That’s true. First I bought a bag of potatoes in a supermarket, but they all looked like pebbles. I think they were Dutch. But then I found a market where they came directly from the farmers. I looked at dozens of them, one by one. I bought one or two potatoes from every barrow…
- The ‘Mind Bubbles’ are painted.
Erwin Wurm: They are. The first ones were white, then I tried to paint them brown, now they all have different colours… It’s always a bit desperate.
- The pink feminine one looks like a nice person.
Erwin Wurm: When I first dressed them, these amorphous shapes suddenly became anthropomorphic. I like this meeting of two systems. It’s the same thing with the Fat Cars. Here too, you have a meeting between a technical system and a biological one. Without the crossover with the biological system, the cars couldn’t become fat… I like this fantastic sentence by Lichtenberg: ‘How lucky,’ he writes, ‘that a cat has two holes in the fur exactly where its eyes are’. (Laughs.) That’s why my bubbles also have an eye… (He slides his right hand through the hole under the soft, knitted, woollen garment that covers the Mind Bubble.) It’s a bit transparent… I never wear transparent clothes. When I see people dressed in those kinds of garments, I always feel embarrassed for them. I feel embarrassed for this potato… People are allowed to touch the sculptures. The gallery isn’t happy about it, but I can’t help it.
- What will your show in Leuven be like?
Erwin Wurm: The curator, Eva Wittockx, has asked me to do something different to what you can see here in the gallery. They’re building a huge platform where you’ll find small drawings and instructions for the creation of One Minute Sculptures. For instance, there will be a tiny fluffy pink teddy bear. People are going to be invited to open their trouser fronts and insert the pink teddy bear in such a way that only its head sticks out.
- It reminds me of a photograph from a series of works called ‘Be nice to your curator’. They show people putting their hands inside other people’s flies.
Erwin Wurm: (Laughs.) Pieces about fear...
- Where does the photograph of the lady atop an upright pen come from?
Erwin Wurm: It’s part of a series of thirteen photographs that I made for the Schauspielhaus in Zurich. They invited me to make a body of work using Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a starting point. I’d also been given the option of showing the work in the Kunsthaus. To me, Shakespeare’s play is characterised by a certain sickness, which I tried to express in my own way. This exhibition includes two photographs from the series because they are related to the sculptures with the ‘anger’ and ‘envy’ bumps.
- Their shiny surfaces remind me of some of Jeff Koons’ sculptures, only he was doing something completely different: Koons reproduced the decorative objects that were admired by the middle-class customers of his parents’ shop. He wanted to ‘free them from the shame of their bad taste’. His steel trains or other such objects would certainly never have had bumps.
Erwin Wurm: (Laughs.) There’s a formal resemblance, but it’s quite different. My sculptures are made of nickelled bronze. I used this material because I wanted them to be glossy, so that people can see their reflection in them, but in a deformed way. They can see different versions of themselves.
- Slimmer and fatter?
Erwin Wurm: And taller or shorter… To me, these sculptures are three-dimensional manifestations of a psychological condition. The ‘anger bumps’ are physical reactions. In this sense, they’re a good reason for me, as a sculptor, to go back to the body.
- In the end, sculpting is nothing other than making bumps or holes.
Erwin Wurm: (Laughs.) I’ve always been wondering about the notion of sculpture. In 1982 or 1983, I took two balls of paint, one in each hand, and then squashed them together to see what would happen.
- What did the result look like? Was it flat or bulging?
Erwin Wurm: It was like a snowball. Not modelled, just stuck together. Not really round, and not like a ball. More like a ‘Knödel’, a dumpling or a bubble. Dumplings are freedom of form. You still have a form, but it doesn’t force you to define this form.
- Like the ‘anger bump’ or the mannequin that seems to have an erection?
Erwin Wurm: Right.
- Do you also have the impression that your work evolves in a spiralling way? We always try to create something new, but ultimately keep on returning to the same old stuff (even if the ‘old stuff’ isn’t the same anymore).
Erwin Wurm: Yes, it’s a spiral. But you never realise this when you’re in the middle of something. Just recently, I had the strangest sculptural experience … I’ve always tried to make a work around the notion of standing, which seems to be a very sculptural thing to do. So I asked an assistant if he wanted to try standing up in an Austrian field from morning till evening. In order to help, I asked somebody to hypnotise him. We filmed the event with three cameras. It was amazing. He stood there all day long. The hypnotist would occasionally give him some water. Actually, my assistant was in great pain, but he couldn’t tell us. Now, one of the unforeseen and spectacular things was that his stomach became ever more hollow, probably because of this pain. In the beginning, I didn’t know it was going to be so expressive, so sculptural.
- What seems to fascinate you is that forms prove to be more unstable than envisaged. For example when you have a car swell up or when you bend a pickup truck or a van…
Erwin Wurm: That’s true.
- Do you think reality looks more unstable to you than to other people?
Erwin Wurm: I think so… I rarely talk about this, but twelve years ago I had a very bad experience. Reality was pulled away from under my feet. In the same year, I lost both my parents and my wife left me, taking my children with her. For a whole year I didn’t touch anything. Then, I invented the One Minute Sculptures and I started working again.
- Momentary, transient sculptures that are pretexts for some kind of new and fleeting contacts with people.
Erwin Wurm: You could put it like that.
- I remember a small sculpture of yours looking like a slice of brown bread on which a house, seemingly made of butter, is beginning to melt.
Erwin Wurm: Yes. I also made models of a partially melted studio, for example, in which the kitchen and the bedroom were liquifying. When I was a little child, my mother used to tell me that if I ate a lot of bread and butter, I would become somebody who could build houses.
- She was right. Only your houses do look a little bit weird.
Erwin Wurm: Yes. She probably pictured them differently. (Laughs.)
Montagne de Miel, 12 September 2007