Erwin Wurm On Absurdity, Bodies and Flattening Sculpture

Closing soon, "Hot" at the SCAD Museum of Art showcases not only the artist's talent but also the adaptability of his practice.

SCAD Museum of Art presents “Hot” in its Gallery 108 and André Leon Talley Gallery. Aman Shakya, Photography Courtesy of SCAD

If you think you’re not familiar with Austrian conceptual artist Erwin Wurm, you’re probably mistaken. There’s a good chance that you’ve scrolled past a picture of one of the voluptuous vehicles in his “Fat Car” series, which delivers on its premise. Wurm has a thing for distortion: stretching, bloating, shrinking, squishing and otherwise rendering the normal as abnormal. It’s a preoccupation that he’s had for much of his career, during which he has anthropomorphized everyday objects to create exaggeratedly outré sculptures and paired human bodies with commonplace things with absurd results.

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You might also have encountered Wurm without realizing it if you’ve seen the Red Hot Chili Peppers Can’t Stop video. Director Mark Romanek had seen Erwin Wurm’s “One Minute Sculptures” in a book some years before the video’s production and had long been considering how he might create an homage to the artist. When Romanek reached out, Wurm was unfamiliar with the band but nonetheless said yes to the opportunity to collaborate, becoming one of the first visual artists to have their work credited on MTV.

Some of Wurm’s much-lauded participatory sculptures are on view at SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah in “Hot,” alongside images from his collaborations with luxury fashion brands, deformed architectural landmarks cast in bronze that are performative in ways not readily obvious and works from his “Flat Sculptures” series.

“We put the show into two galleries because we wanted to be able to give an overview of his practice and showcase works from the past twenty or thirty years while also having a really focused display in the André Leon Talley Gallery,” explained SCAD chief curator Daniel S. Palmer. “I knew he had this interest in fashion that had been undertheorized in his practice and less exposed to analysis.”

A strange human-like sculpture made primarily out of a puffer coat and leggings
Erwin Wurm, ‘Moncler,’ 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin

Any analysis of Wurm’s work must acknowledge that the absurdity of his art belies a seriousness that’s easy to see for those willing to look for it. Don’t mistake surface-level whimsy for lightheartedness. “If you approach things with a sense of humor, people immediately assume you’re not to be taken seriously,” Wurm said in a 2007 Submarine Channel interview. “But I think truths about society and human existence can be approached in different ways.”

SEE ALSO: Don’t Miss: Nina Chanel Abney, Tyler Mitchell and More at SCAD Museum of Art

Observer caught up with Erwin Wurm last month in Savannah, where he was giving a talk at the SCAD Museum, and had the pleasure of asking him a few questions about perceptions of his strangely playful work, his fascination with bodies and what it means to flatten sculpture.

I’ve read enough about your approach to know your work is not meant to be funny, but does it necessarily have to be engaged with intellectually? Is there room for pure enjoyment?

I think there’s no need to be involved intellectually, but I would like people to follow my ideas of how I look at the world from a perspective of the absurd. Not necessarily in the sense of the Absurdists like Samuel Beckett and so on but in how crazy our world is—more crazy than we can even imagine. I think it’s good to be able to look at it from different angles, to ask what is craziness and what is normal. Maybe then we understand things better or more easily.

There’s the book, the Divina Commedia from Dante. When you read it, you realize it’s about the craziness and the madness and the very dark parts of reality. Our world is not beautiful; our time is one of enormous questions about climate change and how we treat our animals we eat, how we treat the plants and the world in general, how we treat each other and the relationship of the religions of the world to one another. It’s not an easy time.

SCAD Museum of Art presents “Hot” in its Gallery 108 and André Leon Talley Gallery. Aman Shakya, Photography Courtesy of SCAD

Bodies are a recurring theme in your pieces—not just depicting the body as-is but transforming other things into exaggerated human forms. Why bodies in particular?

It’s very simple: we are bodies first, though we consist of mental qualities and spiritual qualities and psychological qualities. We have many different aspects, and the body is a very important part of that. Without the body, we’d just be thoughts. We relate to ourselves and to the world through our bodies, which are relational: taller, smaller, lighter, darker and so on. All of this can be very important to us for our self-identification, and the body our the first measure of relation to the rest of the world.

People think of sculpture as being permanent and you turn that assumption on its head with your photographic sculptures. Is there something about impermanence in particular that appeals to you?

You know Michelangelo, the great sculptor of the Renaissance, said that when a sculpture is finished, it should be able to be rolled down a mountain and survive and still exist for 500 years. But we live in different times. We live in short-lived times, I mean—everything is short-lived, nobody repairs anything. So I thought I would like to find an equivalent but for our time: a great sculpture that exists in the world for only for a short period. That was the beginning.

The editor activates one of Wurm’s ‘one minute sculptures’. Courtesy Christa Terry

Tell me about your painted ‘flat sculptures’. Do you see those as a natural evolution of sculpture as you practice it or something else?

I first wanted to become a painter and applied for a painting class, but they didn’t accept me and put me in the sculpture class instead. Shit happens. I was frustrated—in a way devastated because it wasn’t my dream, but I accepted it and took it as a challenge and started digging into the notion of sculpture: what is it and what does it mean? I had no idea. After doing a lot of research into sculpture and into social issues, those social ideas became the line through all of my work.

At some point, when I had the idea that now I’d like to paint again, I had to fit that into my concept and my concept was the notion of sculpture. So I started looking at two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality, which I was dealing with every day. Paintings are flat, except they have an edge and a corner, which makes them three-dimensional.

What I paint is similar to what you get when you make a bowl of clay and then throw it down: it’s a flat circle. In my paintings, I make letters that have dimensionality but are transformed into two-dimensional things on this three-dimensional canvas.

Hot” is on view at the SCAD Museum of Art through January 15, 2024.

Erwin Wurm On Absurdity, Bodies and Flattening Sculpture