Discipline of Subjectivity








Erwin Wurm - Discipline of Subjectivity

Sample my sausage*

The absurd seems to be the hidden key to the connection between worldly things. Not exactly a reading key, but a key to their mechanics, in the exact sense that the absurd is performative, self-explanatory, operates in a closed circuit, i.e., it creates its own world from its specific language and the laws it establishes, or the lack of them. In a certain sense — enigmatic and disjunctive — by accepting to inhabit the world of the absurd (or to inhabit the world by playing the game of the absurd) everything becomes possible — all connections, however improbable and disruptive, all choices, however illogical or unrealisable they may seem.

Northern Europe has offered us its share of artists who build an artistic universe dominated by the laws of the absurd, both physical and symbolic. A mixture of gravity and imponderability, we never quite know how to behave in front of their works, how to interpret them: are they to be taken seriously or laughed at? On what level are they? The critical, the political or, on the contrary, the ridiculous, the anarchic or the deconstructive? Or all at the same time? There's a good French expression for this kind of discursive strategy: pince sans rire. It means a particular form of humour, which in English we usually translate as deadpan.

Erwin Wurm is a sculptor who wanted to be a painter. Or, to be more precise, an artist who doesn't just make sculptures, but thinks like a sculptor. Sculpture is something different from painting: it occupies and claims the space occupied by the living bodies of human beings. It seems to have inhabited the world since the beginning of time and is, if we may say so, a mysterious, provocative, at once solemn and impertinent existence.

Wurm became an internationally renowned artist with his One Minute Sculptures series, which appeared in 1996 and which he continues to develop. More than a series, it is a modus operandi, a way of inviting the viewer's participation through elementary instructions, transforming them into a hybrid figure who moves into the space of the sculpture. Between performance and theatre, photographic pose and fixation of gesture (reminiscent of painting), Wurm operates within the complex and ontologically ambiguous language of sculpture.

What is the power of sculpture? Mass, volume, movement, time, presence, appearance, body, skin, materiality, aura, mimicry, anthropomorphism, geometry, abstraction, and on and on – and so many other qualities and attributes of what has come to be called sculpture.

An event of (super)natural origin, the devastating eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in 79 AD, enlightened us about the ontology of sculpture, the secret of its fascination. The fascination of sculpture comes directly from human's main, obsessive and atavistic interest: the human species itself. The bodies burnt by lava, fire and high temperature winds, in postures that reveal and reify gestures (of horror, love, astonishment), are like spontaneous sculptures in which the purpose of sculpture itself is realised: to seek to reconstitute, to translate, to give body to the human body, to be its inanimate double.

Pompeii is the process and the quality of sculpture fused into a single event. The density and thickness of time made eternally present, morbidly present. It is within this framework that artists working with sculpture in all eras operate. Like variations on a theme.

Consider the extraordinary group of sculptures that Wurm calls Substitutes, which he is presenting simultaneously in Lisbon (Cristina Guerra), Berlin (KÖNIG) and London (Thaddaeus Ropac). The phantasmagorical and spectral, nostalgic and ironic quality of these works, which, as Wurm says, emerge and exist in a post-Anthropocene world, links them not only to a "romantic" imaginary, but to its opposite: they are almost Dadaist, disembodied and devoid of meaning, negative qualities for an age of radical uncertainty and abysmal passivity – the perfect contradiction in terms. Wurm makes sculpture emerge and operate in the space and duration of everyday life, reducing its historical charge in order to better highlight its meta-linguistic dimension. These are monochrome works in aluminium or bronze. The artist points out that, like Greek sculptures, they are empty inside – clothes without bodies, skin without flesh.

The co-optation of banal and commonplace symbols, diluted in the broth of everyday life and proudly erected as symbols of identity, is another of the most powerful strategies in Wurm's work. The sausage (wurst), the protagonist of the Abstract Sculptures and Attacks series, has become an important symbol in the Austrian artist's work. Like the cucumber (pickled), the sausage, with its obvious plastic properties, adapts to all sorts of uses and declinations of form. Like headless bodies — a perfect metaphor for the contemporary citizen — they are the best definition (bizarre and familiar, grotesque and ridiculous) of a form that is both figurative and abstract, acting as a synthesis of Wurm's broad formal and informal vocabulary.

I would say that if there is one defining characteristic of Wurm's work, it is that it is radically experimental. This characteristic, which is also an attitude towards the world, constitutes the work as a complex system of genealogies and multiplicities in which words play a crucial role. The titles of the works are linked to a broader typology and often refer to earlier works.

Flat Sculptures ironically indexes a series of paintings that Wurm began in 2020. As in the sculptures, the artist continues to work, now in two-dimensional space, with questions of volume and form, but the paintings' material, beyond acrylic, oil and pigments — which explode in brilliant contrasts — is the words themselves, and the letters that make up the titles of the pieces, transformed into almost abstract forms, at the limit of legibility, opening up spaces for the viewer's imagination.

Sculptural issues, Wurm would say. In other words, issues of men and women in their relationship to existence, the strengths and weaknesses of a world in which we live and which, somewhere along the way, we forget.

Nuno Faria

May 2024

*Sample My Sausage is the title of a song by the British band Alien Sex Fiend from their 1988 album Another Planet.

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