Sculptor, Erwin Wurm (EW)
OS: Hello, Mr. Wurm! Thank you for participating in the interview.
Your work delights the audience and breaks their preconceptions. And the way of expression is very ingenious and unconventional! The materials in use are very varied as you use fabrics, foams, daily necessities, and even natural human bodies.
What motivated you to do these experimental sculptures? How did you start to be an artist?
EW: Hi, when I started making art, I wanted to become a painter, and I was painting a lot as a young boy. And then, when I wanted to get access to an art university, I had to take an entrance exam. And they decided to put me in the sculpture class, not in the painting class. It was a big shock. It was crazy. I felt depressed, but then, after I thought, ‘Maybe it's a challenge. And maybe I should think about what is a sculpture’. Since then, I do the same. I'm always asking myself, ‘What is sculpture? What is it about? 2 and 3 dimensionality, mass, volume, surface, skin, time …’ and all these things!
This was one issue, and the other issue was … I wanted to relate my work to social questions, social issues. So I combined these 2 things and that's the outcome. And I do this now, since 45 years or so. It's what I like to do.
OS: I see many installations, drawings, paintings, and sometimes performances, and I heard that you define yourself as a sculptor and your works to be all sculptures, not paintings nor drawings but to be 2-dimensional sculptures. I'm curious why you define yourself as a sculptor and all your works to be sculptures.
EW: Yeah, because I decided many years ago to look at our world from a sculptural perspective. If something changes and something becomes interesting, it's for myself. And I've also realized, when I do this, the world turns into the absurd, more or less, and sometimes paradox. And I've realized when we look from this perspective to our world, we see maybe sometimes more! That's so exciting for me. As an artist, it's also an expression about our time, about our world and about us, right?
OS: Yeah, expression about our time and ourselves. That’s why you are dealing with the social issues! As I understand, like in <Fat Cars>, I totally agree that economic development is kind of a trick because the resources we can use are remaining the same or the usable things are decreasing. But currency continues to increase and people misunderstand that they are becoming rich, but in the end, they are kind of fooled by numbers. And besides the numbers, for instance of time as an example, I think the babies from the past have spent much more time with their mothers or families. But now the dual-income lifestyle is standardized and the babies have less time spent with their mothers compared to the past.
So, I think you're kind of right about those social issues. What other aspects of modern society do you think are getting worse?
EW: I mean climate change! And not only climate change, but how we destroy our world, the nature, and everything. That's a big drama. I just know it from Austria, in the past, when you drove the car, a lot of insects were on the windows. But, now it's nearly empty! Birds are missing, and little animals are missing, more and more. It's a sign that we live wrong, and that it's going down with our world! And I'm very concerned about this. Not for me, I'm old enough, but for you, for the young generation, for the next generation!
And then what's also really striking me is that now everything is about money and the self. Everybody makes selfies everybody is his own queen or king, and he has his own kingdom, and has his own whatever. And I think it's a big mistake! Because through this we destroy certain contacts and through this, we destroy our world. Yeah, I'm frightened for the future, for us.
OS: Yes, that's a thing I really agree with! The world seems to be getting worse in that aspect. Besides your subject matter as social issues, your work is also famous for dealing with "action" as part of the sculpture, as in <From L to XXL in 8 Days> and <Me / Me Fat>. I think that is really fresh, because, like you said losing and gaining weight in the body itself is the first sculptural experience we go through in our lives. It's not something that is permanent, but changes and moves with time and every moment of the process seems to get meaningful.
How does the element of “time” take part in your work?
EW: Yeah! "Time" is the most important part. Because traditionally, when you're related to traditional sculptures, time only appears through making the work. Because it takes a lot of time. But when you have a three-dimensional object standing in the middle of a space, to really learn to know it and to see it, you have to walk around. You have to see it from all different angles. And that takes time.
A painting, you can see it from the front, but a sculpture you have to experience by walking around. And I found this exciting, and then I transferred it. "Time" also popped up through the question, “What is a sculpture?”. If I'm standing straight here, it's an action. But ‘Can this also be a sculpture?’, ‘What do I have to do to make an action to a sculpture?’, ‘Do I have to squeeze it so that it becomes very long and slow?’, ’Or do I have to continually repeat it that it becomes, in a way of sculpture?’, ‘Or do I have to make it in a very slow, slow, slow, slow motion that it ends?’. So this is an important thing. ‘How long is something as an action and when does it become a sculpture?’ And this, I'm dealing with this my entire life. I'm always asking these questions. And that's so exciting.
OS: As I understand, it reminds me of Picasso’s Cubism ideas, that the concept you cannot see every single face of a 3D object at once. Is this something like that?
And about the shape. Your sculptures have a lot of inflated shapes, cars, houses, human bodies, and even some graphical letters. You frequently express it in an inflated way, and on the other hand, you have some narrow shape houses with thin forms.
What kind of semantic difference do you have between the inflated stuff and the compressed stuff? Does an inflated shape mean something very arrogant and narrow things to be something pressured from the outside?
EW: With the narrow, it's absolutely true. It's the pressure. When you walk through <Narrow House>, you immediately feel phobic, and you feel about certain times, the houses made in the ’60s and ’70s. It's it was a repressive society in Austria, a post-war society. You can immediately feel repression, squeezes, and narrowness.
But on the other side, I started to make <Fat House> and <Fat Car>, because I've realized that to gain weight and to lose weight is this sculptural work that we all are dealing with every day. And then I thought, “What if I combine our most loved objects?” The cars and the houses are where we can show our self-esteem, where we can show off, and where we can show our social status with.
Well, what if I combine it with the biological idea and make it fat? What does it change? Did they become more human? All of a sudden it becomes a strange creature, which, in a way is pointing to the future. Because maybe in the future we are like this, we will be part of the digital, we will have additional connections very easily in our bodies and with our brains, and to others. This concept of mixing things together, mixing different entities together, like a biological entity, and the technical entity, these are found very exciting.
On the other side, when I make a car fat, when I make a beautiful Porsche fat, I destroyed the form. For that reason, the big companies, like Porsche, they never bought the car because they didn’t like it because they felt I destroyed it. By destroying something, you create something new. And that's exciting. And the same with the other pieces I did.
OS: There are works that you, as an artist, kick and destroy the work, but <One Minute Sculpture> works involve the audience participating, and you bring the audience from the object to the subject, making them part of the work. You said that anyone can be a sculptor.
What do you think is the role of the audience in your work? Is there any boundary between the sculpture and the audience? Or is it something that can be combined as one?
EW: You have two possibilities basically.
You go through an exhibition. You see the exhibition from the point of the spectator, and you can stay like this. You have a distance to the work, and you walk around, you can understand it. You think about it. You might like it, or you might not like it, whatever. That's a certain status.
But when you take the invitation of following the instructions and realize <One Minute Sculptures>, then you will become active. You transfer from a big data to an object, because all of a sudden, you are doing something, and you are watched by others. So, it's a totally different appearance, all of a sudden, it's changing the parameter at the end. And that's so exciting. And people, as soon as they make a <One Minute Sculptures>, when they step on the platform, they realize they're not doing something that is changing. Perceptually, it's a change of something also in their minds because they're being watched now.
I started the <One Minute Sculptures> 26 years ago, and it was a time when there was no mobile phone and no selfie and no, all these things. And now everybody does this, picturing themselves all the time and showing off. When I was in Thailand for the Christmas holidays, there were so many girls and boys on the beaches showing off in front of the camera and playing movie star and making it for Instagram or Twitter, showing off their bodies and the walk and how they move.
It's so funny. It reminded me of the very first beginning of my work! Because at that time we offered the people Polaroid cameras at the position where they were doing. And it was the same attitude in a way. After showing my instructions they show a diversion and did something in the photo. Then they could show it around, and they could have it or post it on the wall. It's the same attitude but totally changed through this social media thing.
OS: So when the audience participate, you said, they have their minds changing while they are doing the thing. But maybe each individual may have their own different emotion and senses when they participate in your work.
When you plan your work, do you have a set goal in the beginning that you want the audience to feel through each of your works? Or is it you try it first, and then you find it interesting, and then you entice the audience to have some similar experience like you?
EW: It's both. In some pieces, I have this moment where I try things out, and I'm failing. Failing of course is important. Some other pieces, I make address very specific psychological issues like angst and anxiety.
I made one in Japan, at the Mori Art Museum. I had a little Teddy bear, a stiff teddy bear, a toy. On the man and the woman. I had the chance to open the zip of the trousers and put it in. But let the head look out, and then stand quiet, and of course, it's about sexuality. You know, in a way it made it not ridiculous, but it made people laugh. So much about their thinking of their sexuality. And then pretending to have a Teddy bear coming out of the trousers. All of a sudden, it changed something, and it was a huge success! So many people did it, and it's called <Angst>.
So, because, being afraid to look ridiculous, being afraid to be able to show your sexuality, or to have sexuality, being not able to fit into a certain understanding, being not able to satisfy your partner, being not able to be in a happy position with your partner, and all these. All of a sudden this was addressed, and for that reason, it became very, very successful. I was surprised! Many times, I don't know what the effect on the public will be. Many times, I underestimate things in both ways, lower and higher.
OS: The theme of your work is very conscientious and serious. But they are expressed in a very friendly and unstained way like using a teddy bear. The shapes are cute, round, and intimate. And the colors have also some soft and pastel tones. And about the materials, you see a lot of soft touches and the use of daily props directly as they originally are.
What reasons are there for producing such creative works with that kind of warm atmosphere?
EW: You know, I think there is no intellectual reason. I think it's just my language. It's just what I want to do because I try different things out. And with these, I feel myself strong, and I feel it's what I am. These forms, and these attitudes, and these colors... It's not about what I think. 'What do I have to do', that 'It's good or so' ... In the end, something grows out of you, and you follow the work! I'm more following the work. Yes of course I make the work, but I still follow the idea of my work. I just do it. And that's exciting. It's basically "The work decides where I should go". It's not the way around. It's not the opposite. "The work decides where I should go", and that's so fantastic.
OS: That is such an impressive word! But then, when you start, do you start with having no specific purpose set from the beginning? Is it right to understand you find the meanings and purpose while handling the materials?
EW: No, it's both. First. I also had an idea when I made these new houses, very squeezed new houses of Wittgenstein House, and philosophers, and then also politicians. That I had the idea first. But by doing, it changes. When you strictly follow the idea by doing the art piece, it becomes in a way a little rigid and a little narrow. When you allow the work and the material to express its own way, and you follow the way, I know it sounds stupid, but it's like this. Then it's more interesting. Then it leads you somewhere else. I remember once, Gerhard Richter said his paintings are smarter than him. I never understood what he was meaning, but now I have the feeling he also thinks that the work itself can progress and can go on and that you as an artist have to follow the way.
OS: Your philosophy and Gerhard Richter's words seem to fit very well. Your expression in your works is very straightforward. It really helps the audience to immerse in your works much easier compared to the unfriendly arts that tell in a very difficult way.
Why did you choose to be straightforward? And what do you think of other works that are really difficult to understand?
EW: You know, many works that are difficult to understand are empty in reality. And they're stupid in reality. There's a lot of hiding and showing off and pretending in that world. And I'm not in part of this. I do not want to be in part of this.
I just recently had an interview in Austria, and the guy said he never met someone so straightforward and honest. But why would why should I lie? What should I lie for? Is there any reason to tell not the truth and not being straightforward? I always tell straightforward my opinion and what I think. It was a good way, not always, because some people don't like this very much. They hate it, but I think it's just my way. It's my personality.
OS: Right! Totally agree. For those straightforward ways, and because of that bold expressions, I think someone who doesn't know you see your work for the first time, I think they might expect the artist to be fairly young.
What do you think about it? How can you kind of maintain such a modern and youthful sense despite your considerable age?
EW: Thank you. Because I've realized a long time ago, that to have one good idea I strongly believe you have to constantly work on the renewing of the of the themes and of the work! I'm constantly fighting every day to make good work. I never reached the status where I could say “Okay, I don't care. I'm fine with what I did, and that's it.” I'm constantly have to keep strong belief and the feeling that I have to become better and have to correct my work, to become better. That's it. I don't know what it is, but that's just me.
OS: Actually, the final question I planned was about any advice for young people who want to be influential artists like you. But your answer right now was the perfect answer for the last question prepared!
Do you have any more words to tell for the up-and-comers?
EW: Yeah. I could say, go on with what you want to do. Let nobody destroy you or disturb you. But listen to the critics very carefully. And let and be your own critic very, very carefully and hard. And then, you might succeed. But you never know. You also might not succeed.
OS: That one was also very honest, too!
EW: Yeah, it is! That's right. Life is hard!
*interview date: 2023.Jan.30
Erwin Wurm © Bildrecht, Vienna 2023
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