Erwin Wurm: “Synthesa”
The Brooklyn Rail
I’ve always associated the work of Erwin Wurm with the transitory, the momentary, the moving. The most vital aspect of his practice was his fluid concept of sculpture and his documentation of this fluidity. Take, for instance, the series One-Minute Sculptures (1988-97), which brought his work to the attention of the broader public at the beginning of the ’90s. He posed, or instructed other people to pose, with everyday items—a man squeezed himself under a chair; another filled his mouth, ears, and eye sockets with markers and other office supplies. Similarly performative was his more recent series of photographs titled Instructions On How To Be Politically Incorrect, which featured actors deadpanning antisocial behaviors such as spitting in someone’s soup, or urinating on a rug. Even his most rock-solid, gargantuan, three-dimensional pieces—like “Big Kastenmann,” the head-less, pant-less, box-shaped humanoid that Wurm placed in the Standard’s front plaza on 13th Street and Washington in 2012—had an ephemeral, performative aspect to it (it was, after all, a temporary installation).
I consistently regarded Wurm as a performer rather than a sculptor. Nevertheless, Synthesa, the exhibition of new works by the artist, which opened this February at Lehmann Maupin in Chelsea, is a show comprised exclusively of innocuous inanimate objects. Wurm’s artifactual inclination is hardly headline news: over the last 10 years he has produced and displayed a number of solid sculptural objects around the world. But references, winks, and other allusions to the more performative facets of his practice were usually there as well, as a reminder of the innovation so characteristic of his early career. His previous show at Lehmann Maupin, four years ago, was also object-oriented—but still there were traces of his signature performance documentation, as well as the precious, absurdist movie, “Tell” (2007–2008), depicting two friends riding in a car and asking questions like, “And what if we are the sandwich and the sandwich is us?” The ontological indeterminacy of their road-trip and of their conversation was pure performance art.
In Wurm’s new show, however, the performative aspect is dead. I mean, literally. His One Minute Sculptures are turned into One Minute Forever—a series of sculptures in which the artist re-imagines his 60-second real-life one-liners using skeletal forms to convey the eternity of each pose. A skull is portrayed with a (real) banana in its jaws; a pair of upside down leg bones keeps two buckets in equilibrium. The result is a series of quite standard sculptures that would be more at ease in a collector’s penthouse than in a chapter of contemporary art history. The innovative liveliness and whimsical energy of the original pieces are stripped down, like the flesh from the bones, in this new series. One might infer the productive cynicism of an artist keen to put to bed a concept that has been hijacked by popular culture (the Red Hot Chili Peppers were famously inspired by Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures while making the video for the track “Can’t Stop”). Critically, however, there’s no significant sign of sadness or frustration in the works; they are a disappointingly bland joke.
A more intriguing group of works in the show, Abstract Sculptures, re-configures another one of Wurm’s recurring interests—frankfurters. In this series, the artist twists sausage-like forms into anthropomorphic, sometimes phallic, bronze sculptures. Besides being (weirdly) visually captivating, they take the artist’s curiosity about the fetishization of bodies in interesting new directions. They are objects and they are bodies, while being objects that resemble parts of bodies that themselves are often objectified. The pun works.
The third and final group of sculptures—which shares its title with the show, Synthesa—travels in a similar direction. For these works, the artist scanned the bodies of the staff of his studio, printed the images onto polyurethane and then cast them in acrylic. He then took each sculpture apart and either left them incomplete, or inserted plastic buckets in lieu of their torso or pelvis. While the deconstruction itself and the deliberate (and slightly clichéd) breaking of the sculptural canon might not be pushing any new boundaries, what’s interesting here is the use of the buckets which, much like the frankfurter, evoke an idea of inclusion but also containment. Wurm’s practice seems to have re-routed from improvisation towards control. The predominance of objects and the near-complete absence of performative moments in the show are clear indications of this attitude. The risk is that the lightness, capriciousness, and anarchic vigor of his earlier work might have gotten lost in the move.