by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
Imagine strolling through the surreal dreamscape of an artist’s imagination, where couture handbags sprout legs and attitude, a four-metre-high hot water bottle embraces you like a warm nurturing mother and a truck boldly defies gravity to scale the walls of the gallery. Welcome to Austrian artist Erwin Wurm’s captivating exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a realm where the ordinary takes an extraordinary twist and the absurd becomes a delightful reality. STIR embarks on a journey through his whimsical wonderland, which beckons us to explore the vibrant intersection of art, architecture, and human expression.
A unique fusion of playfulness and philosophical enquiry, Wurm brings his imaginative and thought-provoking creations to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the first-ever UK museum exhibition Trap of the Truth. Featuring more than 100 works spanning sculptures, paintings, photographs, videos and drawings, crafted over three decades of Wurm’s illustrious career, the showcase draws a conceptual thread from the works of 17th century philosopher, Rene Descartes, whose exploration of subjective truth and reality is encapsulated in the famous phrase, “I think therefore I am." The outdoor landscape of the YSP becomes a playground for 19 sculptures that push the boundaries of our visual comprehension, some of which are revealed to the public eye for the first time.
Born in 1954, Wurm has risen to prominence as one of Austria’s most eminent artists, celebrated for his 2017 Austrian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Over three decades he has challenged the rules of sculpture, the limitations of the human body, and its relationship to the spaces we inhabit. His artistry blends elements of performance and varied mediums to create a new dialogue between form and function. Wurm’s exploration of the mundane, coupled with his whimsical re-imagination of everyday objects, unveils the way in which we conform to societal norms and navigate our relationship with the world around us.
At the heart of Wurm’s exhibition lies an interplay between absurdity and identity. He is both playful and political, using ludicrous scenarios to create work that addresses how we conform to society’s demands and how sculpture can upend cultural beliefs. “At some point, I came to realise that absolutely everything surrounding me can be material for artistic work. To begin with, because I had no money and worked relatively quickly, I used scraps of wood and cans. Then I used old clothing, which did not cost anything, before ultimately realising that I could actually use anything around me. That was the decisive step, and then anything was possible,” says the sculpture artist on his design ethos.
Within the exhibition, Wurm introduces us to the enigmatic “Bags” series which stands as a compelling commentary on consumer culture and societal values. The oversized Big Step bag (2021) commands attention with its blue façade and elegant legs, challenging the notion of status. Dance (2021) and Trip (2021)—a briefcase and suitcase respectively complete the series emphasising on the artist’s knack for anthropomorphising objects, creating a lively dance between the mundane and the extraordinary.
Among the array of sculptures, Big Kastenmann (2012), which translates as ‘big box man,’ emerges as a towering figure, with a large box for a torso, wearing a formal pink and grey suit jacket, playfully subverting traditional expectations. This was Wurm’s first large-scale public art project, displayed outside The Standard Hotel in New York City in 2012. This Balzac (2023) sculpture crafted in bronze and standing at 3.2 metres, resonates with layers of historical and classical references, echoing both ancient statuary and the works of Rodin.
Wurm’s exploration of Austrian identity comes to the forefront through his re-interpretation of iconic food items, including a monumental Der Gurk (2016), the bronze sculpture as a nod to the beloved pickled cucumber. Meanwhile, his Giants series wields three anthropomorphic bronze sausages, imbued with a wink to Vienna’s famous weiner hot dog.
Speaking to STIR on the artist’s approach to the medium of sculpture, Louise Lohr, the curator of the exhibition shares, “Wurm challenges the very definition of what sculpture is and what it can be. For over 30 years he has been creating his own rules and questioning the boundaries of different art forms. He brings together elements of performance, video, drawing, photography, and three-dimensional objects to disrupt our understanding of the familiar or sensible. Using absurdity and experimentation, Wurm frequently reimagines commonplace objects by giving them human characteristics to question how we conform to societal demands and the spaces we occupy”.
Wurm’s engagement with philosophical and intellectual legacies is evident in his Attacks and Concrete sculptures series. These compositions evoke figures such as Neitzsche and Marx, their ideas encapsulated within dynamic sculptures that question societal constructs and challenge viewers’ perceptions. Such intellectuals are frequently memorialised by their houses or cabins and Wurm continues this notion of lionising spaces for solitude by representing his own workspace with the aluminium, Eiswerk – My Studio (The Kitchen and Bedroom Hanging Down) (2005), an irrational and self-deprecating representation of his home and studio in Limberg, Austria.
The One Minute Sculptures, the recurring theme in Wurm’s works transforms ordinary objects into interactive art pieces. The artist gives written or drawn instructions for participants to pose with the objects such as buckets, fruit, or chairs for a limited time. He documents these fleeting interactions, where the viewer becomes the artwork, with photographs and video, a selection of which will be displayed alongside several of the objects.
Extending the idea of the viewer as an artist, art object, and participant, Ship of Fools (2017) is an adapted caravan with which visitors can interact by putting their heads, hands, bottoms, or feet through apertures, encouraging disruption and disorder in the normally hallowed museum setting. Carved from marble, the Icons sculptures immortalise bread, sausages, and a coffee bean – literally giving them the status of classical statuary by putting them on a pedestal.
Alongside the collection are seven ceramic sculptures from the Dissolution series, which Wurm started to make in 2018 in a bid to return to the physical and direct act of making. Including works titled Double Ear Head, Noser and Mud Kiss, they incorporate body parts associated with human senses, continuing his consideration of the body and how we experience the world around us.
Completing the exhibition are six Flat Sculptures—oil on canvas works that the artist started painting in 2020. Primarily working with sculpture, Wurm translates notions of form and volume to the brightly painted canvases, which have stretched and distorted letters spelling out their respective titles into almost unrecognisable shapes. This exhibition will be accompanied by an activity of engagement centered around play, exploration of materials, and experimentation of making processes.
“This exhibition is intended to encourage thought and conversation around the importance of play, material experimentation and exploration for people of all ages. Wurm’s preoccupation with the absurd provides the opportunity for consideration of new perspectives. It was important to YSP to show the breadth of Wurm’s wide-ranging artistic output and to highlight Wurm’s important questions around defining sculpture,” says Lohr to STIR on creating a cohesive and immersive experience for visitors.
Trap of the Truth is not merely an exhibition; it’s an immersive experience that beckons visitors to embrace the unexpected, ponder on the complexities of existence, and to revel in extraordinary narratives spun from seemingly ordinary objects. The exhibition is on view till April 28, 2024, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.