The Possibility of the Absurd

9.10.19  |  Article by Erwin Wurm & Philippa Snow  |  Art, interview, Magazine  |  MM16 Click to buy

“I believe in the possibility of the absurd, and of the paradox. Laughter, and humour, is a side effect of questioning the absurd.”

The filmmaker Michael Haneke is not exactly known for making comedies — it might be fairer to say that, with the bloody prep-on-bougie satire of the ironically-titled Funny Games, or with the soapy, feel-bad evil of the also-ironically-titled melodrama Happy End, he has tended to make films that encourage us to laugh uncomfortably at our worst aspirations. In 2013, the cultural critic Moira Weigel described Haneke’s work as a prime example of a genre she called sadomodernism: “[it consistently] examines the possibilities of contemporary (haute) bourgeois life,” she wrote in N+1, “and consistently shows its protagonists to be at best trapped and ineffectual and at worst, much worse.” What Haneke proposes — that money not only fails to make you happy, but that it will also fail to shield you from, for instance, an extremely sudden act of random violence, or a major-key embarrassment, or a burgeoning existential crisis, or a drug addiction — appears less and less radical as a message with each passing year. In 2019, with a millionaire reality-star as the President, and with the twenty-six richest people in the world commanding as much money as the poorest half of the world’s population, “eat the rich” seems almost too gentle a slogan. Re-watch Funny Games now, twenty-two-years after the release of the original and twelve years after the release of the Hollywood remake, and you may feel that the only real shame is the fact the two white-clad intruders kill the dog

In 2001, more or less halfway between the release of Funny Games (1997) and Funny Games (2007), the artist Erwin Wurm made the first of a series of iconic sculptures of what he called “fat cars”: a smooth, cherry-red convertible whose exterior looked tumescent, as though it might be suffering from a serious reaction to a bee-sting, Fat Convertible is a joke about excess, capitalism, greed, and our fucked-up Western values. It is also, as Weigel would put it, an object meant to “[examine] the possibilities of contemporary (haute) bourgeois life, consistently [show] its protagonists to be at best trapped and ineffectual and at worst, much worse.” Little wonder, then, that Wurm professes to be fond of Haneke, and of the elegance with which he skewers the indulgence and the amorality of those who at first seem to possess everything a person could desire, and who eventually end up losing everything as a result of their self-interest, or of fate and the inherent cruelty of the universe. “And we are both Austrian,” he muses. “I don’t know where this impulse comes from, exactly: but for example, [the playwright] Thomas Bernhard is Austrian, and he is also very specific, and very much interested in looking at these psychological issues, with a certain kind of humour — a very particular, very dark humour. There seems to be something like an Austrian affect.”

“I will often use humour to seduce people"

Wurm has been working since the eighties, in particular on an ongoing series he refers to as One Minute Sculptures — objects, often quotidian or familiar, are left in the gallery space for members of the public to experiment with. In the most famous examples, these experiments are photographed, the images appearing like a cross between a fashion editorial and an uncanny installation: combined, what was mundane becomes minatory, unsettlingly strange, as in the definition of surrealism that Breton first stole from Ducasse. In his work in general, the “Austrian affect” Wurm refers to manifests itself as a love of the intersection between commentary and absurdity, the result being that he is occasionally mischaracterised as a comic artist when he is in fact, at heart, a pitch-black satirist. (“I will often use humour to seduce people,” he has said. “To entice them to look closer. But it’s never very nice when they do.”) It is possible to detect notes of violence, too, in the way that those photographic documents of his One Minute Sculptures often look like scenes of torture, or like fetishes gone wrong. A woman sits atop a pole that looks more like a stake than like a seat; a man has stationery crammed into his ears and nose and mouth, looking like a substitute teacher victimised by classroom bullies. Heads and limbs are obscured until it is no longer entirely clear whether they have been removed. Participants lie face-down, play stone dead.

Wurm has been working since the eighties, in particular on an ongoing series he refers to as One Minute Sculptures — objects, often quotidian or familiar, are left in the gallery space for members of the public to experiment with. In the most famous examples, these experiments are photographed, the images appearing like a cross between a fashion editorial and an uncanny installation: combined, what was mundane becomes minatory, unsettlingly strange, as in the definition of surrealism that Breton first stole from Ducasse. In his work in general, the “Austrian affect” Wurm refers to manifests itself as a love of the intersection between commentary and absurdity, the result being that he is occasionally mischaracterised as a comic artist when he is in fact, at heart, a pitch-black satirist. (“I will often use humour to seduce people,” he has said. “To entice them to look closer. But it’s never very nice when they do.”) It is possible to detect notes of violence, too, in the way that those photographic documents of his One Minute Sculptures often look like scenes of torture, or like fetishes gone wrong. A woman sits atop a pole that looks more like a stake than like a seat; a man has stationery crammed into his ears and nose and mouth, looking like a substitute teacher victimised by classroom bullies. Heads and limbs are obscured until it is no longer entirely clear whether they have been removed. Participants lie face-down, play stone dead.

Discomfort is the byword, either literally or figuratively, so that looking at the work is as unnerving as participating, and so that to participate is to give oneself over to ritual humiliation. “I believe in the possibility of the absurd, and of the paradox,” Wurm confirms. “Laughter, and humour, is a side effect of questioning the absurd. So the work addresses the emotion of embarrassment, and also the ridiculousness of it. The most marginal concerns of our existence can also be the most important ones, because they help us to address the bigger issues, like death and so on.” To pervert a coveted red sports car into something that looks terminally unfit is to highlight the terminal unfitness of our capitalist society to function without killing us, making Wurm’s admittedly-funny Fat Convertible a work that’s as much about dying as it is about consumerism. Even working with a brand, the artist finds a way to suggest that all brands are meaningless, and that our ideological attachment to them as a means of personal definition slows us down like dread, dead weight.

“I did my first ever collaboration with a company in Vienna, Palmers,”

he explains, “which is a very well-known brand of underwear that uses famous models, and works with famous fashion photographers. When they asked me, as an artist, they were surprised that I accepted. It never worked out; they were not satisfied, and in the end they did not make an advertisement out of it. But I could still use the pieces in a museum context. Work in the fashion industry, and with furniture and so on, is not a closed circle, like the art world very often is. I try to push my work, for many reasons, into many outside contexts, and into outside spaces — and this helps me to make public work. I strongly believe that this is what qualifies, nowadays, as making public sculpture: working in the media, in music and in fashion magazines, and so on.”

A look at the images originally made for Palmers leaves no mystery about the reason for their general unsuitability as advertising. In one shot, a girl in a yolk-yellow leotard poses, kneeling, like a double-amputee; showcasing a black-and-white bodysuit, another model has no discernible head. The photographs are perfect, and disturbing, and might not immediately make the average viewer anxious to invest in a new set of lingerie as much as they might make them anxious, period. But then isn’t feeling anxious half the point of advertising? And isn’t most fashion media all about the idea that we’re fundamentally incomplete? “When I use people in my work,” Wurm agrees, “I very, very rarely show a face, or a body. Very rarely. In magazines like House and Garden or Architectural Digest, you see the ‘portraits’ of the houses of rich people, or of famous people, but you never see the people. You see the apartment, you see the furniture; you see the cars, the clothes — but not the people. That’s an interesting factor for me, and it’s one of the biggest things in my work. In all my sculptural work, the human body is only represented by clothes, and by representative objects.”

"I try to push my work, for many reasons, into many outside contexts, and into outside spaces"

Which brings us to the age of Instagram. Where once celebrities alone were defined by the regular documentation of the things they owned, or wore, or the homes that they lived in, anybody with a working camera-phone and even the most minor inclination towards exhibitionism can reveal themselves the same way. Books, not previously a status symbol, have become popular still-life objects, sometimes enhanced by the presence of hands with perfect manicures; underwear, as in Wurm’s 1997 images for Palmers, is routinely photographed for public view, the model’s face obscured or left out of the frame. Strangers’ cars are used for props in order to suggest extreme wealth. Knees are shown in isolation, propped up as the sole accessory to a Bahamian sunset, the same way they might peer out from underneath a bucket or a blanket in a photograph of a One Minute Sculpture. Another accidental parity, albeit an interesting one: currently, Instagram allows its videos to be one minute, maximum, in length, so that many of them are their own attempts at creating one minute sculptures.

"I just care about what’s true.”

The embarrassment factor of humiliating oneself in a gallery setting for exactly sixty seconds is, in other words, somewhat negated by a newfound public willingness to quite literally make an exhibition of day-to-day life, in real-time and for global audiences. Just as Funny Games’ nihilistic take on class-based retribution has begun to seem less and less like a horror movie and more like a smart prediction of inevitable class war, the One Minute Sculptures series looks in retrospect like a precursor to a visually-conscious, self-consciously-quirky culture in love with its own mortification. Props, plus people, plus time, equal “content” in the parlance of the internet. Those who do not learn from art history are, of course, doomed to repeat its mistakes, minus irony or commentary. “We do create new and very public ways of being through social media,” Wurm shrugs casually, already moving on to the next new thing in his mind the way all great contemporary artists do. “Privacy as it was defined appears not to exist any more, because everything is online, and everything is being shown and shared all the time, and being watched constantly. It’s definitely a gigantic change. I don’t care if that development is positive or negative, necessarily: I just care that it’s a fact. I just care about what’s true.”