Movables and Mimes – The Works of Erwin Wurm at Berlinische Galerie
(Berlin.) Some days, you just need a little fun in your life. Take last Thursday for example: I was tired. I had had to get up early to welcome the craftsmen who change the floors in my flat due to a water damage three stairs above in February (don’t ask for details, just don’t). The day before I had requested - and been granted – a press accreditation to the opening of Erwin Wurm’s show at Berlinische Galerie. It was to start at seven and finish at nine. At 9:05 p. m. was the kick-off of the LFC-BVB Europa League quarter final, and there is no pub in BG’s vicinity. When the workers left at half past three, a rash calculation convinced me to try and do it all, lunch first, then work out, be back home at half past six, half an hour to get to the gallery, then spend ninety minutes on the artistic preliminary to the night’s main event. It was a rash calculation. When I arrived back home to drop off my gym bag (did I mention already that I started to work out again?), it was past seven. I arrived at the gallery no earlier than 7:47, hurried past you waiting in that queue, and made for the separate Press and VIP entrance (”Hey, I'm a firm believer in the philosophy of a ruling class. Especially since I rule”, Kevin Smith, Clerks). Keeping my eyes high above the plebeian crowds, I for the first time noticed signposts with addresses and telephone numbers of other art institutions, an installation that’s probably been there for a long time.
You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to get into Berlinische Galerie’s openings if your name’s on the guest list! No waiting, all smiles really. The vegetarian sandwiches on the improvised bar (table) next to that entrance, though – catering is not for free, not for anybody – looked like leftovers from some wild performance years ago, the salad had definitely seen better days since being cut from quiet country life. Having ordered “a red one”, I realized, Berlinische Galerie’s cosy drinking area was separated from the exhibition space by an open door; no drinks would be allowed behind that passage. I contemplated the tough-looking security guards, my glass, my watch (ok: cell phone), and that glass again. By now it was 8 p. m., one hour until kick-off. A nice Rioja it was, but I had to down it like a shot. Whose idea was it to celebrate openings on days of global importance anyway (for you Americans: think Playoff nights)? Do they live in a bubble at Berlinische Galerie? Now I’ve almost written something mis-phob-ist. But I only thought it (this should – still - be ok. Ok?). I threw down that glass and approached the door. A security lifted his arm, certainly to send me back to the wardrobe and the long queue there – not even a VIP wardrobe it was - but I parried the assault with a press kit I had thankfully accepted at the entrance. It worked. Defeated, with a submissive bow even (or so I imagined), he let me pass still wearing my jacket, the true man’s purse, containing everything from phone to notepad, pencils, and much more essentials.
Once, during my studies in France, a teacher of art history commented on the name “Erwin Wurm” with the words “Oui, c’est drole” (“Yes, it’s funny”), and added a shrug. At this moment I wouldn’t care for any meaning, funny surface would be fair enough. It should turn out to be both, eventually.
Erwin Wurm is one of Austria’s best known artists today, in terms of international fame only surpassed by double Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz and a former governor of California. A large part of the opening crowd was speaking that distinct German dialect the Alpine country has gifted the world with. It sounds almost as melodious as Scottish, rolling the "r"’s down a mountain slope and carry it up singing again, maybe linguists can explain this phenomenon. But art: The first room contained a sculpture, a video and an installation with a fully equipped cleaning cart, probably not all by Erwin Wurm. The sculpture is a silver fridge (Untitled, 2015) that somebody was unable to open when desperately in need of a beer, not even with brute force and without the option to resort to some obscure externals like they did with that fbiPhone: It’s damaged, battered, a veteran of disaster. A “Please do not touch” sign prevents patrons from trying their luck. Nice, and remindful of what Bertrand Lavier did quite a while ago. The video shows Fabian Dressing (1991). We all know how it feels being trapped inside a pullover, involuntarily creating a moving sculpture; mimes with props. Fabian is different insofar as he seems a trained gymnast, skilfully controlling his every movement. But the main hall has the same in live, and here you are the actor indeed!
You make the sculpture - Erwin Wurm “only” provides the instructions and the tools, like a certificate for a performance - relational art at its best. Patrons may lay down head to head – and heads hidden in a tube -, hide their faces behind a foldable garden chair vertically installed on a wall, or squeeze piles of books between their arms and thighs in what could be a Kegel exercise. We admired an elderly gentleman directing his companion for a photo in this situation: “Now keep it for a minute.” “Now look at me!” “Hold it...” “No, but smile!” Then put your head through a Wurm-hole (sorry, but it was either that or titling this text “The Whole Wurm”), i.e. a drill hole to the side of another fridge, smaller than the one we’ve seen before, touchable, plugged in and still running - finally an artist who doesn’t give a toss about climate change. This also means to stick your behind up in the air inviting people’s gazes or your friends’ gentle kickings.
Or go play at Siamese Twins in a Norwegian sweater for two. The more of these sculptures/mini-performances (sculpturances?) we observed, the firmer formed a suspicion: Could Erwin Wurm be a dirty old man searching for excuses to make people present their lower backs like a diving duck? Is he one of those who cannot wait for the summer, to hang out under the magnificent stairs in the middle of Berlinische Galerie?
We consciously ignored somebody lying on her back and spreading a leg through a hole in the sofa’s backrest. It’s not (only) a perverted mind’s reception, we insist; it’s part of the tradition of figurative sculpture using the human form. There is still a link to antique Greek nakedness but Wurm’s living sculptures are more democratic than Hellas ever was. We’d love Martin Parr taking photos. Though Wurm has quite the opposite intention to Parr: Where the photographer reveals the ugliness of the mass, and makes it all but impossible to believe in beauty in the human form, Wurm celebrates the body’s sculptural properties, its natural artfulness - could this have something to do with Austrian catholic tradition? At the same time, and more evident when regarding not the “sculptures” themselves, but their photographs, there’s the intention to depersonalize the body, to dehumanize and make it function as pure form in connection with inanimate materials (clothes, furniture, &c.) – the main reason to hide the face as the place where the mind resides. At his best, Wurm creates analogue cyborgs, and the parts add up to a new entity. As opposed to fashion and design, a sweater, a trouser, a chair engages in a emancipated relation with the human form, where neither the one nor the other prevails.
Lost in thought, we stepped into a side area and found Erwin Wurm is a gifted photographer too. Then we realised, this is Heidi Specker with another exhibition still running. The open exhibition design at Berlinische Galerie has its downsides, but we would never want it to change. Specker’s calm, meditative, portraits of people, animals and objects share some traits with sculptural aesthetics (not as much as Mapplethorpe does, yet still); form-alized bodies once again. Nothing you haven’t seen before, a lot of times even, but still nice. But back to Erwin Wurm and his exhibition’s central sculpture/installation/environment: The Narrow House, an indeed very narrow replica of Wurm’s parental home. Completely furnished, it’s explained to mirror the conformist square-dom of his born-in milieu (there is a great tradition of Austrian artists love-hating their homeland, just think of Thomas Bernhard). Astonishingly, there is no warning sign, but trust us, if you’re claustrophobic you better just take a peek inside through the many windows. This doll house has different entrances and people are only queuing at one of them; talk about herd mentality and narrow-mindedness (have you ever observed people entering/exiting a building by double doors? Hardly anybody will try and open the closed, yet almost always unlocked, part).
Narrow House is a nice autobiographical work with supra-personal meaning. A traditional building like this carries inbuilt connotations of hillbilly-ness - for those familiar with rural Austria/South Germany, a 1:1 replica, or even a photograph, would have been enough to “tell it all”. But this is a prejudice, a stereotype that suggests false inevitability. Like when you attend an event with the board of directors of no matter which Berlin based art institution, see the cloned middle-aged gentlemen and ladies in their grey/blue/black suits resembling tax inspectors or the middle management of a rural savings bank, and jump to conclusions about staid art politics. Those conclusions might not necessarily be wrong, but the approach is. After all, the house did not stultify the artist, we might even be inclined to thank the milieu for pushing Wurm into art in the first place.
Erwin Wurm supersedes the prejudice by exaggerating and manifesting it – the narrow house mirrors a corresponding mind set, alienated, it expresses the artist’s personal experience and interpretation. In the metaphor, he shows how he personally experienced the milieu, but there is no inevitability implied. The alienation is a necessity, mind and form mutually reinforce each other, as the once revolutionary becomes old and conservative.
The exhibition continues with drawings for more One Minute Sculptures, as are called the proceedings in the main hall. Most are sculptified every day situations, picking one’s nose, dressing, kneeling, head in a bucket, umbrella in behind. Others seem more difficult to execute, like those featuring a skeleton. Also instructions for the project From man’s size 38 to 48, given by the artist to make you gain weight in time. Very precise instructions (“Dinner. 1l red wine”; “go to bed early”; “restrain stool” “2 a. m. constipation tea 3 Mars bars”; “Breakfast. Ham and eggs: 400g ham, 6 eggs, 50g bacon, salt. 3 bread rolls, 4 jelly pancakes, 1 can of cocoa”) actually, as Wurm denounces the absurdity of diets and the fitness mania. Now we have second thoughts about that work out we think we’ve mentioned earlier. Like all statistics (and psychology, and capitalism), they ignore the individual, leave no room for deviance. Chances are, X people following the same instructions will get X different results, no matter how mainstreamed we are.
“Supersize me” can also be the motto for Wurm’s Recent Sculptures. Certainly less inspired than his other works, they include variations in furniture, deformed like that fridge (there’s another one, actually) and made from a variety of materials. You may look but not touch, contrary to those living sculptures (well, in a way the same’s true for them). All objects appear damaged, hurt, imperfect, excavations from a future, artefacts that will remain as opposed to “nothing will remain”, the mantra of our culture.
The show is called Bei Mutti – "At Mum’s", and we’re not sure why beside the obvious nod to the Narrow House. Or is it still? The title has since vanished from BG’s website.
We left at 8:38. In case you forgot: Kick off was at 9:05. We made it to (one of) our favourite pub(s) on Friedrichstr. at 9:10, just in time for Dortmund’s first goal (it shouldn’t go all their way), having wasted five minutes on taking a train in the wrong direction, as usual. Those craftsmen were back the next morning at their usual inhuman time of 9 a. m. We might come back to Berlinische Galerie for the second show that opened on that same night with water colours from early 20th Century artists, yet being considerably worse off financially than an artist of Teddy Ropac’s, and our accreditation only valid for the opening, we are not sure if we can afford it.
Erwin Wurm, Bei Mutti, 15 April-22 August 2016, Berlinische Galerie