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Three oranges give a glimpse inside Erwin Wurm's 'absurd' visions

Published 1st April 2019
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Erwin Wurm Theory of Painting
Three oranges give a glimpse inside Erwin Wurm's 'absurd' visions
Written by Marianna Cerini, CNNHong Kong
In an awkward pose, with three oranges propped under my forehead, I learned up close what it was like to become one of Erwin Wurm's subjects -- if only for a minute.
The Austrian artist has spent 22 years positioning subjects with inanimate objects as part of his One Minute Sculptures, a performative project he's brought to Hong Kong, as part of a new exhibition in the city.
"The idea is for you to exist in this dimension -- as an art object yourself -- only at this one time," he explained. "I am giving 'sculpture' a participatory, temporal factor -- one that I guide."
The artist directs volunteers to interact in paradoxical ways with random everyday objects -- a chair, pencils, fresh fruit -- for around one minute, standing still as Wurm takes their photo. "The one-minute reference is be understood as a short timeframe, not as a literal thing," Wurm said. "Sometimes it's just 15 seconds."
The writer poses for Erwin Wurm.
The writer poses for Erwin Wurm. Credit: Marianna Cerini
The picture documenting the pose is the only permanent part of the process. The experience itself, the artist said, is meant to be ephemeral. "What I am interested in is that paradox and how my art can respond and interact with it," Wurm said. "The One Minute Sculptures are absurd, in a way. I like to explore what that does for the subjects."
Wurm said it would be inaccurate to view the sculptures as spontaneous figures of fun devoid of deeper meaning. "These performative pieces are often simply described as humorous or funny, but that's not what they are," he said. "On the contrary, what I think they highlight are a range of very human, very collective notions: ridiculousness, awkwardness, vulnerability. They are compelling psychological and physical expressions."
Shasha Tittmann, the director of gallery Lehmann Maupin Hong Kong where Wurm's work is being shown, says the one minute concept gives sculpture a place in our daily lives. "These sculptures ask us to consider the actions and implications of the aesthetic forms we constantly consume, and how they relate to our own bodies," Tittmann said.
The artist generally only displays his One Minute Sculptures in galleries and museums, to give them a greater level of artistic authority. "People look at them in a more serious way because of the space they are in," he said.
Wurm also tends to be quite meticulous about his sculptures' execution. He creates sketches of most pieces before they "come to life," to allow the idea to fully form, but also to consider details such as volume and mass, and the relationship between object and subject. He also predicts the movements or actions his subjects will perform to create each sculpture, and how they will translate in the photo.
On the pedestal where I'm required to balance the oranges, there's a sketch of a figure that I'm supposed to copy. As I stand still holding the oranges in place with my forehead, Wurm tells me where to put my hands, and exactly how I position my body to look the way he envisioned it.
The project's concept has evolved over time, with photos only added later to prolong the moment. "I worried about the fleetingness of each sculpture, so began using Polaroids to preserve them. That added a completely new layer to the entire series. I went from only considering the concrete, final piece to thinking about the existence of the piece," Wurm said.
In recent years, Wurm swapped Polaroids with mobile phones, although he only allows their use with strict guidelines. The ascent of social media, particularly Instagram, has further propelled him to rethink the concept. "Social media has made it harder to oversee how each performance is done and documented," Wurm said. "Once they're out in the world, these pieces develop their own life. So I only consider One Minute Sculptures (to be) the pieces that really follow my guidelines." The rest, he added, is just fodder for personal Instagram accounts.
In Hong Kong, Wurm is presenting two One Minute Sculptures -- the oranges-based "Astronomical Purpose," and a new one, titled "Theory of Painting," which features a set of sponges dipped in colored paint the participant is required to press against the white walls of the gallery.
He's also featuring new cast metal sculptures from his Abstract Sculpture series, depicting sausages with human features that highlight the absurdity behind common references or figures of speech.
An installation view of Erwin Wurm's new exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in Hong Kong.
An installation view of Erwin Wurm's new exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in Hong Kong. Credit: OwenWong
"I like to question the fundamentals of sculpture with all the work I do," Wurm said. "And see the world from a sculptural point of view. The One Minute Sculptures are particularly good for that: they alter the medium as well as the way we perceive it. When you go from watching art to becoming art and being watched, your entire notion of it -- and of yourself -- changes. It's a way of pushing boundaries."
Erwin Wurm's work is on show at Lehmann Maupin in Hong Kong until May 11.