In London, an art collector once told us that Erwin Wurm lived in a suburb of Vienna. Well, that’s not quite true. Let’s call it a place outside of Vienna. This is where the successful international contemporary artist has retreated in order to be able to work in peace and leisure. 80 kilometres outside of the Austrian capital, in the middle of nowhere. But, to be geographically correct, we should add that Wurm lives in a fabulous designer loft in Vienna and spends the summer days with his family at his house on the Greek artists’ island of Hydra.
But now once again back to the vicinity of Vienna. To call the estate a house would surely be a significant understatement. When the gates open, we enter a proper Wurm ensemble, consisting of various houses, eight halls, impressive gardens and the historical 16th-Century Castle. It quickly becomes evident that Wurm enjoys combining art from different centuries – if you briefly only focus on the Gothic elements featured in the building, you immediately discover a large picture by contemporary painter Francesco Clemente and quickly think of the wild art times in New York in the 1980s. Wurm and Clemente know each other well, and Clemente still works in the studio where Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat used to be frequent guests. Clemente has just finished a portrait in oil of Elise Mougin, Erwin Wurm’s wife, in New York. The eclectic interior design extends through all of the rooms and demonstrates that Wurm collects pieces by his colleagues and enjoys correlating them with his own pieces. Hanging on a centuries-old wall, we discover a picture by Austrian painter Maria Lassnig, where a cold, light-green colour dominates, as well as an interesting piece by Martin Kippenberger and diagonally opposite a grotesque figurative head by contemporary artist George Condo and an Ada by Alex Katz. Last, but not least – a Karen Lerner by Andy Warhol peeks out reservedly from the wall among all the design classics by Jean Prouvé and Charles and Ray Eames.
Wurm works here with his team, including his son Michael, who has just graduated from the Vienna University of Economics and Business. This is where his exhibitions for all the national and international museums and galleries are planned. Wurm is an meticulous person who places great value on precision and punctuality. His mindset is clear, filler words are quite unfamiliar to him, his gift for observation is quick and his reaction time is extremely swift. For many years now, he has been surrounded by renowned gallery owners, ingenious curators and interesting art collectors. His pieces can be viewed in numerous museums. Stephan Berg, Director of the globally respected Kunstmuseum Bonn, has known Erwin Wurm for many years. We spoke to him about the artist’s new sculpture and Erwin Wurm as a person.
PE — When did you begin to observe Erwin Wurm’s work intensively?
SB — That was in the early 1990s. At that time, I was the director of the Kunstverein Freiburg and very interested in artistic positions that question and break the conventional boundaries of genre and media. Wurm’s work, which was somewhere between sculpture, action and performance art and experimented back then with such ephemeral materials and topics like air, dust or gaining or losing weight, fascinated me from the very beginning. It was also because he negotiated not only formal, sculptural issues in his pieces, but also existential and socially relevant subject areas. The intensity of the talks that I had back then with Erwin Wurm in Vienna later led to a highly concentrated, almost minimalistic exhibition at the Kunstverein Freiburg in 1995.
PE — A couple of years ago, you curated an exhibition about Erwin Wurm’s pieces. How did you experience Erwin Wurm as a person during the preparation time?
SB — The exhibition took place at the Kunstmuseum Bonn in 2010. The fact that I worked with Erwin Wurm again after 1995 is due to the fact that his work had developed in an extremely dynamic manner in the meantime and opened completely new horizons. During the entire planning and implementation processes, Erwin was extremely concentrated and precise. What fascinated me in particular was his ability to put together rooms so that they offered a completely new experience. At the same time, he was also very open for my considerations as a curator, though, so the final exhibition really reflected the result of true dialogue.
PE — The first association that you have when you experience his sculptures is often amusing. How much cynical critique do the pieces hold?
SB — I wouldn’t describe Erwin Wurm as a cynic, but rather as a melancholiac. Wit is only on the surface behind which the piece unfurls its true subject matter. Everything that is grotesquely deformed, everything that swells, softens, fattens, stuffs itself or dissolves, is actually a single metaphor for a world driven by consumption greed and inner adiposis, for the sheathlike being and fragility of our social exist-ence and the impossibility of a free, self-determined will. When doing so, Wurm refers virtuosically on the one hand to traditions of readymade and objet trouvé and of performance and conceptual art and not least to Viennese Actionism, which he interprets in new ways on the other hand.
PE — What is also new is his series of sculptures called Dissolution. How can these pieces be categorised?
SB — I wouldn’t call it an entirely new way, but more of a consistent further development of his range of topics and formal language. The relationship to our body and senses, by means of which we perceive the world, remains just as incorporated as the factor of grotesque deformation. What is new is that Wurm reduces the sculpture to some extent to its elementary foundations here. To the factor of a first schematic, plastic basic formation, as it was embodied in the classical Bozzettis, which is at the same time connected to a pictorial treatment. What we see is therefore an interesting hybrid between a spontaneous draft and a valid piece.