Erwin Wurm’s art combines a deadpan delivery with mischief, often pushing the limits of absurdity while maintaining an ostensibly solemn tone. Wurm has an extensive international exhibition history, but “Désespéré” (“Desperate”), presented by the curator Patrice Duhamel at Galerie de l’UQAM, is his first solo exhibition in Canada.
This exhibition focuses on Wurm’s characteristically irreverent attitude toward categories, boundaries and prohibitions. His work presents commonplace objects in unusual circumstances, forcing us to throw preconceptions out the window. Freud’s Ass (2004), for example, consists of an oversized beanbag accompanied by instructions illustrating how one should “Stand on your head. Lean your legs against the wall. And think about Freud’s ass.” Such humorous directives are simultaneously serious, provoking as they do a fundamental aesthetic question: what is the place of theory in art?
Most of the pieces in the show invite viewers to actively participate in the work, and to consider the limits of the body in relation to the mind and to the idea of art. We are asked to think about digestion before a bottle of toilet-cleaning product, or to hold our breath while thinking of Spinoza. These humorous formulas draw attention to the reality of the body and cunningly problematize connections between inner workings and outward appearance.
Wurm’s strategy of using theory as a tool rather than as a rule is put to the test in Take your Most Loved Philosophers (2002), in which viewers stand on a pedestal, select their favourites from a pile of philosophy books and attempt to balance them between their legs and arms, using their own bodies as props and the books as mutual supports. This piece suggests a dynamic role for philosophy: no longer simply contemplative thinking, here it is thought made active, decisions made visible.
An often-overlooked aspect of Wurm’s practice concerns his use of text as a conceptual strategy. The inclusion of written statements in his work demonstrates how Wurm may be considered as much a descendant of Lawrence Weiner’s terse poetics as of Bruce Nauman’s performances. While Wurm’s art deliberately broadcasts an ambivalent attitude regarding the value of sculpture and philosophy, injecting humour both subtle and broad into these debates, it must also be noted that he repeatedly acknowledges how instructions and propositions provide the fundamental rules of engagement with art. Viewers are prodded to consider their role in a given artwork’s existence. This might seem most evident in Wurm’s One Minute Sculpture series (the famous Tennis Balls of 1998 is reinstalled here), but is equally true of photoconceptual works such as Freudian Rectification (2004), which shows a woman literally propped up from behind on the end of a broomstick.
Wurm’s continual evocation of philosophers and theorists—resin sculptures depicting Deleuze, Wittgenstein and Adorno are tucked in one corner of the gallery space— bring questions about the body’s capabilities into contact with questions about the agility of the mind; he inquires how we as humans ultimately writhe our way through the world. Wurm offers imaginative and aptly desperate answers to these existential questions.