Buch Big

Erwin Wurm im Kunstraum Dornbirn

Erscheint anlässlich der Ausstellung "Big" im Kunstraum Dornbirn (11.07.-16.08.2020)

Texte: Bazon Brock, Gerald Matt

Übersetzung: Jonathan Uhlaner


Kunstraum Dornbirn, Thomas Häusle

Verlag für moderne Kunst

Wien, Österreich


104 S., zahlreiche farbige Abb.


Seite 18-32 im Original

Distorted to the point of truth:

Erwin Wurm, scout of the history of caricature from Leonardo to Picasso, Kippenberger and beyond

The announcement of the “Wurm Art Project in St. Stephen’s Cathedral — The Long Night of Churches 2020” is an acme of the image reading art. It proclaims: “Strangely distorted and deformed sculptures by Erwin Wurm invite you to reflect on your own limitations in the interior of the cathedral [...]. Deformed objects and buildings open up new perspectives on the power and possibility of our renewal based on faith.”

That’s true! Distortion awakens the desire for perfection, deformation for formative power? In any case, so far, to the best of my knowledge, nowhere else has the renewal of faith through the power of destruction released by the perception of works of art been invoked in such a way. In 1942, while in American exile, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter described the effects of economic capitalism as “creative destruction”. Can his concept be unfolded in such a way that the creative lies in destruction? Or does destruction as dissolution create space for the new? Or should we assume that the destruction was not intentional but rather occurred as if by an earthquake and that thereafter reconstruction would have to begin? Is the new, in contrast to the old that is to be re-placed, creative as such? According to the announcement of the Wurm exhibition in St. Stephen’s, the new would be creative because it arouses in us the desire for the old, for healing, for the true and the beautiful, because the old is transfigured through our memories.

The memory of the lost certainty of God, the lost homeland, the lost greatness of art inflates what-has-been into the ideal of faith in order thus to renew. In the particular case of renewing the belief in art and the religion of art: “Natural in its indecency, which no superficial ritual religious courtesy can overtake.” (Erwin Wurm in the Cathedral). That is to say, the salient offensiveness of the objects of art religion makes sense, for it is naturally evoked by the doubt as to whether individual artefacts are actually able to promote the belief in art beyond the ritual courtesies of the feuilleton and the innovative cant of advertising. This, you see, is dialectic, namely precisely the doubt about the power of concrete works that makes the belief in “art” wonderful beyond all reason – as wonderful as the auction prices between 100,000 and 100 million dollars indicate.

Only those who despair of works of art can also believe in art. Religious doubt about Christ Pantocrator, ruler of the world, as he is usually portrayed, with all-seeing eyes, in the triumphal arch before the chancel of church buildings, cannot be overcome but only reinforced when Wurm presents a gigantic PullOver in the cathedral behind the altar whose format invokes the childlike idea of the Redeemer, the Saviour, as a superman blown up to colossal proportions. Wurm thus caricatures sharply and unmistakably the evocation of the unity of throne and altar, which many churches still commemorate in special or tombs that murmuringly mystify former temporal rulers as patrons of the clergy.

This addresses the central idea: caricature as the mediation of the true through the false, of healing through the broken, of the beautiful through the ugly, of good through evil. In 1957, the young Austrian art historian and museum director Werner Hofmann characterized this fundamental condition of human speech, thought and action in his landmark volume Caricature from Leonardo to Picasso: images and texts develop truly subversive power only from a hundred-and-fifty per cent, that is, destructive assent to asserted truth claims. Since the mid 1960s I have been describing this as a strategy of subversive affirmation or negation of negation as affirmation, which is why the action teacher, action painter and action musician identify themselves as “NegAffen”, negative apers. The leading figure of caricature at that time was the compressed German Federal Minister of the Interior, Hermann Höcherl, who announced that one couldn’t walk around all day with the Basic Law under one’s arm. Meaning: anyone who tries to enforce literally a guide to a happy life, a worldview or religion or some other moral principle is destroying precisely what he intends to achieve. Even those who take the pure morality of revolutionaries or women’s associations literally would soon end up contradicting themselves, for pure morality can be enforced only through impure power. And so the principle cancels itself through its radical observance. How convincingly Wurm uses these connections for his work is shown by his willingness to associate it with the presentation of the “Biedermeier” painter Carl Spitzweg at the Leopold Museum in Vienna. For the Biedermeier period was not ruled by honest men (Biedermänner); on the contrary, whoever wanted to bypass Metternich’s political censorship and make a subversive political, social statement in public, disguised himself as a harmless conservative. And what can visual artists today propagate as subversive? Precisely the doubt about art through works that question themselves.

“If the world appears to be a rational context of meaning in which the beautiful takes the highest place, you experience everything low as comical, everything everyday as grotesque – the caricature must then ultimately present itself to you as a dangerous violation of the rules and a provocative contradiction; in short, as a kind of excess of the imagination, as the Encyclopaedia of 1751 has it. [...] It was only in the nineteenth century, when romanticism, especially in France, no longer rated the expressiveness of the ugly and the nondescript as a mere curiosity but rather as a symbol of a certain level of existence, that Baudelaire perceived a diabolical, deep and mysterious trait in the caricature. [...] The caricature, originally a counter-art outside the aesthetic normativity of academies, becomes a work of art in the sense of a positive, meaningful expression. [...] It exaggerated what had until recently been considered ridiculous, and now found itself side by side with the diabolical and the grotesque, equipped with demonic and satanic power. [...] (The Austrians!) Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Ernst Gombrich have introduced completely new points of view into this discussion [...]“. (Hofmann) (1)

These new points of view refer to the role of the questioner, the asserter, the provocateur; for, as we should say today, there is no pictorial representation of negation, or for the subjunctive, or for the future perfect tense. Such linguistic performances are fundamental for judgments that are thereby justified. Caricature, as a unity of distortion, fragmentation, deformation, exaggeration into the grotesque or into shifted perspective, not only compensates the aforementioned basic disadvantages of pictorial language; in its economy of communicative means, it outstrips any literary possibility of producing a similar effect.

In one respect, Wurm calls for a particular “effort of the concept”, namely to distinguish caricature from today’s common understanding of comedy, which 120 years ago, in the form of cabaret, was still the bearer of all subversive, anarchic, rebellious and freedom-loving criticism of asserted truth claims and their validity. Initiated in the major cities of Europe, especially in Vienna, Munich and Berlin, cabaret became largely commonplace in the cartoon style and thereby neutralized by becoming an established part of the entertainment industry. The subtleties of irony and laconicism were lost in provocative slapstick. Caricature, with its smirking approval, had and still has the merit of resisting neutralization into shoulder and thigh-slapping jocosity or transformation into an effectively recitable joke.

In Wurm’s series of fat houses, cars and people, the achievement of caricature becomes clear, an achievement that cannot be translated into the cringingly innocuous effects of comedy such as are displayed in many daily afternoon TV shows. Because in the logic of capital-driven consumerism, under the civic duty to consume, fat people or things, which continue to assimilate themselves to the former in XXL formats, are not signs of an uncontrolled drive structure but still religiously worthy sacrificial victims. Imagine if the “stuff” produced industrially in incredible quantities were not removed from the world through consumption. The bringing-into-the-world through production must, logically speaking, always be matched by the bringing-out-of-the-world through consumption. With food, throwing away partly succeeds as consumption through natural decomposition. Stouter objects require acts of violent cancellation through destruction (the historically most successful model for this has been war and is currently demolition).

Wurm’s “fatty works” pay tribute to obese people, who today already make up around a third of the population, as sacrificial victims of the consumerist commandment and as heroes of the extensive food supply that must be disposed of through consumption. Imagine a ritual honouring fat people as martyrs of consumerism in Wurm’s sense, in which we would recognize an anarchist or at least a rebellious resistance to the postulated beauty norms of product propaganda-carrying models.

[Fig. p. 7] Everything OK? (2), we wonder, in view of Wurm’s current exhibition in Dornbirn. Does the pathos of sculptural design caricature by removing material? Wurm caricatures Michelangelo’s famous non finiti by releasing them from the stone. Only the ideal negative imprint of their bodies is permanent. In the objects of the Weapons series [Fig. p. 37 – 39], also exhibited at Dornbirn, the users’ psychological reactions are likewise inscribed, whether sexual desire or the trembling of a sweaty hand on the colt. At the same time, they make clear that all instruments, weapons, everyday objects are used, in McLuhan’s sense, as an extension of the natural human body: extended arms, extended eyes, extended extremities or outsourced organs. This becomes evident only in the visual language. In a certain way, Wurm’s work transfers theoretically gained art historical or aesthetic knowledge back to the original objects of sensory intuition. This has the advantage of contributing reflection, intellectual appropriation and critique of the lifeworld to the objects’ transformation and no longer leaving this to mere external literalization. Thus Wurm’s work actually gives rise to the unity of thinking and form, of assertion and criticism, of objectification and virtualization – to an orientation to both physics and metaphysics.

How high Wurm’s formal ideal of deformation to the point of recognizability is to be reckoned, also in a scientific connection, may be seen in more than just the artist’s methods of empirical investigation through dismembering, grinding down, colouring, grafting and changing proportions and relations; no political scientific or universal historical analysis and effort of description equals the expressiveness that lies in these caricatures of the historical facts. The collection of political caricatures from recent centuries gathered in Aby Warburg’s former library by Martin Warnke, one of our most important art historians, proves that the creation of knowledge through caricature is not only superior to scientific presentations in its economy of communicative means, but also that it adheres to one of the ancient Greek hierarchies of the arts – namely, that the real meaning of great myths, tragedies, religious convictions and demonstrations of profane power becomes recognizable and assessable only through the satires, parodies, paradoxes and caricatures that follow them. It is tragic, and at the same time grotesque, that in this respect it has not been understood why Hannah Arendt judged precisely major Nazi perpetrators to be quite ordinary people. It is just the inability to distinguish between programmatic pathos and the commitment to humanity that is common. This is the mark of malice, brutality and bloodlust out of sheer stupidity, which is banal because it was and is evidently produced by evolution itself with great constancy. Enduring this is possible only through deforming, distorting, truth-releasing caricature. The “banality of evil” was and is one of the most potent caricatures of the inhuman, unbearable truths of historical events.

(1) Translated from the German by J. U.

(2) The German expression is Alles in Butter? The pun cannot, alas, be reproduced in English. J. U.

[Fig. p. 7 = Erwin Wurm, „Butter“] 

[Fig. p. 37 – 39: Erwin Wurm, „Director’s Wife“, „Colt“]