Beauty Business, an installation by Erwin Wurm designed especially for The Bass Museum of Art, opened during Art-Basel Miami Beach 2011 and closed March 25, 2012. It is his first exhibit on the theme of home and dwelling, pulling together sculpture from continuing threads of previous investigations with new work to create an environment in which we can "dwell", i.e. experience a "contemplative lingering" and become more aware of our own thoughts and ambivalences in response to the contradictory ideas present in the work[i].
The installation wends through various areas of the museum. At either end of the long switchback ramp to the second floor, which fills most of the nave-like core of the museum, the walls are covered with pinkish knitted fabric made on a knitting machine. Part of the loose theme is building/architecture as body. Wrapped in a sweater the cool formality of the building is to be transformed into something safe, homelike and warm. The idea pushes the Sweater Sculpture series concept of clothes as skin/covering to an architectural scale. However, the knitted fabric doesn't appear as a sweater pulled over the walls. The fabric is glued flat like wallpaper and the wall surface peeks through each tiny, pasted-down, knitted loop. The added putative sweater necks and dangling, tubular sweater-sleeves knitted into the fabric are not enough to create a push-pull of cool to warm.
The prelude to the Drinking Sculpture, which occupies the open gallery on the second floor right before the gallery room, is a pedestal at the top of the ramp with three pairs of men's white briefs each pulled over an irregularly rounded lump of urethane foam. The attempt to disarm (disleg ?) the viewer sets a low bar. While underwear as a sculpture material may amuse, the sculptures are not more than what they are, an unfinished thought. Hoping for better, I proceeded to the open gallery, perhaps to be warmed with a sip of whiskey or wine. The press release describes the Drinking Sculpture as a bar. Viewers are asked "to engage" and complete the sculpture by finding liquor/wine stashed in cabinets of lightly sculpturized household furniture, and drinking until inebriated to achieve enlightenment, or at least have ambivalent thoughts, about art and alcohol consumption, and/or closet drinking in the home.
Many of Wurm's performance sculptures, including this one, have the character of party tricks. His One-Minute Balancing Sculptures have gained some notoriety. In one, a person leans on a stool whose legs are pressed to the side of a wall, for at least a minute. Another documented on the web shows small household objects carefully balanced on a man's head that has felt tip marking pens sticking out of his nose and ear. Lampshade hats are no longer sufficient. It's probably good these sculptures are brief.
One of the Drinking Sculpture cabinets is tilted from upright to table height with added legs. A viewer may step into leg holes made in the cabinet 'table', and standing akimbo, drink until enlightenment is achieved. Probably, the drinker would need assistance climbing out. There was no danger of a drinker getting in or out when I was there because all of the cupboards were bare. Neither dead soldiers, nor fresh bottles were stocked, disappointing viewers who followed magic marker arrows and scribbled instructions on the veneer to find them. Instead we viewers had to settle for a small video screen, showing glittering guests performing drinking and schmoozing at the reception, set in one of the sculpture cubbies and wallpaper pattern repeats of the artist's head with foot in mouth and drinking from a beer bottle photo-shopped into heavy-metal, gaudy color on a wall with explanatory text. The wallpaper only enhanced the juvenility of the work. The text made the connection of stashed bottles to Wurm's boyhood action of hiding a comic book in different places in his bedroom. It is this comic book that provided the title of the show, Beauty Business[ii], and that plays into the peripatetic nature of the installation.
Part of the charm of many of Wurm's performance sculptures is that most anyone can perform them, and that not all of them (for example the one where Wurm tried to balance his prone body on the edge of a 1x2" plank) are successful. Opening cabinet doors to empty cabinets isn't charming when the press release instructs that you will find something. The unanimated sculpture array doesn't charm and neither does watching the small video of people at the opening reception drinking. Maybe the documentary photographs I found on the web could be/are art, but if viewer activation is what counts, then the empty stage set should be struck. The performance shown as a video in a darkened cubicle might be more interesting.
Next after the patio gallery area, in the gallery room, a giant, bulging House was originally to dominate the room. It would have connected thematically to the other parts of the show, including the group of small House and Apartment Tower Sculptures on the first floor, seen first by those who took the elevator and later by those who walked the ramp. The large house is made of styrofoam sections covered with a double-knit, neutral-toned cloth skin on the outer face. The softened: appearance could have related to the body/skin/covering conceit, and with some further stretching, to the sweatered walls. It is hard to imagine that a giant styrofoam House would have the cartoonish allure of the small bulging House sculptures that have a presence inherent in the weighty materials used to make them. Little Big Earth House ( 2003/5), part of the first floor group, is made of silver-plated bronze and has a cuddly aspect due perhaps to its teddy bear size. A guard explained: although the giant, styrofoam House was created for the exhibit, it was too big to assemble in the gallery. Instead, the sections are dispersed about the gallery as weightless boulder with the bulging cloth side, more or less suggestive of ample body parts, and the other cut styrofoam sides showing. Two sections, just inside the entrance to the gallery, are pushed together to mimic a craggy arch that can be walked through if you duck, an easy party trick. Unfortunately the arch doesn't rise to the promise of a geological phenomenon or a triumphal archway whose scale connects it to the architecture of the museum (architecture and body). Instead the scale is middling, the perception is that something is missing. Sculptures on pedestals scattered among boulders include some Sweater and Apartment Works. Any whisper of house as body is lost: people gravitate to the small sculptures.
The Sweater Works are skeletal-skin sculptures. Their armatures, braced 2x4" lengths that jut out like tree branches, are overstretched with clothing skins, a sweater, a hoodie, etc. They steal the show. The interesting new shapes invite comparisons to pulling on a sweater overhead or a hoodie. The press release states that the clothing thereby "loses its historicity" and exists abstractly in the immediate present, but there is no getting away from personal associations. I overheard viewers talking about pulling on their own favorite sweaters or hoodies. One laughingly said he didn't know he was making art every morning. Other sculptures mixed in are based on simple reversals. For example, a winter coat has been cast in bronze and is no longer soft or warming. It is titled House II. The Apartment sculptures are buildings reduced to model size rectangular forms with slight window impressions. Each is manipulated in some way; the lower third of one is stretched and pulled to one side into an L-shaped base; another, in the first floor group, slumps into a pyramidal base.
The House series developed from Fat Cars that Wurm visualized from the verbal expression, Fat Cats. The cars have well-fed, bulging cartoonish silhouettes that are biologically based. Shaped in polyurethane and styrofoam, they have a lacquer finish[iii]. I haven't seen them in person, and wonder if they, like the giant house, suffer from a lack of apparent weight. Wurm has made other amusing car sculptures too. One was fabricated to look as if it was careening around a corner. With more exaggeration, or a different size or material they might hit an additional chord, something more than amusing. The most beloved of fattened art, Botero's large, amply exaggerated figures, mostly female, are humorous and they also have extended resonances of warmth, love, and plenty embedded in their forms, sustaining multiple viewings. Time will tell whether Fat Cars and giant bulging Houses will sustain repeated viewing or whether like Happenings, their anecdotal history will be their strongest legacy.
The second floor gallery left many viewers scratching their heads instead of lingering. They felt the show was half-baked. An artist from Brooklyn remarked only on the nice cantaloupe color of some of the second floor gallery walls. Strangely, the installation looks good in photographs while in real time, it is as if the sculptures/elements have just been unloaded from a moving truck, and put down here and there, to be arranged later. The difficulty may be the attempt to incorporate too much of The Bass Museum building into the desired gestalt, within budget. The cost of yarn thick enough to pull off the building wrapping would be considerable. Wurm has created other more arresting installations[iv]. Unfortunately, many of the gambits at the Bass were not quite successful. Wurm's notion that artists intuitively play on/with the contradictory feelings that rise from an innate human instinct that both attracts us and repulses us to various things, mentioned in the press release, may be a key. This is a strong visceral response usually only elicited by extreme conditions. The superficially Bad(Cool) posturing such as the in-your-face wallpaper, underwear pieces, and possibly magic markered veneer and the suggestive boulder faces are too luke-warm, not repellant or attractive enough. The overall impression of Beauty Business is neutral to so what, with the exception of the Sweater Works, which have an engaging directness.
Wurm's true strength may be as a performance artist whose give and take with the audience, like a stand-up comic, is in real time where one-liners have significance. His art practice[v] might best be thought of as Festival Art, a descriptive used by Peter Scherydahl for the zeitgeist of the 1999 Venice Biennale "environmental stuff …, existing only in exhibition".[vi] Scherydahl explains that Festival Art developed out of the quest for non-commoditized art resulting in art for the experience of crowds at art fairs and museums.[vii] Festival Art encompasses work that has a lighter impact, broad appeal, and performative aspects. Some of Wurm's best work is performative. In One-Minute Sculptures and Drinking Sculpture he offers a quick punch line rather than extended, contemplative viewing. Wurm's ambiguous approach sits comfortably in this genre, even to the extent that Wurm travels for exhibits around the art world; as Scherydahl predicted, there would develop two kinds of artists, those who come to know airports and international fairs, and those who stay at home.[viii]
At the 2011 Venice Biennale Wurm's contribution was a walk-through Narrow House, a recreation from memory of his family's Austrian 1960's home. Looking down from the Accademia Bridge over the grand canal in Venice, Narrow House looked like a cute toy on a small green lawn beside the grand Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti, home of the Institute of Sciences, Letters and Arts where contemporary glass art was on exhibit for the event. The view amused many who saw it and enticed them to stand in line to see inside. I walked through in October, and surmise that the experience was enhanced by the great crowd of people in the opening months, funneling into a single file line to the entrance. Stepping inside would bring momentary relief, confounded in the next moment by the fun-house narrowness and impeccable 60's style in every detail. Besides the "Oh look a narrow teacup", narrowness brought no greater experiential impact. Hezekiah's Tunnel, underneath the City of David (before 701 BC,) dug to bring water to the besieged city is the most striking experience of narrowness. It begins as a rectangular tunnel whose walls narrow towards the center (where the diggers met in the middle,) closing in, compressing mould-like, to the size of the men digging against time. The form reflects the bending and twisting of digging and hauling buckets of stone, limitations and amazing achievement.
The Narrow House, on the other hand, is a work of "maximal means for minimal effect".[ix] It took a lot of work to make all the furnishings. Generally art is art because of multiple resonances embodied in the object/event. If, as in Beauty Business, the artist wants to leave the experience open to viewer interpretation, then, there still needs to be some touch that makes the thing come alive. Meanings can be invented[x], but to ring true they need to rise from the work. Not all experiences or objects have potency. Potency is where the art begins. My curiosity waned halfway through the house. Is the view from the bridge enough? Like Drinking Sculpture, Narrow House needs action to be complete, the crush of a crowd, maybe a video component, … claymation salamanders or gondoliers in narrow boats?
An interesting aspect of art, especially installation art that is fitted to the particular site, is how the experience changes in each venue. Beauty Business travels to Dallas Contemporary in Texas where it will inevitably present a different experience April 14 through August 19, 2012. To have the full impact, be sure to go to the reception.
[i] Bass Museum press release about Beauty Business.
[ii] I wasn't able to locate a copy.
[iii] Wurm has made other car sculptures, a car mounted on the outside front of a building, etc. Humor is time-based art and, like political art, is a difficult genre.
[iv] see images at lehmannmaupin.com.
[v] Art practice, a relative to medical practice, includes a broader scope of activity than being in the studio.
[vi] New Yorker Magazine, Peter Scherydahl, Festival Art, July 5, 1999 http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1999/07/05/1999_07_05_085_TNY_LIBRY_000018558#ixzz1nmiwAMOG "This Biennale marks a principled stand for a worldwide archipelago of institutions that are crazy in love with installations. I call it Festival Art: environmental stuff that, existing only in exhibition, exalts curators over dealers and a hazily evoked public over dedicated art mavens. The Biennale’s director, the veteran Swiss impresario Harald Szeemann might be said to have invented Festivalism... Installation art…".
[vii] Rather than in galleries which would be commercial. See note ii.
[viii] See note v.
[ix] A phrase applied by artist Luciano Penay to artworks that use more effort than is warranted for the expression.
[x] Two force fit meanings could be: how beautifully, perhaps unwittingly, we create self-imposed limitations, or, design culture is a narrow vision of the good life. But neither really ring true.