How an Author Grew to Love the Immutable Glory of Palm Springs
The travel journalist behind a lauded new biography of artist Peter Beard shares his personal vision of America's kitsch-laden, modernist mecca.
Country homes squeezed into wedges, cars that look like they’ve been inflated like a balloon, and sculptures created by ordinary people interacting with quotidian objects—the works of Austrian artist Erwin Wurm defy expectations. On this episode, Dan speaks with the smartly subversive talent about his famed One Minute Sculptures, how the Red Hot Chili Peppers were inspired by his oeuvre, and how a period of tragedy in his life marked a turning point in his career.
For more information about his latest show, “Erwin Wurm: Trap of the Truth,” visit the site for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
Erwin Wurm: You know you have to create your own world, and as I said, you have to create a brand to become successful. And the notion of sculpture was the tool for me to bring all the other techniques. So also, when I draw, I make sculptures. And also, when I make a video, I call it sculpture. And also, when I paint, I make a sculpture, make flat sculptures. So this was my tool to concentrate my entire world on the notion of sculpture. It’s a technique to concentrate and to focus on certain things. And it worked.
Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein, and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for nearly 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour for the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel, all the elements of a well-lived life.
Before we get started, make sure you sign up for our new weekly newsletter, The Grand Tourist Curator at either the link in my Instagram bio @danrubinstein or at thegrandtourist.net. You’ll get all the updates on the podcast, along with news and exclusive stories from the worlds of design, art, style and more. It’s my little personal cheat sheet to the world of The Grand Tourist, and I know you’ll enjoy it. So sign up at thegrandtourist.net.
Now, back to the show.
My guest on the program is one of the most fascinating sculptors working today. Imagine entering his latest exhibition, “Trap of the Truth,” at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in England and approaching a large mobile home you can walk inside.
The interior looks like an ordinary camper in kitschy retro decor, but there’s an elevated bunk bed of sorts and holes on the ceiling. You’re encouraged to climb up and awkwardly stick your legs outside of the holes in a precise manner. In doing so, you become one of the artist’s so-called One Minute Sculptures, where through precise instructions and a deft manipulation of the ordinary, you help him to create a sublime work of art.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, you find large outdoor sculptures of suitcases with dangly legs about to kick you in the ass or a car made from metal that appears to melt in the sun.
In this artist’s world, humor and seriousness meld together to reveal a higher truth, Erwin Wurm.
Erwin, born and bred in Austria, has provoked discussion for more than three decades with his work. Growing up with a stern police detective for a father in a conservative part of the country, our second such guest this season, actually, Erwin found a career where his art can rebel in a quiet way. His career took a turn during a dark period in his life, more on that later, and gave rise to the invention of his One Minute Sculptures.
He found fame with this participatory art form before the invention of social media, but cultural observers will remember his work being credited in the 2003 music video for “Can’t Stop” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the first video to fully credit an artist in such a manner.
While all of this sounds like it can be created by a frivolous guy, I found Erwin to be one of those pool cats who doesn’t take himself too seriously, but takes his work seriously indeed.
For those that want something to watch this weekend, I highly suggest his 2012 documentary, “The Artist Who Swallowed the World,” which follows him while he makes his art, including his now famous “Narrow House,” a replica of his post-war childhood home in Austria squeezed into something half the size.
I caught up with Erwin from his holiday home in Greece to discuss the disapproving gaze of his father during his youth, how he rebelled against the art establishment, what it was like to get a call from a rock band that would change his life, and the three words he wants written on his tombstone.
I guess I’d love to start from the very beginning, become somewhat of a legend of your early life is that your father was a detective and didn’t so much agree with life as an artist. I’m wondering, would you say that you had a very regimented childhood? Was your father a strict guy?
My father was a strict guy, yes, but he was also lovely at the same time, so I didn’t have a bad childhood. It was very different. And at that time, of course, he slapped me also and on the one side, on the other side, he was very tender and sweet. And the slaps, for example, at that time, seemed normal. Many years later, I’ve realized it was probably not so normal. But in relation to the time and the area and the country, it was very normal. So, as I said, I had a great childhood, and everything was fine. Let me say differently. Everything was fine until I confessed I want to become an artist. This was a big drama, and a big fight was going on then.
And when did you actually confess that you wanted to become an artist to him?
It’s funny. Relatively early because, first, I was very fascinated by art, paintings especially. Then one of my friends in the neighborhood, he became a painter. He became an artist. He was two years older. And he had long hair, and I loved it at that time. It was great.
And so, in a way, I liked what he was doing and everything, what he was representing for me. Young and wild and long hair and artist. Wow, this was something special.
So this was one of the reasons why I decided pretty fast I want to become an artist, but this was more on the surface. And I would say it was around 16 or 17. But it was a big thing because my father not at all liked it, and it was a big drama.
And when you were young, were there anything that… Did you like to draw as a child?
Yeah, I drew a lot. Funny enough, very little drawings with very small figures, very tiny maybe because we were living in a small apartment. And I also started to make little sculptures, little stones and silverware or metal wire, and I was combining these things together. And it was very playful, of course. And I had these little collections of little sculptures standing in front of my bookshelf, and also all these little drawings. Unfortunately, none of those pieces survived. I think my sister threw everything away later, but it’s okay.
And when you decided to go to school, how did you decide what to study and where to go?
Well, my parents decided. First, so I had to go to the normal… What is it called primary school in Austria? Volksschule. And then, I went to the Gymnasium, which, I think, it’s high school. But in Austria, it was nine years. And we got a fantastic teacher in the fifth grade who was very much into art. He was an artist himself, and he supported me a lot, and he also realized there is something, “The boy has maybe talent or so and definitely enthusiasm about art.” And so, for that reason, he became my protégé, my teacher. And it was great to work with him. And he showed me many things from the art history and artists’ books and things like that. And it was fantastic. His name was Norbert Nestler. I’m really very grateful for what he did. And unfortunately, some years ago, he passed away. And, yeah, this was fantastic.
And did you… Were there any artists, as a young man, that you idolized, you really looked up to?
Oh, yes. Oh, yes. At the very first, it was the surrealists like Dalí and Max Ernst. And then, there was, in Austria, a specific artist group which was called Wiener Phantastischen Realismus, Viennese Fantastic Realism. It was a little bit… There were surrealists, but let’s say the second row surrealists like Ernst Fuchs. Nobody knows him nowadays. And Lehmden and Brauer and all these people. And I was very fascinated by this hyperreality or surrealistic reality. And this tricked me in.
But then, pretty soon after this came, Picasso, I became fascinated by Picasso. And then, in a way, I made… Because I was also very much interested in art history, in old art, so I started also to like old painters, classical painters, like [inaudible 00:08:50] or many others, [inaudible 00:08:52] and Hieronymus Bosch. And then, later on, Rembrandt, the Italian.
So, in a way, I made a course through art history in my mind, and I liked many of these painters and… I was not interested in sculpture at that time. So it was mainly painting what attracted me a lot.
And then, I started to paint myself, I would say, around 15 or so. And I got oil paint and canvases, and I started to paint crazy things. And yeah, this went on very intensively, very intense, until we had to decide what to do because after then, what we call it, Matura, which is the master, I think, in the States.
I know it’s the end of the high school then you get the degree to pass to a university. And I wanted to study art, but my father said, “No, no. No way. First, you have to learn a profession that, eventually, later, you can become an artist.” He was hoping that I would forget my dream becoming an artist then.
So I decided because it was short to become an art teacher so I went into this art teaching academy, which lasted three years. And I studied art and German language, and parallel on the university art history and German language also
And this was going on for three years, and then I was finished, and then I became a teacher on a… What is it called? Teacher for 10 to 14 years old children. It’s called Hauptschule. I don’t know the equivalent in English.
Maybe like a middle school for us?
Yes. Right. It was a middle school, but I only was teaching for two weeks because then I had enough and I went to make the exam test to the art school. And I got in and everything was fine, so I moved to Salzburg. The second studies, my father was hoping, at that time, that I would’ve forgotten that I wanted to become an artist, but I wanted it very strongly and intensively, and I was very stubborn, so at the end, he said, “Okay, do what you want.” So, I went to Salzburg.
But funny enough, they didn’t accept me in a painting class. They put me in this sculpture class. And this was a big disaster for me because I was thinking, dreaming of becoming a painter, and going on with paint and canvases and all these great masters I was attached and I love, and then all of a sudden it was a big stop and the shock. So what do you do then?
And I was frustrated, first, and unsure, and didn’t know what to do. But then, after a while, I accepted the challenge, and I thought, “Well, take it as a chance.” And from that point on, I started to work and research on the notion of sculpture. What is it? What does it mean? Sculpture. What does it mean, at that time, in my presence, in our society, to make sculptures? What does it mean? Can I relate sculpture notion to daily life, to our issues, issues of the world, and things like that?
And at the time, when you were studying sculpture, what was the culture of sculpture like in school? What were your teachers teaching you sculpture was? What was that kind of understanding at the time?
We had a teacher. Let’s say, he had a classical opinion of sculpture. Of course, at that time, I’m speaking about the early seventies, mid-seventies, it was conceptual art, minimal art, pop art, and many other things where… Joseph Beuys was also there, and Andy Warhol and many others.
So there was a strong movement. And sculpture was very important and very strong at that time. And slowly, slowly, I discovered it for me. And slowly, slowly, I grow into this, and realized how wonderful, and how beautiful, and how great all the possibilities and chances I could do.
So everybody was influenced at that time by Marcel Duchamp, who was one of the most important figures in the 20th century about art. He started to use ready-made things which already existed he just transformed them and said they are piece of art now.
So all this background and all this history was very fascinating, and in a way, I could start using many things and everything was possible, and it was a great movement. And I loved it. I loved it, really. So this was the beginning.
And after school… I don’t know much about your early career before the One Minute Sculptures, and I was wondering if you could explain that period of your life and your work.
Sure. When I… I thought Salzburg is a great city, it is a great city, and I thought it’s a great art university. It was a bit provincial, and I wanted to run away and leave the city again.
And I took the chance, one and a half years later, to go to Vienna and to study with [inaudible 00:14:35]. He was very important and a very big teacher. He was involved in [inaudible 00:14:41] art and a fantastic rhetoric person. He could talk like you would read a book in a print version. He could talk in a print version. So it was really fascinating. He was mixing philosophy and art history and psychology and science
So it was a fantastic situation. We came together and we were discussing every week, several days, with all my colleagues, and it was fascinating and fantastic. And it was now, let’s say, ‘79.
And at the same time, when I came to Vienna and started to study in this academy, I met friends, and we had the first studio together. So I had a studio with three other people, so we were four. And it was good because I couldn’t afford to have a studio myself. It was not big at all. It was a hundred square meters, so everybody had 25 square meters, which is five by five meters. It’s really not big, but it was a space just for me, and I could have my things there.
And the good thing was also, under us, there was a carpenter, and there was a lot of old wood, what they didn’t use, and I was allowed to use this old wood. So as I had no money and… Nearly no money, I wasn’t able to buy materials, and I wasn’t able to buy machines and tools and all this. So I basically had to use, for my work, things I found in my surroundings.
So I started with these boards and plates, wooden boards and plates, from the carpentry and I just nailed these boards together and I created figures, kind of abstract, more or less figures. But I thought, also, at that time…
I’ve read a lot about philosophy and art history and art theory, and I thought… Somewhere, I’ve read that if you want to be successful in what you’re doing, you have to overcome your fathers. Basically, you have to kill your fathers.
And I thought my fathers was the art at that time, and the teachers at that time. So, it was pop art, minimal art, conceptual art, land art, and all the things. So, I started to do something very contrary to this.
So I started to make figurative sculptures in a very unusual way, I nailed boards together, two strange figures. And because I was still longing to painting, I started to paint these boards because I’ve also realized, when you mount or when you nail two-dimensional boards together, you create a three-dimensional object, which has, in a way, images or pictures. And because a board is more or less two-dimensional, it’s wide and long, but very thin.
So I started to paint these boards, and then all of a sudden, I found myself in this situation that I had painted sculptures, which fitted in this movement, which came up, at that time, which was called the Neue Wilden Malerei, a new painting or Transavanguardia, or… I don’t know what it was called in the states.
But anyway, we were all these new painters which popped up at that time like Julian Schnabel and David Sally and Keith Haring and Basquiat. And in Italy was the Transavanguardia like Mimmo Paladino, Enzo Cucchi, Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, who is a friend of mine. And in Austria, there were also a group and in Europe, there was the German group, Mulheimer Freiheit, it’s called after a district in Cologne, young boys, young painters, wild painters, Dokoupil and Walter Dahn and Peter Bömmels and so on.
So because I painted these sculptures, these creatures, what I did, and they were figurative, all of a sudden I fitted into this movement and I had the first success. A gallery took me, we sold pieces, critics were writing good, I got collectors, and it went on.
So I was on a train which was start to move quite quick. I finished my studies, was 28. So it was my second study. So for that reason, it’s so late. And then I could make a living already around 29 or 30. And I went on and I went on some years.
And then I realized, “Wait a moment, you do this…” Or I do this because of a certain reaction on something because as I told you before, I was reading I should overcome my fathers or the idea what others have, so I should do something else.
So the basis of my artwork wasn’t reaction on a certain opinion, and I thought… I was 30 at that time, or 29, I probably have still 40 or 50 years in front of me. And this is not a good basis to have a lifetime work with the art.
So I have to find my own theme and my theme should not be a reaction on a certain opinion, a reaction on a certain movement.
So I started to pull everything back and was trying to find the zero point of sculpture for me. It took two or three years. And ‘92, I came out with a new body of work and with my new ideas. And there it was, I decided to make really a research on the notion of sculpture with all its consequences, means from two to three dimensionality about mass and volume, about skin and surface, about time and material and many other things.
And then I tried to find an equivalent on our short living period we were living in. Remember Michelangelo said his sculptures could be rolled down a mountain and they still should survive 500 years.
And we lived in a very different area and a very different time, then everything was short living. Nobody was repairing things anymore. People threw everything away. So I thought, “I have to find an equivalent to this short existence or short period of time, of objects in our lives.” This was the one aspect.
The other aspect was I tried to find, to ask questions about our society, not questions like where do we go and where do we come from like in the past, in the sixties and seventies, and I’ve seen many artists dealing with these big questions, but they used the word pathos a lot. So they became big, important, impressive works where the spectator became very small in front of it and in a way pressured and in a way scared.
So I wanted to create something what makes the people levitate and lift up and look up full of joy and of fun and of enlightenment in a way. So I thought my method has to be different and I have to work about psychological issues like embarrassment and ridiculousness and our unsureness and all these things. And all these things became more and more and more important.
And in the documentary, The Man Who Ate the World, you explained that there was a shift, there was a eureka moment for you where you had a hellish year in your personal life.
That this somehow helped you break this romantic vision of suffering to create art.
Yeah, yeah. Because it happened to me that I met my first wife ’88, and soon after this, I got my two sons, Lorin and Michael. Lorin was born 1990. And Michael was born ‘92. I started to have all these shows and I was traveling around and I was not much at home. And so the marriage began to be problematic. And I think 1996, she left me, or ‘95, I don’t remember.
My father died ‘95 on cancer. My mother died one year later on cancer. And in between those two tragic moments, my ex-wife left me with the two kids. She went to Germany. She was from Germany, 1000 kilometers away. So big bomb. I was devastated. Not only…
It’s more or less normal to lose your parents because everybody loses his parents but still, it’s hurtful and it’s painful and it’s traumatic. But then at the same moment when your wife leaves you with the kids, this was devastating.
So I was not able to work for one and a half years. I went to therapy and I was depressed. I had a reactive depression. And it was really, really bad. I did not work at all.
Then after a certain time, after one and a half years, long, struggling and dark days, also the sun was shining, it was just horrible because I couldn’t see… I wasn’t allowed to see my kids because they were fighting for money and they were scared that it would bring the boys back to Austria.
And so for half a year I couldn’t see the boys at all. And then I could see them just for half an hour in front of the youth office. It was really traumatic. And they said the boys don’t want to see me. But then I involved the judge and they said, “Let’s ask the boys.” And the boys said, yes, of course I would like to see the father. So it was really traumatic and terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible.
Anyway, after one and a half years, I didn’t feel much better, but I could slowly start to think about work again. And I got an invitation to make a show in Bremen, it’s a German town. And I thought I would like to go there and try something out because I had this idea of short living sculptures with every possible material which surrounds me, because I’ve realized on my way, on my journey in the arts that basically everything that surrounds me is a possible material for an art piece.
In the past, remember it was marble. So some artists were living close to a quarry because where they could see the mountain was the marble, it was the Carrara marble. And my quarry was the world around me. Everything, what surrounds me, the phone, the glasses, the books, the table, the chair, the pins, everything was possible.
So I told this to the director of Bremen. I spoke about this, about my wish that I would not like to ship an art piece, but to come and try things out for the exhibition. I spoke with Mr. Giese, who was at that time, the director of the Kunsthalle Bremen. And he said, “Yes, okay, let’s do it.” So this was very courageous for him.
So I came 10 days in advance. They gave me a little apartment there. And I could start to work with all the materials I found there. And some employees, some people were working there for the [inaudible 00:28:39] and I started first to try everything out on myself. I made a video, it’s called the One Minute Sculpture video where I try all these things out.
And they were basically psychological phenomens about failing and about embarrassment, about failing and disruption and frustration and fun, and then lightning up into joy and going down into depression again. So it was an incredible weird mixture.
I tried everything out myself with the video. And then I asked the people who were working there, they were very grateful. They said yes, to help me and to be my model. So I made all these little sculpture creations with them. I asked them to take a pen in their nose and stand still or to put an apple on the head and stand still for 10 seconds just for the picture. And they did it. So I made, I think it was, I don’t remember 50 images or 55 images or whatever. And then I showed the images there.
And I was not sure if this was good art or not. I was not sure at all, but it didn’t matter because before my big drama in my life, I was very concerned that I would make good art because there was always this level of great artists and writers and philosophers. And I knew them all by reading them and looking at their work and discussing things with my colleagues, but I could not reach in a way, I could not be connected to these ideas and to them.
So I felt always outside. So something was missing and all of a sudden, because I did not care if it’s good art or not, I was there in a way.
And it was strange because on the one side, as you said before, I did not believe in this romantic idea from the 19th century that an artist has to suffer to be able to make great work. But it happened to me, not great work, but work. And I didn’t know that people would think it’s good work. So I was unsure.
And I remember I was only writing I think half a year in my entire life a diary at that time, I did it, and I found a note later which said, I don’t know what it is, if it’s good or not, I’m unsure. I have no idea. So I was very doubtful about this.
So anyway, we showed it. We made a little booklet, and boom, the booklet was sold out in three weeks. And all of a sudden, slowly, I got phone calls and people told me when they came, curators, “Do you know that in France or in the States, they love your work?” I had no idea about this. So slowly something was going on, going on and growing and growing. This was the beginning of the One Minute Sculptures, yes.
Yes, and I gave them the name because I wanted to create a brand name because you have short living sculptures. What do you do with this? You have to give them a name because you have to make them, how can I say? Effect in the art world. Because short living sculpture is very ephemeral. So I had to really brand the name to make it exist in the heads of the people. So this One Minute Sculpture was a great idea, yeah, and I went on with this.
And if I had to ask you, how do you define the… What is a One Minute Sculpture today? How do you define that?
It’s a sculpture. Actually, it’s an action between a person, a spectator, and an object. And the different possibilities. I make instruction drawings. That’s one possibility that you just read the drawings and imagine the piece in your head, or then there’s the photograph because first I thought the pieces are so ephemeral and there’s nothing what’s left for the art markets, and I need to sell pieces. And if I cannot sell pieces, I cannot make a living and nobody will remember me because ideas are fading out quick. So I made snapshots from the One Minute Sculptures from the short living sculptures.
But the real sculpture, the real piece is mostly a plinth or a platform or a pedestal with a drawing on it, with an instruction drawing, and an object and then I invite the people to step on the plinth or the platform, follow my instructions, and realize the piece for a minute. It can be 10 seconds or two minutes. Does not count. It’s short.
And the One Minute Sculptures take off. And at some point, the Red Hot Chili Peppers music video Can’t Stop happens. And at the very end, it credits you as being the inspiration. But did you ever communicate with them at all-
… or collaborate with them, or no?
Sure, sure. No, they called. Mark Romanek’s office called. Mark Romanek was the video director who made… He was very famous at that time. He made big pieces, epic videos for, I don’t know, Janet Jackson and The Rolling Stones and I don’t remember all the big names. And then he called me and said, “We would like to use your One Minute Sculptures for the piece of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.” And I said, “Of course. Great, fantastic. But I want to be credited.” They paid me also very well and I got credited.
And you know what? I think I was the first artist who got credited on MTV because I’ve seen many MTV videos and so many-
So many people, directors stole from the artists, not mentioning them. All these crazy ideas came from somewhere. And many of these ideas came from the art world, from artists.
So I got credited, this was big and great, and the video was played up and down, and I got invited because of this basically to many talk shows and so on.
Was that a major one like a turning point in your career? Did that help with the rest of your art or…
It was one because all of a sudden… What I always found, the art world is important and it’s great, and you need galleries. To work with galleries is very important for the career. And to have museum shows is even more important. But it goes together. And to have big group shows is important. But I always found I also want to go out with my work into the public, outside the art world, outside this restricted area anyway.
And what is a contemporary space for art nowadays? It’s the mass media. It’s magazines, it’s TV at that time and the internet. So when I started with the One Minute Sculptures and I’ve realized pretty soon after that people started to steal my ideas and to use them. Fashion photographers, advertisement photographers, fashion designers, all of a sudden came up with my ideas and made them their ideas. So I had to do something about this, otherwise it would’ve taken away from me.
So I started to make… By the way, there was an advertisement for Gap, the store Gap in the States. And I looked at it, I saw the images, and I thought, “Ah, that was my images.” I didn’t even remember when I did them, but they looked so familiar that I was very surprised.
So I started to go forward and I got many invitations from all these magazines to make shootings, but never advertisement, but shootings One Minute Sculptures for the public. So I made many, many. I made the Vogue and New York Times magazine and in China and in Japan and in Asia a lot, and in Germany and [inaudible 00:36:38] and so on and so on.
So I made all these One Minute Sculpture shootings to bring the piece outside to the world that the people would realize, “Oh, it’s Erwin Wurm who did it.” And I think it worked out quite well because now there’s many people realize, “Yeah, that’s your piece.” Even if it’s not done by me.
And have you come to any sort of conclusions about where these boundaries are over time now that you’ve done this so many times? Has your… Have you come to any ideas about where this has gone?
My conclusion is also, with the One Minute Sculptures, I have to be very strict with this because my work is sometimes very close to the [inaudible 00:37:19], to the fun, and I do not…
I’m not a joke teller. I want to work about the absurdity of our world and sometimes, the paradox and these aspects which are very intriguing to me and my work is a tool to lead the spectator and myself into this direction because I’ve realized when we look from the perspective of the absurd on our world, we see more the reality because in our normal thinking hides the real reality.
But this, I wanted to say, I have to be very strict with this because it’s so close to the banal and to the absurd. I have to be strict and I have to monitor it. So the One Minute Sculptures, I only wanted to show in museum contexts. I always ask the people, “If you perform One Minute Sculptures, please do it as if you would perform a yoga exercise. Do it with consciousness, do it with awareness, don’t laugh, don’t giggly, don’t play around. Do it like a yoga piece.”
And then all of a sudden it becomes a yoga piece or it becomes something similar. It becomes more… People appreciate it more because… and I got so many invitations from galleries or people, they make parties or concerts, “Oh, could you make a One Minute Sculptures for this party and could you make a One Minute Sculpture for that birthday or for this thing?” I always said no, because I wanted to keep it clean and only in the museum context to make it worth, to keep it special, and to keep it on a certain level. And this was most important.
Yes. No, because that answers another question that I was going to say about humor and trying to draw that boundary. This brings up another concept about these notions of humor, about the world of exhibitions and the art market. And in the documentary, you said a few things that I thought were some of my favorite lines, that the art market is like a hyena, both evil and good at the same time, and then a gallery, exhibition are like amputations, you can only see part of the work, which I thought was-
Yeah, it’s true.
… Kind of genius. Kind of genius.
These exhibitions and your interactions with the actual mechanism of the art world and the way that the industry works, has that gotten easier for you over time to put on exhibitions in a gallery or anything like that?
There is something… There is this world, it exists in English, industry. If I would say I work for the art industry in Austria and Germany, they would kill me because this is something very different than what artists believe their work for. We don’t work for an industry, we work for ourself. And we work for eternity and we create ideas which above every level of mercantilism and far away from things which could be bought and could be paid by a lot of money.
But that’s the fact. So we produce things and under some circumstances and under some conditions that become very valuable and very expensive. And you have to live with this because as I said when…
And it’s actually so true, what I said, it’s like an amputation because the galleries always wanted to show the new things because they want to sell. And that’s important that they sell because then we can live and we create.
I’m so happy that I’m able to live a great life, but great life means for me to be able to create all my crazy works and I can travel around and I can make many exhibitions and show my work all over the place. And that’s fantastic. That’s my great life. And I’m so thankful for that.
But this has certain rules. So in the gallery, you show new pieces. In the museums, you can bring different pieces, different groups of pieces together and try to work on the content that people see, “Ah, he’s not only making this and this and that, but he creates a whole universe, which fits together in a way.” Because when you work more than 20 years, when you work 30 years, I really work now 40 years nearly, yes, I work 40 years, that’s a long time, then you have created in a way a certain universe. And it’s a system and it makes sense.
And when you show an exhibition here and an exhibition there of only new work, mostly it doesn’t make sense so much because you don’t see that they’re all connected, that they’re all come from a basic idea or from a basic idea line, basic line of ideas. So this is most important. Yes.
And when it comes to the Fat sculptures, where was the genesis of that? How did that kind of… Because it of course deals with this concept of a second skin or the boundaries between the person and the environment, but where did that begin?
Yeah. Then I do not call them Fat anymore, Fat sculptures because we live in a time where we have to be-
Oh. Oh, you don’t? Okay.
… very careful with these words. And I call them now Big. So the Fat Car is now called Big Convertible.
Oh, okay. Big sculptures.
Yeah. Because the word fat in German means something else. It was never about obesity.
And it was, by the way, never an insult on obese people.
It was with the boys I come… My father was a policeman, as I said, and there was not much money. So I was not a middle class kid, I was a lower middle class kid, and we had no money. My father drove his scooter, which was not a great car. But there were all these rich guys with the rich cars and those cars we called them the fat autos, the fat cars, because they were big and important. This was more about the wealth, the fatness, you understand? It’s a strange-
Right, right. We would sometimes say if someone had a lot of money or… We call them like a fat cat.
Exactly. So we call these cars fat cats.
So it has this connotation. And it was never the fat people and so on.
But on the other side, it’s about changing volumes. Also, because I’ve realized when I model something in clay or when we model something in clay, a figure, we add volume or we take volume away. When we gain weight or lose weight, we also add volume and take volume away.
So one could say gaining or losing weight is a sculptural work. So makes us all the first sculptors because we’ll work on the sculptural issue because we cannot lose weight constantly. But this is just for the understanding the structure of what is a sculpture, what is a sculptural work.
And then what’s also interesting, gaining, changing volumes changes content because we all know a slim person and an obese person is viewed very differently from the public with all these strange issues and circumstances. So these were things where for a certain moment were interesting in my work for me.
I’m wondering, has anyone ever asked you to create a design object like a chair using your Big sculptures as inspiration?
No. I got asked and got invitations to think about a Big chair and so on, but I never did it because I think it would not help my work. I’m working with a lot… I work a lot with architecture also because I believe… I love modern architecture and modernistic architecture and design and so on. But I can’t tell you why.
For example, I use design a lot in my work for the drinking sculptures. So I use these tables from the fifties and sixties and I make a hole in it or I cut a leg off or whatever. And then it’s a performative piece, which is mostly dedicated to one of the big artists who were drinkers because I’ve realized that the art world is drinking, the pop world is taking drugs. It’s a generalization. Maybe it’s not true anymore, but it was in the past.
It’s about the excess and the craziness because when you spend an entire day and an entire life in the studio, you have to go out at one point and drink yourself nearly to death because you need the access.
So I started to create these drinking sculptures, but I only used furniture from this period, and I thought about why do I use only these furnitures from this period and then the answer popped up because I think it’s the first democratic design which was ever made. It was in the forties, fifties before it was dedicated and related to a very different society.
For example, when you look at the Austrian big designers like Adolf Loos or Hoffman and Otto Wagner, they were great designers, but it was still very traditionally designed which was related to a bourgeois society or a noble society which was related because Austria-Hungary was a monarchy for 700 years. And the only mass-produced furniture started afterwards.
Thonet made mass-produced furniture, but they were made for the upper class and not for the working class. But this switched around then interestingly. So that’s the reason why I use these furnitures. Yes.
And even though you have these large conceptual umbrellas, there’s also the very humble gherkin or pickle that shows up in your work a lot. Sometimes very small, sometimes very large. Why the pickle? Where did this come from?
First, it’s a little bit has to do with my history because my history pops up always in different works like Narrow House and Police Cap and so on. When I was… Until my fifth year, my sixth year, I was with my grandparents, not with my parents, and my grandfather walk every day with me. And when I was a good boy and I was good at the walk, I got a benefit afterwards. I got a pickle or a sausage. So that’s where the sausages come from. So it’s this benefit first.
And second, I was always intrigued and always fascinated by basic forms like potato. There are millions, billions of different potatoes. The forms, there’s not… I would say there are not two potatoes which have the absolute same form in the entire world, and there are billions of them, but immediately you recognize it’s a potato. And the same with the pickles. And the same with the sausages. So it’s this basic form of our world, which is fantastic, which I love to work with. I also work with potatoes.
And then the last reason, and this reason popped up later, is that it reminds us on a certain male body part. And we are the male in a way brought our world into this dramatic position through the history because it’s a male run history since ever. And here we are, our world is in a very bad condition. That’s us who made it. It’s the male who made it. So I make fun about the male part.
That brings up an interesting question is the idea of… Well, the pickle looks like the male body part, but also looks like the eggplant emoji on an iPhone which is used slang. And today with social media, things like the One Minute Sculptures take on new meaning, which you brought up before about asking people not to laugh and to take it seriously, but you have no… In the end, in a public institution or anywhere, you really don’t have… On social media, you don’t really have that control.
No, you don’t.
However, this interaction with the public seemed to be almost built for social media, but you did it way before social media started. Do you think that social media makes us more connected to the everyday, which is one of the reasons for the One Minute Sculptures, or are we too connected?
I’m not sure if social media connects us to the everyday. It connects us to the exception of the everyday because everybody’s showing off. Everybody’s pretending. Everybody is its own actor. So I think it’s something else.
But with the One Minute Sculptures, I think I said it at the beginning, I make an instruction drawing and invites the public to follow my instructions and realize the piece for, let’s say, they should put an orange on the head, I never did that, but let’s say it’s a piece, I put an orange on their head. So if the people come and they play around with the orange, they can do whatever they want, it’s fine, but only if they put the orange on their head, it’s a piece of mine. So it’s open. Otherwise, it would be dictatorship. So they have the choice. Either if they want to realize a piece of mine or do whatever and play around it. It’s also funny and it’s also great.
And what is your… It’s a better way to ask this. Is your work in general a comment on society in its total?
I believe so, yes.
Not in any specifics piece?
No. I believe so. Yes. I think absolutely. Because I work a lot part of consumerism and then I work about architecture, how…
The big things like architecture is defining our world, it’s defining aesthetic levels in different countries, in different areas. It’s a social question, a gigantic social question. Housing is for the public and for the people and not only for the rich one. It’s big questions. And I’m very much interested in these questions.
And also with other terms, the whole shopping mentality and consumerism, this is very often a theme in my work, and philosophy and psychology. Yeah, yeah, I think…
But I’m not a political artist because I made several pieces about politics. I made a piece about George W. Bush and some others. But I have to confess that these pieces are bad. And I had the feeling if I bring politics into my work, it makes my work dirty in a way, and I don’t want that. So I work about general issues and about our society.
But I’m more interested in the questions, what do I eat tomorrow and what do I address tomorrow and not into the questions where do we come from and where do we go.
And at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, a show that I believe is up now, and we’ll probably still be up, hopefully, by the time this comes out include some new One Minute Sculptures. And I was wondering, and some abstract environments as well, also, your Narrow House is there also, I believe.
How is… Is the “Narrow House” something that you’ve… If you transported it to different locations, or do you change it at all as you move it around? Or how has that worked?
This Narrow House I’ve made first for an exhibition in the Ullens Center in Beijing. It’s a museum in Beijing. I think I did it 2007 if I’m not mistaken. And first, it was a reaction on a certain situation because it’s a gigantic museum. This is really huge. You wouldn’t believe. An artist had an entire train with locomotive and all the wagons and so it was 20 pieces gigantic…
And they invited me for the show and I got the three small rooms. So I felt insulted in a way. And they gave me one very, very, very thin and long room. And I said, “It’s ridiculous. What shall I do?” And then I decided I want to show how they treat me. So I wanted to show the world that they squeeze me. So I thought, “What can I squeeze? A house would be good, but which house?” Because I wanted the people go inside because only when they go inside you have this claustrophobia feeling immediately.
So I decided the only house no good is my parents’ house. So I made a copy of my parents’ house and then all of a sudden the whole history knocked on the door and said, “Wait a moment. When you make this house which was built in the sixties, you make a book about Austria, about a certain society. Still post war society.” And this was so exciting. This is the outcome.
So you see this house from a certain period of a certain country on a certain time which was a post war society. The Nazis were still hidden somewhere in ministerial jobs and it was a rigid life. Everybody was body shaming, everybody… This is just unbelievable how it was.
And so my “Narrow House,” when you go into the house, immediately, you feel this claustrophobia, suppression, and this narrowness. And this reflects societies. Doesn’t mean that we don’t live in… Our societies are better, but still they’re narrow and still maybe they’re too narrow.
And when you were talking about the house and talking about the constrained environment that you are in, do you think that the society that you surround yourself with now, even with all of its consumerism, is it better or then things were in the past, or do you think society is getting… Is the general arc improving over time or-
… is it getting worse over time?
Frankly, I think mankind do not learn a lot from history and from the past. We always forget the important facts and make the same mistakes over and over again.
And maybe it’s what Alighieri, Dante, who wrote the Divina Comedia, what he was mentioning, our world is hell and the different circles of purgatory and all down. But I think if we accept this, then we understand it better. It’s how we are. And that’s called maybe human being.
We’re all a big disaster and we cannot remember things, but we have to fight. We have to fight for certain things, which is so important. For example, democracy is such an important invention and democracy… But democracy only works if it’s a balance of all the different heads and ideas and opinions in a state.
And that’s most important that the balance is upright, that the balance is working. If the balance is not working, if one group the far right or the far left or the greens or the blue or whatever becomes stronger, advanced to dictate their opinion to the others, then it’s a drama.
So we really have to keep on going to keep this balance to include all the opinions and all the ideas to make our societies work. And for this, we have to work constantly, I think.
And what’s next for your studio? What is the next—
Work, work, work. I go back and I’m full of excitement to work. Next year, we have… The next three years are basically booked out with shows and I have a lot of new ideas and I have a lot of works going on, a lot of production and… Exciting.
How many ideas and works do you think you have in your head or on the drawing board at any given time?
Many. There’s a Greek saying… I met recently a woman. She told me about her parents. They had so many sheeps and she said, “They had so many sheeps. You want to know how many?” I said, “Yes.” “Many.”
If I asked you to write the… We say like an epitaph on your tomb in the graveyard, when you pass away one day in three words, what would you say?
Keep on going. Keep on going. It’s keep on going. Three words. Yes.
Thank you to Erwin Wurm, his son, Michael, and everyone at his gallery, Lehman Maupin for making this episode happen. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, don’t forget to visit our new website and sign up for our newsletter, The Grand Tourist Curator at thegrandtourist.net. And follow me on Instagram @danrubinstein. And don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen and leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Til next time!
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