Interview: Erwin Wurm on his Humanoid Sculptures

Erwin Wurm likes to distort forms. Over the years, he has slimmed down houses, fattened up cars, and used his own body to redesign the shape of furniture. “A lot of my work is about destroying one thing to create another,” the Austrian artist says of his process.
One of his latest series, Stone, continues this exploration by setting small rocks on a pair of legs, giving a twist to the expression “carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders”.
The small humanoid sculptures recall the Hypnosis series Wurm created in 2008, when Wurm used potato-like shapes to form the torso and head of a body in a highly polished aluminium finish on top of legs, in a contrasting matte finish. In the Stone series, the shiny aluminium potato shape has been replaced by a rock covered in greenish moss. Each work has a distinct and expressive personality due to the treatment of the white acrylic resin legs (variously posed, either standing, running, barefoot, or dressed).

Inspired by German philosophers and their different approaches to dealing with the world surrounding them, the work implies historical baggage. “Germany and Austria also have this heavy weight on their shoulders, from the first and second World Wars,” Wurm explains.
Throughout most of his career, the 64-year-old artist has focused on expressing philosophical concepts of time, freewill, and absurdity through his sculptures. His most iconic series, the One Minute Sculptures, which was first conceived in 1997, focus on the notion of time and the absurdity found in mundane actions we perform everyday.
With these sculptures, Wurm invites a person to create a unique pose with an common object (a fruit, a pencil, a chair or a bucket) and photographs them in that pose. The short-lived sculpture requires the participant to follow a set of precise written instructions that is usually supplemented by an explanatory drawing created by the artist to help the person enact the simple yet awkward pose.
“Stand on your head, lean your legs against the wall and think about Freud’s ass” was the instruction for one. Others have been created by balancing bottles of detergent on toes; holding a banana in a strategic location; and balancing a chair on one eye (a visual trick involving laying under a suspended chair).

For Wurm, who has “one minute forever” tattooed on his arm, the actual time frame is not important — “it can be one minute, it can be 15 seconds, the one minute is really a synonym for short,” — but he’s hoping the participant enacting the sculpture will become aware of time passing by and reflect on their own experience of becoming an artwork.
Though the One Minute Sculptures are often described as surreal, Erwin believes they are closer to the absurd: “I think Surrealism is something else because Surrealists like the big picture and it’s full of drama, in the same way as Viennese Actionism. I’m more interested in the marginal drama, the little embarrassment and the ridiculousness of the everyday. Of course there is an element of Surrealism, but also, I look at reality from a different angle. I call it absurd.”
While Wurm initially developed the photographs of his One Minute Sculpture series as digital C-print, he has now changed his focus to large (80 x 56 cm) polaroid prints, which give the photographs a painterly quality: “With C-print you can make multiple copies, and I didn’t like it. So I gave up photography for 12 years, until I met someone who had a huge polaroid camera. It’s very cumbersome to use, it take three men to work it, but it takes less than a minute to develop and the photographs are totally original,” he says, adding “Yes, you can take another photograph, but then it’s something else. With a polaroid each work is truly unique.”
 A longer version of this article was first published on