'Stand West', 2007
'Outdoor sculpture Taipei,' 2000
'Adorno was wrong with his ideas about art,' 2005
There could hardly be a better introduction to the works of Erwin Wurm than this extensive exhibition produced in collaboration with MUMOK in Vienna, the Ludwig Forum in Aachen, the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg and Lyon's Musée d'Art Contemporain. Ascending the staircase of the museum to its formal gallery, the visitor meets several of Wurm's 'Mind Bubbles', vast rotund blobs of Styrofoam sitting gravely on the landing, each snugly encased in a made-to-measure cotton cardigan. They may be clad in pastel shades, but rival the Ferdinand Hodler soldier hanging above them on the wall for gravity. Beyond these gatekeepers the exhibition spans from the late 80s to the current day, including innumerable One Minute Sculptures on video and in photographs, other photography series including Instructions for Idleness and Taipei Outdoor Sculptures and the marathon film Stand West, an eight hour portrait of a man making like a statue, and not doing very well. Wurm returns again and again to humour and the absurd, and delights in reducing solemnity to silliness, be it by instructing his collaborators to stick pens up their noses, or by presenting New York's Guggenheim melting into a glutinous puddle. A few spare rooms house boards of mdf with instructions scribbled on them inviting the viewer's participation; their grubbiness testifies that this does take place, though hopefully not many obey the instruction included in the installation Adorno was wrong with his ideas about art to lean against the surface, concentrate and fart. Unsurprisingly young visitors' giggles are to be heard throughout the gallery while older art anoraks smirk at jokes like the abstract canvas realised by stretching another mammoth t-shirt over its surface.
Being funny has obviously not hurt Wurm's popularity; he is a very successful artist. However, too many laughs make his work problematic to the hackneyed viewer. Once we've 'got' it, what more remains? Some of his object works retain the gaze and imagination longer than a minute, but few of the photographs have the same effect. This is the point at which we are in danger of throwing out baby with bathwater - of course it's disagreeable to find works in a gallery which don't stand up to close inspection, but to abandon the work there is to not give it due consideration. Outside the confines of the gallery an inundation of shiny, aspirational snapshots sell everything from nappies to life insurance; we read them, take in their message, pass by and absorb some element of each of these uninvited teachings innumerable times each day. But it comes as a shock to find an image that portends to have the same immediacy in a museum. Wurm's deeper critique is, however, much more guarded than his off the cuff dismissal of Adorno; he presents us with a new series of leitmotifs which confound expectation, but avoids overtly shocking so they are not rejected out of hand. One such play occurs in the work Two ways of carrying a bomb, in which a figure's trousers and jumper conceal a lumpy protrusion. The work is from the series Instructions on how to be politically incorrect but the impropriety slides under the radar thanks to obvious humour; without being stentorian, Wurm challenges the tacit societal rules of what is acceptable and what we should emulate.
Erwin Wurm: The artist who swallowed the world
Until 12 May
Kunstmuseum St Gallen
9000 St. Gallen, Switzerland
T +41 71 242 06 71