Erwin Wurm, Trendsetter
Written by Madeleine Leddy
Erwin Wurm's sculptures are not meant to last for posterity. At least, not in their concrete physical form: he has become known for his One Minute Sculptures, participatory works of art that are immortalized only in photos or videos. The Sculptures can occur in any location of Wurm's choosing: from exhibitions in museums, sometimes, such as during his 2016 showing at the MAK Center in Los Angeles, where Wurm set up props and backgrounds for visitors to interact with; to scenes in the street that Wurm stages himself and captures on camera.
The bodies of Wurm's sculpture-participants are contorted and posed in unstable positions, and a glance at any of his photo records gives the viewer a sensation of falling, unfurling, along with the subject. They invite the viewer into the action, all while preserving the single moment of unnatural composition.
Since Wurm's work lives primarily on a photographic record, it is natural that his aesthetic has become a source of inspiration for photographers — perhaps even more so than it has been for other mixed media artists, sculptors, or performance artists. If photography is becoming a medium of the masses, photographers who intend to make art need an approach that distinguishes their work from the everyday. The Wurm approach provides just that; and it appears to be taking hold among the next generation of portrait and art photographers.
Arielle Bobb-Willis, an emerging New York-based photographer, thinks of her compositions—which often feature people—as sculptures, like Wurm does. In an interview with Metal Magazine, Bobb-Willis described her process—setting up a scene and directing her models—as "interactive." Her colorful compositions—which still sometimes have a sinister character to them—are clearly staged and yet palpably alive. This kind of contrast takes a kind of contrived, contemplated balance that not every Instagram-snapper of her generation has the time or ability to achieve.
There is evidence that even more established photographers have taken cues from Wurm. Take Viviane Sassen, for example: the rising Dutch star incorporates extraneous clothing items and bold colors into a great deal of her portraiture, capturing her models in gravity-defying poses that, like Wurm's sculptures, could only plausibly hold for a minute. Her recent editorial work for POP Magazine, in a series called Formes—the French word for "shapes"—Sassen captured "sculptures" composed of clothing, props, and the bodies of her models themselves.
It is hardly surprising, given the trend among visual artists to take cues from Wurm, that his work may also be inspiring a movement in the fashion world. Paris-based fashion photographer Chloé Gassian, for one, has cited both Wurm and Sassen as influences in her work in an interview with Éditions Pyramyd. Gassian's editorial and campaign work—even for mainstream clients, such as Lacoste—incorporate elements of the living-sculpture trend, where Wurm has always been at the forefront.
Wurm's ephemeral sculptures speak volumes about the way we consume art—and especially photography—in the 21st century. "I was always trying to think what a sculpture could be nowadays, when everything is so short-lived and constantly changing," he said in an interview with The Quietus. The evidence of his influence is plenty, and will likely only grow in abundance as young photographers look for ways to distinguish their work.