Essay by Renate Stauss Erwin Wurm’s 59 Positions

Renate Stauss

59 positions. 59 sartorial sculptures. 60 frames. Morphed bodies in dress, concealed in jumpers, shirts or trousers. Not even “One minute sculptures.” (1). Twenty seconds to decipher the body within. It is as though the clothes have taken on a life of their own, bodies obliterated, secondary to their nature. The hierarchy is reversed: the jumper as sculpture, the body as material. The two are merged. Outside turns to inside.

“If I did not take off my clothes I could never see the inside of them, and it will in fact be seen that my clothes may become appendages of my body.” (2)

Dress shapes our bodies, makes sculptures of us. Capable of modifying not only the body itself in its proportions, but also our image of it and that of our selves, clothing shapes the self physically and psychologically. Our boundaries – both physical and psychological – are established by way of interacting with the material world we live in. Dress is a crucial aspect of embodiment and constitutes the way in which we learn to live in our bodies. Clothing is acting as a ‘second skin’ in establishing the border between the world and us, our inner and outer selves. And where else does the border between our body and the world run, if not along our skin where our clothes sit?

Erwin Wurm draws out the sculptural qualities of the human body. Yet, sculpture itself takes on different meanings in his work. Performative sculpture. As Michael Newton wrote, “To say photographs and videos are ‘sculpture’ is to say that what is implied in these modes of representation is not secondary to the object but involved in its very constitution, such that the object is now understood as performance (whether or not a person who acts or a performer is involved).” (3) Video-sculpture. Neither the positions nor the camera are ever completely still. Frames are often decontextualising, creating blurbs of bodies, plasticine people.

The viewer is moved between watching sculpture and an imaginary recreating of positions. One’s body is involved in the process, empathising with the distorted figures. Funny at first, surprising, bizarre, even beautiful and tragic at once. The bodies are trapped, struggling to remain in position, to stay sculptures.

(1) Wurm’s own series of instructed, do-it-yourself, replicable sculptural positions started in 1988.
(2) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge and Keegan, 1962), p.91.
(3) Michael Newton, “Photography and Video as Sculpture in the Work of Erwin Wurm,” Erwin Wurm (London: The Photographers’ Gallery, 2000), p. 8.

© Renate Stauss 2006

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