West Bretton, Wakefield, U.K.
“Trap of the Truth” (on view through April 28, 2024) surveys 30 years of Erwin Wurm’s career, with more than 100 works situated throughout YSP. Wurm is one of Austria’s most celebrated artists, his works unmistakable for their disruptive playfulness and incisive humor. The exhibition title refers to the famous statement made by the 17th-century philosopher René Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.” According to Descartes, doubt in one’s existence constitutes proof of existence. The very act of thinking, therefore, demonstrates the reality of the mind. Within this concept of reality, however, lies the thorny issue of deception, which adds an additional layer of complexity. In Wurm’s practice, the distortion and disruption of familiar objects can be seen to alter orthodox notions of reality, offering alternative readings with regard to the material objects and spaces that define humankind.
Wurm’s particular fusion of familiar, yet unrelated forms triumphs in YSP’s grounds. Step (Big), a five-meter-tall pastel blue couture handbag on spindly legs, strides confidently across the grass, while Dance and Trip, a suitcase and a briefcase, also on legs, appear to run while performing high kicks. The three pieces (all 2021) explore Wurm’s preoccupation with run-away consumerism and the status acquired by certain objects, with an obvious nod to the wealthy elite. They are overlooked by the homely form of Big Mutter (2015), a four-meter-high orange hot water bottle wearing sensible slippers, standing at the highest point of Bothy Garden. Big Mutter’s reassuring stockiness offers a splendid contrast to the flighty legginess of the other works. The juxtaposition is a definite highlight of the exhibition, as Wurm’s imagination runs riot, unrestrained by gallery walls.
Various suited, headless figures also reside outdoors, placed at strategic viewing points in the landscape. Big Kastenmann (2012) has morphed into a box, which becomes a torso, clothed in a formal jacket and tie and held upright by an anonymous pair of legs wearing socks and shoes. Devoid of trousers, the figure exudes a strange vulnerability. Big Kastenmann has literally been consumed by fashion, and its haplessness embodies the folly of consumerism and society’s expectations of propriety. In Big Suit 2 (2010–16), Big Disobedience (2016), and Avatar (2022), the body is entirely removed, leaving only the outer shell of clothing intact. Sited near shrubbery and trees, these figures make for an unnerving spectacle, their unearthly presence heightened by the dappled Yorkshire light. Another group of three works—Gate, Right Arm Lift, and Lars, Arm Lifted (all 2021)—takes the theme to an extreme, with just a fragment of the human form remaining, defined by a thin membrane that separates the space inside the sculpture from the air around it.
Austrian food items, such as the gherkin and wiener sausage, are reinterpreted as phallic totems throughout the exhibition. The Underground Gallery hosts works from the “Attacks” series (2022) in which oversize sausages, set atop bronze and aluminum buildings and cars, seemingly squash the very structures that support them. Small-scale sculptures on plinths, the “Attacks” acknowledge 19th- and 20th-century thinkers, including Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Eminent individuals are frequently memorialized by their houses, but the slapstick quality of these works appears to satirize this approach. In other works, full-size vehicles are adapted in a manner that recalls animation and comic strips. Renault 25 (1991) was rebuilt on a tilt, as if swerving around a corner at immense speed, while Truck II (2011) reverses effortlessly up a wall into the ceiling. Both are ingeniously clever and fantastically entertaining, offering audacious and thrilling moments of sheer drama.
Over the course of his career, Wurm has consistently subverted material objects, such as cars, buildings, clothes, and food, and his absurdist, experimental approach calls into question our preoccupation with these things. In “Trap of the Truth,” he has created a farcical, invented reality that interrogates consumerist, capitalist beliefs. After all, materialism implies status, and status induces dominance, yet, in a world where everyone feels entitled to dominate, only instability and conflict can ever ensue.