By Farah Nayeri
For the next five months, an orange freight truck will be standing on its head outside the Austrian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Visitors are invited to go up the stairs to a small enclosure at the top, where labels on all sides read: “Stand quiet and look out over the Mediterranean Sea.”
The upturned vehicle is the brainchild of the artist Erwin Wurm of Austria, whose works are designed to elicit amusement but also straight-faced contemplation. Mr. Wurm is co-representing Austria (with Brigitte Kowanz) at the Biennale through Nov. 26. He also has works on display at Art Basel (at the Cristina Guerra, König Galerie, Lehmann Maupin and Thaddaeus Ropac booths).
The truck piece is “a memorial to think about what’s going on, and to focus on this dramatic situation of the Mediterranean Sea,” said Mr. Wurm, 62, in an interview at the pavilion. Casually attired in an orange windbreaker and laceless sneakers, the artist occasionally pulled on mirrored sunglasses.
Mr. Wurm said his Venice piece was a way of highlighting the stark contrast between the enduring myth of the Mediterranean as a place of bliss and its day-to-day reality: the misery of those living on its rim, and the perils they endure to escape that misery.
Over the course of his career, Mr. Wurm has become known for sculptures that are to be interacted with, as performance works. His pieces, while ironic, are meant to convey a deeper metaphysical message.
“To see the sculpture on the basis of humor is legitimate and allowed, because this is what Erwin Wurm evokes in the first step of the experience,” his gallerist, Mr. Ropac, said in an interview. “But it is so much more about tragedy at the same time.”
The underlying message is often lost on audiences.
Inside the pavilion, Mr. Wurm has recreated the body of work for which he is best known: “One Minute Sculptures,” first performed in 1997. Visitors are instructed — via sketches and inscriptions — to strike poses with the objects on site.
The pavilion contains a mobile home with holes in its sides through which visitors are to insert an arm or a pair of legs. The message next to the arm cavity reads, “Touch the world.” A small suitcase in the next room, which visitors are asked to sit on, is marked with the words “Drift away.” Yet viewers giggle at the performers and seem to ignore the messages.
“I feel quite often misinterpreted,” Mr. Wurm said. “People think it’s funny and it’s nice and it’s hilarious and it’s a party, and we can make jokes.”
“One Minute Sculptures” gained global notoriety thanks to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ video for their 2002 hit “Can’t Stop.” Band members posed with boxes, buckets and water bottles, crediting Mr. Wurm.
Since then, countless imitations of the work have cropped up on the internet. So the artist has limited exhibitions of it to museums and institutions. “Otherwise, very quickly it would have faded into something very stupid, and nobody would have been interested,” he said.
Why was he chosen to co-represent Austria at the Biennale? “His art is easily approachable, i.e., non-elitist,” said Christa Steinle, the pavilion’s curator, in an email. Ms. Steinle said she had known Mr. Wurm since the early 1980s and curated a 2002 show of his work. She said Mr. Wurm had made a “globally recognized” contribution to “sculpture as a form of action.”
Mr. Wurm, born near Graz, started painting and drawing at 7 and kept going. “As a teenager, I was smoking and I was into girls and driving mopeds,” he said. “Besides that, I started to really work intensively. My father thought it’s just a stupid attitude which will fade away, but it didn’t: The motorcycles faded away, but not the rest!”
Mr. Wurm’s father, a policeman, insisted that he learn a profession, so the young man qualified as an art teacher at university. He later moved to Vienna, hoping to study painting, but was admitted to the sculpture department instead, on the strength of his submission: a university courtyard filled with earth.
It was not a discipline he liked. “All these sad, dramatic, black sculptures outside museums,” he recalled. “I was into color.”
He decided to do his own thing. He made classical sculptures — of figures standing, swimming or on horseback — using pieces of wood, discarded by a carpentry workshop, that he then painted over. They earned him his first commercial success. But he gave them up four years later, when he was 27.
His next creations were dust sculptures. The artist placed an object on a surface, sprinkled dust over it, then removed the object to exhibit the residual imprints. As these imprints were made of dust, they quickly disappeared.
His first real art-world breakthrough came in the early 1990s, when he started working with clothes. He piled on sweaters and garments, covered his head and struck bizarre poses that he recorded on video. He then made another man wear his entire wardrobe, turning him into a bloated human sculpture. Eventually, he wrote instructions for sweaters to be hung on nails and given sculptural shapes.
To Mr. Wurm, the human body — with its capacity to fill a sweater, occupy space, gain or lose weight — is a sculpture in itself. It is also at the core of his practice. He gives objects humanlike attributes.
His “Fat House” and “Fat Car” are life-size objects that are pudgy and flabby and look as if they have put on too much weight. His “Narrow House,” exhibited during the 2011 Biennale, is a structure so slim that one person can barely squeeze through it.
Because of the ephemeral nature of much of Mr. Wurm’s work, he “may not be the easiest artist to market,” Mr. Ropac said, adding that Mr. Wurm also produced photographs, drawings and sculptural objects that are collected. The Pompidou Center in Paris, for example, owns some 30 photographs of “One Minute Sculptures,” Mr. Ropac said.
Ultimately, Mr. Wurm’s career seems one big rebellion against what he described as the overwhelming “pathos” of Austria in the 1950s and ’60s.
“I think pathos makes people small, and presses them down,” he said. “I believe in other things which make you levitate, or which lighten you.”