Rebecca Catching

Of Body, Beauty, and Buildings
关于身体,审美和建树

By Rebecca Catching

A catalogue text on Erwin Wurm.

The two dust-grey suits, which stand between the Shangri-la and the Trump International Hotel and Tower seem to fit right in amongst the high-flying financiers of Vancouver’s financial district, but unlike the businessmen who stride confidently down the street, Erwin Wurm’s sculptures are distinctly off-balance, punching and reeling as if engaged in a scuffle. Nearby stands a third suit sculpture sliced in half, and in front of it, a small, abstract, version of New York’s Flatiron Building melting slowly into a pool of water—a dystopic vision of the real estate, capital, and gentrification which have shaped Vancouver’s downtown core.

The striking Renaissance revival building, built by American architect Daniel Burnham, once served as a place-making icon for a nondescript neighborhood in New York; real estate agents named the area Flatiron District hoping that the distinctive architecture would sell apartments. Burnham, of course, was also well known for his work on the Chicago World’s Fair which would become a template for the City Beautiful Movement.[1] Central to its premise was that beautiful architecture and orderly urban planning could shape the life and attitudes of city dwellers. A container for urban life, the city became a rationalistic panacea for urban ills. Wurm’s Flatiron offers a response to this reductive thinking, a kind of sad admission of the failed promises of its maker.

The idea of containers and bodies is echoed in Wurm’s suits which are worn as livery, to symbolize fealty to a certain civilized social order. The two dueling suits in Big Disobedience (2016) were inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849), but rather than fighting against an unjust government as Thoreau proposed, Wurm’s suits are merely battling each other, betraying the civility of their coded dress. In fact, much of Thoreau’s writing centered not on how to be patriotic or civil, but how to sustain oneself, whilst living a life free and unsullied from the corrupt worlds of government and commerce.[2]

Artists are of course quite familiar with this kind of moral calculus, of having a “day-job” whilst pursuing creative goals at night. “Half-Big Suit,” speaks to this bifurcated identity, with a severed torso attached to a leg jutting out at a right angle—a cross between a sideways goose step and a yoga pose.

This strange posture(ing) also relates to Wurm’s critique of the traditional Greek ideal of sculpture (which was, of course, re-booted during the Renaissance), as seen in his earlier work, the One Minute Sculpture series. Wurm replaces the idealized human bodies of antiquity with flawed actual human bodies, contorted into bizarre poses: balancing their heads atop two tennis balls or lying down sideways on a 2 x 4 board until they inevitably fall off. Here we see how the body is used by art, pressed into service under the command of a genius artist, conductor or choreographer—acts of “silly sculpture” which bring the inherent power structures of the art world into stark relief.

Vancouver-based artist, Mike Bourscheid, known for his humorous and whimsical creative practice, offers a reprise on the themes of classical beauty, labor, finance and disobedience in his performance, “Ledgers”—ledgers being the books in which financial transactions are recorded. Bourscheid has a personal connection with the financial district, in that he is occasionally employed hanging artworks in corporate office towers. The performance is conducted by three female mezzo-sopranos who perform a madrigal (a Renaissance Era form of polyphonic music sung by two or more singers). The lyrics were composed by Bourscheid and Vanessa Brown, set to music by female composer Robyn Jacobs, and the work is performed by Emily Millard, Emily Cheung, and Hillary Ison—the gender ratios of the group offering a rebuttal to the male-dominated world of finance. Bourscheid presents us with a portrait of the precariat—the blue and white-collar workers which toil behind the scenes to enable the existence of art: “Black tie cigarette air,” “stars cast from balconies/ After the parties of the rich,” the “rolling chairs” and the “lean muscles of the blue-collar workers,” “hoisting valuable sculptures.”[3]

The performers wear hand-sewn, custom-made uniforms[4]—matching grey androgynous coats, which carry footnotes to work jackets and military uniforms—fitted with puffed sleeves on one side and kind of foam musculature on the other; they are strong and protective and bisected like Wurm’s half-torso-ed man, but whole in that they symbolically embody both genders, and also both white-collar and blue-collar labour.

Wearing rubber boots, the singers slosh through the water which surrounds the sculptures, carrying metal acoustic megaphones (the metal cones used by directors), reminding us of the role of the art workers tasked with carrying out the vision of a genius. Megaphones are also, of course, a tool of protest, and here they serve to amplify the voices of the performers in a complicated choreography of speech and silence, where the singers hold round “stoppers” to the end of the megaphone, to block and then release the voice of their fellow performers, an act which brings to mind the debate of “amplification” strategies women use to gain traction in the workplace.

The megaphones are supported by elaborate metal scaffolding, anchored to a foundation on the performer’s chests, and secured with leather straps evocative of bondage wear. In contrast to the military-industrial overtones of the costumes, the music itself sounds like the sort of refined choral music often heard in churches, which evokes associations with patronage and power which rose to prominence in the 16th century.

As the piece progresses, the smooth, glassy surface of the rising and falling voices is punctuated by sharp upswings in pitch, shouts, and yips, unbefitting to such aristocratic melodies. At one point, the singers repeat the words “we work” over and over in a kind of assembly-line rhythm which gnaws through the seductive beauty of the music. This persistent chant, this work hymn, reminds us of just how little has changed since the Renaissance where wealthy patrons, supported artistic geniuses, whose armies of nameless apprentices produced the works which now adorn the walls of institutions such as the VAG.


[1] Many principles of the city Beautiful Movement were integrated into Vancouver to varying degrees through the Bartholomew plan. From Fresnoza, Paolo, “The City Beautiful movement – urban design and moral well-being,” Vancouver Public Space Network website, (last accessed December 17, 2019, http://vancouverpublicspace.ca/2016/02/04/the-city-beautiful-movement-urban-design-and-moral-well-being/)

[2] Madison, Charles A. “Henry David Thoreau: Transcendental Individualist.” Ethics, vol. 54, no. 2, 1944, pp. 110–123. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2988876.

[3] Lyrics from the poem sung at the performance.

[4] A reference to the involvement of women in the garment industry, the insignificant and poorly-paid piecework on which much of the Industrial Revolution was built.