Guilty Pleasures and Hot Dogs with Erwin Wurm

Portrait of Erwin Wurm inside Hot Dog Bus. Image courtesy of the artist and K11 MUSEA.
Erwin Wurm, Hot Dog Bus, 2018, VW T2b, mixed media, 220 × 250 × 550cm. Image courtesy of the artist and K11 MUSEA.
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K11 HONG HONG'S SILICON VALLEY OF CULTURE

Austrian artist Erwin Wurm’s Hot Dog Bus—a cheeky sculpture-cum-hot dog kiosk—uses audience participation in the act of eating a hot dog to drive reflection and commentary on gluttony and mass cultural consumption. Ahead of its debut in Asia at K11 MUSEA last week, Denise Tsui sat down with the artist to talk sausages and Donald Duck.

 TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and K11 MUSEA

 

Portrait of Erwin Wurm inside Hot Dog Bus. Image courtesy of the artist and K11 MUSEA.

 

A fan of comics and science fiction, Austrian artist Erwin Wurm quotes Donald Duck as one of his all-time favorites. “Donald Duck is a loser,” he told me with a gentle smile, “and I like him very much because he was never the grand winner or the superstar, the superhero. He was the loser and as the loser, became a superstar and a hero.” Wurm’s predilection for the feathery cartoon character led me to think: could the sausage be a kind of forgotten hero of gastronomy? A traditionally low-class food with deep European roots, the sausage has risen in the food hierarchy with its various nationalistic interpretations worldwide. The Americans have their breakfast sausage and the iconic hot dog. Slap one between two slices of white bread and you have the Aussie favorite. And for Hong Kongers, who remembers the cha chaan teng sausage bun? Which is, really, a variation of the Western pigs in a blanket, which is another variation of another classic. So you see, sausages have become an irremovable part of our contemporary food culture. And it is also one of the occurring protagonists in Wurm’s artistic oeuvre.

Historically, with increased wealth and societal prosperity came food as a luxury commodity and the birth of gastronomy; no longer was food simply a means of survival. Humans became obsessed with the pleasures of eating. In our current times, sharing photos of one’s every morsel on social media has proliferated, while the media has propagated a culture of unrealistic body expectations, with cases of eating disorders doubling in the past decade.

Wurm’s Hot Dog Bus—a mustard yellow Volkswagen Microbus with some funky cosmetic surgery (a.k.a. fancy remodeling)—captures the absurd paradox of our relationship with food. Sporting a very huggable and cuddly appearance, Hot Dog Bus resembles something of a chunky sausage dog (pun intended) with stumpy legs. Or for Miyazaki fans, you may recall the droopy fur-friend Percival from Howl’s Moving Castle. Its lovingly cute—and fat—appearance presents a critique on modern gluttony, and the acts of losing and gaining weight that come with societal pressures founded in Capitalist countries. For Wurm, this act also resembles art.

“I’ve realized, to make a sculpture means you add volume on something or you take volume away. When we make pieces in clay we add volume or we take away,” explained Wurm as I caught him straight off his flight to Hong Kong last week. “When we eat and gain weight we add volume or when we lose weight, we take volume. So one could say gaining or losing weight is a sculptural work also.” The remodeled VW serves hot dogs as a grand gesture of inviting audience participation. Our acceptance to consume a hot dog becomes both an integral part of the work and an ironic poke at how we think about fast food.

Erwin Wurm, Hot Dog Bus, 2018, VW T2b, mixed media, 220 × 250 × 550cm. Image courtesy of the artist and K11 MUSEA.

 

Hot Dog Bus was first conceived through New York’s Public Art Fund last year where it gave away 50,000 iconic American hot dogs on Brooklyn Bridge to passersby. An earlier edition, dubbed the Curry Bus, was conceptualized for the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg and served currywursts—a traditional German pork sausage that is steamed then fried and served with curry spices and sauces. Workers of the VW factory in the German city loved currywursts so much it motivated the company to purchase a sausage company for its workers, a story Wurm shared as the inspiration behind Curry Bus. For Hong Kong, Hot Dog Bus is serving gourmet sausages and a non-meat, vegan option, reflective of the way food is upscaled and consumed in this health-conscious metropolis.

Different to the concerns of its American and German cousins, Hot Dog Bus in Hong Kong perhaps also highlights another rising phenomenon—the impact of fusion gastronomy on our health, both negatively and positively. Cross-cultural cuisine is a global sensation, but one that has become the norm in this former colonial city. While this has had some benefits such as a wider scope of nutrients in the typically rice-heavy diet of Asian countries, it has also seen changes to body shapes and the rise of food intolerances. “Asian societies,” as Wurm so accurately observed, “when they start to eat too much European food or Western food, like junk food, they all of a sudden lose their fantastic proportion. They gain and grow as the Western people do so there is something going on which is quite interesting in this case, it’s also quite scary at the same time.” The same can also be said for adaptations of Asian dishes in Western cities—which, for the pleasure of the taste buds, sadly often include additions such as refined sugar and fats and have been blamed for adding to the obesity epidemic being tackled in countries such as America.

But how does a mustard-yellow, hot dog serving artwork convey all these deeper layers of interpretation? Is that the necessary role of sculpture and art? “I mean, it’s made for people who know about art and who reflect art and who accept the invitation to think about this very specific artwork in a specific way,” Wurm notes. But the paradox here is that Hot Dog Bus adopts a universally attractive appeal. Wurm seems to accept that there will indeed be a large part of the consumer public who won’t necessarily recognize the profound commentary he makes with the work, who simply enjoy the gimmick of eating a hot dog from a cute and cuddly vehicle. In the end maybe the guilty pleasure of eating a hog dog is also enough.

 

 

About the artist

Erwin Wurm was born in 1954 in Austria. He graduated from University of Graz, Austria, in 1977, and Gestaltungslehre University of Applied Art and Academy of Fine Art, Vienna in 1982. Wurm came to prominence with his One Minute Sculptures, a project that he began in 1996/1997. While in this series he explores the idea of the human body as sculpture, in some of his more recent work, he anthropomorphizes everyday objects in unsettling ways, like contorting sausage-like forms into bronze sculptures in Abstract Sculptures, or distorting and bloating the volume and shape of a car in Fat Car. While Wurm considers humor an important tool in his work, there is always an underlying social critique of contemporary culture, particularly in response to the Capitalist influences and resulting societal pressures that the artist sees as contrary to our internal ideals.

Recent solo exhibitions include: Albertina Museum, Vienna (2018); 21er Haus, Belvedere, Vienna (2017); Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst, Duisburg, Germany (2017); Leopold Museum, Vienna (2017); Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, São Paulo, Brazil (2017); Berlinische Galerie, Berlin (2016); Schindler House, MAK Center for Art and Architecture, West Hollywood, CA (2016); and Bangkok Art and Culture Center, Thailand (2016) among others.

In 2011, Wurm’s “Narrow House” was installed at the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti as part of Glasstress 2011, a collateral event of the 54th Venice Biennale. In 2017, Wurm returned to Venice for the 57th Biennale, where he represented Austria.

 

 


 

Denise Tsui is currently the Editor for CoBo Social. A Hong Kong-born Aussie with an addiction to coffee, her research interests are primarily in the study of exhibition models and curatorial practices and art from the Southeast Asia Region. Previously she was an editor for ArtAsiaPacific and curator for a private collection of Australian and New Zealand art. A condensed version of her postgraduate curatorial thesis on contemporary Indonesian art was published in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies in 2015.

 
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