Franz West: The Pig Gut

Text by
Alex Bennett

The biggest ever retrospective of the work of Franz West (Austrian, 1947–2012) is set to open at the Centre Pompidou, Paris (September–December 2018) and the TATE Modern, London (February–June 2019).

Peppery fur shifts in density, snow-gray and spectral, from leathery sockets inset with amber blinkers. Etymologically, lemurs frolic with the phantasmal much like Lewis Carroll’s Cat, whose stripes unspool into vaporized ribbons. From the Latin lemures, meaning “spirits of the dead,” the Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus termed lemurs such for their nocturnal patterns, slothful pace and, surely, their monochromatic spook.

Waking from a boozy stupor, Franz West would picture faces in the blanket, which Viennese colloquialism would call “seeing lemuren.” Indulging his Wittgensteinian wordplay, West’s Lemurenköpfe (Lemur Heads) (2001) pantomime this ghoulishness, each head an inflated white carapace full of buffoonery and boorishness—a set of drunken apparitions from beyond the grave. West’s extensive career, to be showcased at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and later at London’s Tate Modern, addressed wit and the possibilities of sculpture to address the social, often with a distending and wriggling approach to form and scale. Inducted by the Vienna Actionists ointeractivef the 1960s, West produced sculptures, furniture, collages and installations that considered “relational” activities, washed-out of the blood-soaked in favor of a joyous, chromatic gloss.

Though West is often typified as “punk,” his work has doddering and clumsy rhythms whose debauched and gleeful charisma throws the ludicrous into the limelight. In the mid-1970s, West conceived his earliest sculptures, the portable “Adaptives,” as interactive works. Made of white plaster, wire, gauze and papier-mâché, they were initially built around mundane objects that left a faint impression. The works imply some sort of utility without efficacy; they are cantankerously weighted, gangly and goofy, suggestive of doodles that invite a similar action from the viewer: that of ham-fisted errantry. Yet for West, the inspiration for such movement was observed from the tottering of waiters as they balance their overburdened trays, the spitting bowls used by dentists, or the movement of orchestral conductors. Spindly objects then, derived from little theatres, of tinkering glasses and percussive plates, of spidery gesticulations, and of gratuity’s practical twin: the bowl for the spit.

West enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna in 1977 and studied until 1982. He continued to show his “Adaptives,” collages and drawings until the early ’80s, when he began producing furniture-based sculptures, installing them as discrete rooms. West’s woven “Uncle Chairs,” tables, and sofas were cast in metal, plaster, foam and textiles, accompanied by instructions inviting viewers to remove articles of clothing, or in one case, to defecate. (West said he liked to follow a “non-aesthetic gut, the pig gut.”) These Kombi-Werke included works from historical figures and contemporaries, asserting the inseparability—the shared formal vocabulary and contexts—of art, design and display. Formally flat and rigid, West’s furniture undermined masculine modernist design, though it benefitted from a clownish irony: a glass of Curaçao, for instance, is to be served every hour by a museum guard, should the viewer take a seat on Curaçao (1996), a steel and fiberboard sofa with the vial of azure liqueur popped inside a blue papier-mâché recess.

Chou-Chou (1998) became the final episode of a mutated installation, growing in work, changing in title. An early wall piece in denture-gum-pink hung behind a row of five pink chairs, two CDs—with pink covers—by Schubert and Schumann emitted from a pair of speakers. A train of thought: “Chou-Chou,” from the sibilant “Schu-Schu” of each composer’s name. Both Schubert and Schumann were played in the waiting room of his mother’s dental practice, Viennese classicism retrofitted for the decidedly mechanical (yet marshalled and manicured) space. In fact, dentistry conjures a sense of West’s style—that is, the performance in the odorless office where you’re plopped on the chair, ordered to say “Aahhh,” deep and guttural. Seated, feeling a little porcine with your pink tongue lolling out, all breathy and throaty. Positions, sterility, and corporeity; clinking instruments, stultifying music, infantilizing bib. Spit in the bowl.

Continuing his inversions of scale and pomposity, West made larger, globular squiggles and knotted loops; for him, these “legitimate sculptures” assumed the role of his earlier “Adaptives,” placed in a permanent “waiting position.” In 1996, these sculptures evolved into larger public art aluminum works, which populated parks and museum plazas, appearing benign in their candy-like lacquer yet scatological and intestinal in form. In an interview for Spike, West noted the friction of public art: “Outdoor sculptures are really hard to digest sometimes … I have often been furious about architecture, but when you have been walking past it for ten years, you stop looking at it. It becomes familiar and cozy.” For all the casts and cavities, West let the obscene sit there, with the hope to find something cozy in it.

Images courtesy of Centre Pompidou, Paris; Tate Modern, London; Estate Franz West, Vienna.

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