Franz West specifically created a humour in his work. It was his protest against the academic cannon and the bleak pessimistic works of the Austrian Contemporary Art scene following the second world war. He pushed the boundaries of what might be acceptable creating visual puns in collage, idiomatic Passstücke (Adaptives) constructions and abstract sculptures, which, in their write up for a forthcoming retrospective the Tate describe as “crude and unpretentious” as well as “absurd” and “playful” (@tate, 2019).
In an interview with Tim Eccles in 2007 West alluded to a commission proposal when he was a student, and it’s a serious remit, but when asked by the Vienna Academy to design and produce stools…Franz Wests immediate (and perhaps sensibly) internal response? “Poo” “Yes. When I thought about the word Stuhl [chair] it struck me that Stuhl and Stuhlgang [bowel movements] sound a bit like each other”(Alexander et al., 2008)
The reference to Poo makes us snigger. Although in our defence and as David Ball considers in his Thesis; according to Freud:
Applied to the specific case of the joke, an understanding is arrived at in which a linguistic or visual sleight of hand is seen to cause a certain inhibitory force in the psyche to slip; and as a result of this slippage some underlying psychic energy is thus rendered superfluous and released through laughter.
Eccles: Many of your outdoor works look like large turds or even phalluses. You also made a public urinal as a public sculpture, shown, for example, in Skulptur Projekte Münster 1997. Are your outdoor works a commentary on public sculpture?
West: A commentary? No. But then again, perhaps it’s unconscious on my part. Everybody likes shit anyway. As a child, shit is the first gift that you give to your parents.(Alexander et al., 2008)
How Tim Eccles didn’t laugh (or at least he didn’t say he had) I am not sure, it certainly would be one of those ‘snot bubbling snigger’ moments for anyone without his professional credentials! Not that West would necessarily have minded I think.
Whilst his early collages where a reaction to his wartime upbringing and the works of the Viennese Actionists, he says of his childhood and teenage years that he grew up in a very conflicted time. It was as a fourteen year old that he was invited to his first Actionism event. An event which ended with the two artists, Otto Müḧ and Hermann Nitsch, being arrested, although West describes them as later becoming very catholic.
Unlike contemporary painters such as Shiegal, West, particularly, wanted to take the untouchable out of art and began to create his Adaptives. These, much to his horror, where treated very carefully by their audience. It was only the children who treated them as West had expected. After a time it became accepted that his work should be touched and that audience participation was part of the drive for his work.(Editors, 2017)
He moved away from these strange amalgams and created more obviously interactive works which included furniture, and this led to projects which could be placed outside and therefore lost all sense of being art works in the same sense and brought a sense of public ownership which pleased West (ibid).
These pieces still border on the absurd, they still reflect his need to describe the world and to embrace its awfulness through humour and directly relate to a sense of himself and his life both as a child and as part of the Viennese art culture of the 60’s 70’s and contemporarily.
- @tate (2019) ‘Franz West – Exhibition at Tate Modern | Tate’.
- Alexander, D., Eccles, T., Harrison, R. and Banks, E. (2008) Franz West, To Build a House You Start with the Roof | The MIT Press. Art, B.M.o.
- Editors, A. (2017) “The Perception of Art Takes Place Through the Pressure Points that Develop When You Lie on It”: A Q&A with Franz West. New York: Phaidon Global Company. Available at: http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/franz-west 2019).