At erwin wurm’s 2014 show at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, you could stand on a low plinth with a friend, propping up plastic bottles between your two bodies (Organization of Love, 2007). You could lie on a thin wooden beam, trying not to touch the platform beneath it (Estimating the Mass of Wood, 1999). You could stand on another plinth and stretch a rubber band between your big toes (The Vienna Circle 1923, 2001). You could rest your head on a pedestal and place a bottle of toilet cleaner on your temple (Realize the Piece and Think about Your Digestion, 2008). Or you could balance two tennis balls on a raised surface, one on top of the other, by pressing your forehead down on both of them (Astronomical Purpose, 2014).

These are some of Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures, interactive works he has been making since the mid-nineties, each accompanied by scribbled instructions and sometimes a diagram, showing the museum-goer how to adopt the desired position. They are both diy performance pieces and, as the series title indicates, sculptures with a short lifespan. At the Städel Museum, where they were shown alongside the permanent collection, their ephemeral character was underscored by the Old Master paintings around them, with their auratic presence and historical heft. These brief interactive experiences are often captured in photographs, which transmute them into lasting memories. Visitors to Wurm’s 1996 exhibition at Casino Luxembourg could pose for Polaroid shots of themselves wearing one of his earliest pieces: a tent-like jumper that covers one’s entire body (Psycho I). At this and other shows, the artist occasionally signed the photos for a small fee. More recently, his works have become Instagram staples. They are ‘instructions for taking selfies’, in the words of Hans Ulrich Obrist.footnote1

Wurm’s works dramatize the act of engaging with them, and in this they exemplify a broader trend in contemporary art. They inscribe themselves in the real-time of the viewer’s experience, in the notional minute he or she spends trying to carry out the artist’s instructions. Typically, we tend to see artworks as opening onto other times and places. Francis Alÿs, for instance, creates temporal loops in many of his video pieces, instigating processes that double back on themselves in order to sketch the equally repetitive history of modernization in Mexico, conceived as a succession of false starts. Doris Salcedo’s furniture-based sculptures refer obliquely to acts of political violence, drawing attention to suppressed episodes in the recent history of her native Colombia, while creating vehicles for collective remembrance. Hito Steyerl, in her lecture-performances and video installations, splices moments from her own past with documentary passages and fictional episodes, some of which are set in the near future.

Such artists work with what Mikhail Bakhtin calls ‘chronotopes’: particular, repeatable orientations in time and space. In the chronotope, writes Bakhtin, ‘spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history.’footnote2 The chronotopes marshalled by Salcedo, Alÿs and Steyerl are mostly grounded in the present; but this is an expanded, common present that is a continuation of the recent past—the present of ‘current affairs’, or a particular cultural landscape, or a stage of technological development. To say that Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures are set in the present is to make a different point entirely. His present is narrow, immediate and sharply defined. It is generated by the work and shared only by the viewer-participants and their observers. It is not described or alluded to but directly inhabited, though it also has an afterlife in photographs that function commemoratively, like holiday snaps.

Wurm’s oeuvre is part of an ascendant vitalism in contemporary art—with connotations, it should be said, very different to the celebratory cult of the life force in fin-de-siècle Modernism, Nietzsche or Bergson. Examples of the current trend abound. In the work of artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Douglas Gordon and Christine Hill—famously championed by the curator Nicolas Bourriaud in his 1998 book Relational Aesthetics—gallery-goers are invited to take part in a range of activities, from making Chinese soup to taking a phone call from the artist. Bourriaud observes that such projects are ‘viewable only at a specific time . . . The artwork is thus no longer presented to be consumed within a “monumental” time frame and open for a universal public; rather it elapses within a factual time, for an audience summoned by the artist.’footnote3 The same holds for the work of younger artists such as Tino Sehgal, whose live installations feature what he calls ‘interpreters’: trained collaborators who dance, chant and engage museum visitors in themed conversations.

Another manifestation of this vitalism is the increasingly prevalent ‘exhibition-as-medium’. A show by the artist Philippe Parreno, for example, is conceived not as a collection of discrete works but as a unified whole in which particular elements, some of them kinetic, respond to one another as the museum-goer charts a trajectory through the space. In the exhibition-as-medium, as in participatory art, the temporality of the work is not external to the viewer and gallery; it coincides with the duration and cadences of the visit itself. Works designed to be shown outdoors are also now regularly staged as live events. In New Horizon (2019), Doug Aitken’s Mylar-coated balloon reflected its surroundings as it travelled between select locations in New England; while in The Retrospective View of the Pathway (2016–18), Roger Hiorns buried planes before assembled onlookers in the uk, Czech Republic and the Netherlands. Such projects create singular experiences: like the participatory works championed by Bourriaud, they elapse within the ‘factual time’ of the audience.

It is tempting to speak of this vitalist current as new, but that would be misleading. It was already discernible in the Brazilian Neo-Concrete movement, in the Happenings and Fluxus events and in the ‘social sculpture’ of Joseph Beuys.footnote4 For the art historian Michael Fried, it is present in minimalist sculpture, which he sees as summoning an embodied viewer through its material presence. Fried argues that minimalist—or, as he terms it, ‘literalist’—work is theatrical, in the sense that ‘the experience of literalist art is of an object in a situation—one that, virtually by definition, includes the beholder.’footnote5 For Fried, a minimalist work heightens the viewer’s awareness of an object’s situation in a given space, and simultaneously draws attention to the experience of viewing it from within the same space, over time. If modernist works have a quality of ‘continuous and entire presentness’ which abstracts them from time as it passes in a gallery or museum, minimalist art in his reading sees the temporal unfolding of the viewer’s experience as crucial to the work’s effect.footnote6