Eloquent Materials

– Art is not about mysticism, it is not about belief. It is literally about empirical facts, says Lawrence Weiner, whose exhibition at OSL Contemporary in Oslo opened yesterday.

Lawrence Weiner, Windham College, Putney, Vermont, 1968 © 2016 Lawrence Weiner / ARS, Artists Rights Society, New York  / BONO, Norway.
Lawrence Weiner, Windham College, Putney, Vermont, 1968 © 2016 Lawrence Weiner / ARS, Artists Rights Society, New York / BONO, Norway.

Lawrence Weiner (b. 1942) was one of the central figures of the Conceptual art movement of the 1960s. Weiner’s artistic practice investigates the medium of sculpture, language, and the nature of the art object. He is most recognized for his textual wall installations, his contribution to the 1968 Conceptual book exhibition Xerox Book alongside Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt, Joseph Kusoth, Carl Andre and others, and his publication Statement (1969).

Weiner, who lives and works in New York, is currently showing new works in Oslo at the solo exhibition WHISKED AWAY FROM, which opened at gallery OSL Contemporary September 1. This is, however, not the first time his work is shown in Norway: In 1999 Weiner installed the permanent work WATER MADE IT WET on a commercial building in Svolvær for the Lofoten International Art Festival. He has formerly also participated in two exhibitions at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo.

Ahead of his exhibition at OSL Contemporary, Sara R. Yazdani of Kunstkritikk talked to Lawrence Weiner about the medium of sculpture, its relationship to the human body, and the history of the Conceptual art movement.

Sara R. Yazdani: While exploring the works for your forthcoming exhibition WHISKED AWAY FROM at OSL Contemporary in Oslo, Norway, I was rereading Statements, the small paperback you wrote in 1969, published by Seth Siegelaub and the Louis Kellner Foundation, New York. I was once again struck by your earlier Statement of Intent in 1968, on the production and reception of the object of art:

“The artist may construct the piece.
The piece may be fabricated.
The piece need not be built.
Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.”

Lawrence Weiner, Statement of Intent, 1968 © 2016 Lawrence Weiner / ARS, Artists Rights Society, New York  / BONO, Norway.
Lawrence Weiner, Statement of Intent, 1968 © 2016 Lawrence Weiner / ARS, Artists Rights Society, New York / BONO, Norway.

Indeed, this was written as a manifesto on the condition of the art object. Beyond this, you seemed especially concerned with an aesthetic relation between the object as an idea, the intention of the artist, and the viewer of the work.

Lawrence Weiner: It is just what it says. I am not “sure” what we are essentially looking for here? I am therefore not sure if there is an answer to your question of what the manifesto means – an explanation of the work does not exist. And there is no logical reason for an explanation of the writings; then there would be no reason for the work to exist. As far as the genre or the materiality of the work, your question is about materialism. I was always convinced that what I was doing as an artist was objectifying certain things: if I objectified risk, for instance, that can concentrate as a sculpture or form that, in a sense, would take something that is static and turn it into a magnetic repulsive thing. It could be built around that. It is a very material thing; it has no metaphor. It is what it is. It is a phenomenon. You come to it as a person with your own needs and desires in life, and you look at art and if it has no metaphor or a relationship you can identify with, you make it fit your metaphor for your needs and desires. And you do not have to accept the moral situation of the person presenting it. You can only accept what it is. It is like you can finally have your penicillin without having a conversation about it. But when the penicillin don’t work no more then you have to re-adapt it. It is what happens with art as well – it is never forever.

Statement of Intent furthermore reminds me of Sol LeWitt’s similar thoughts in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”, written in 1971:

“The idea itself, even if not made visual,
is as much a work of art as any finished product.”

Lawrence Weiner, from the exhibition WHISKED AWAY FROM, 2016. Courtesy OSL Contemporary.
Lawrence Weiner, from the exhibition WHISKED AWAY FROM, 2016. Courtesy OSL Contemporary.

It seems like it was a very convenient way to explain things then. But in fact, I think it obscured certain things because demateralization has a tendency to say that the object that is in front of you is not as good as the mystical objects (that you can have if you dematerialize). But art is not about mysticism, it is not about belief. It is literally about empirical facts. It is one of the few down-to-earth things that human beings do, and it is strange because it is invariably considered as one of the unnecessary things humans do. Yet, in fact it is one of the most down-to-earth ways of looking at human beings’ relationships to objects. This can be said about all forms of art. All forms of art are about that.

Your Statement of Intent appears present in your entire artistic practice, where the medium of sculpture and language is essential, or, to be more precise, the relationship between language and the sculpture, or language as sculpture.

I don’t think it is language – it is language plus the materials referred to. We do not know anything without some forms of language – gestures, forms – that we communicate with. So it does not really matter much anymore: it is like dance is done in space, and it does not much matter what space. And art is made with paint, stone or brick, or words, or something that is made with something, something to make it become something. The interesting thing with art is that it is not an aspiration. It is literally an empirical fact, for better and for worse. This does not give it “carte blanche” as to how it is functioning in the world. The purpose of an artist within society is to ask questions by means of presentation rather than a position.

Peter Osborne has noted that your relationship to sculpture underwent a radical transition between 1968 and 1970. What seems to be of particular interest is your contribution to the exhibition “Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Lawrence Weiner” in 1968, curated by Seth Siegelaub. You installed a sculpture made of hemp twine stapled to 34 stakes on a playing field at Windham College, Putney, Vermont. Apparently it did not survive for very long?

Yes. You’re right. It did not survive for very long. But that was not the point either – the importance is that is was there. It did not survive for very long as a sculpture. Yet, it survived as language. Everything survives somewhere, which means you have to make a facility to build it. You can make what you think it looks like. You are not stuck with any specific kind of stake or any specific kind of hemp (the materials that the sculpture consisted of), but instead whatever you find. I like that. That it is open to everyone.

Lawrence Weiner, from the exhibition WHISKED AWAY FROM, 2016. Courtesy OSL Contemporary.
Lawrence Weiner, from the exhibition WHISKED AWAY FROM, 2016. Courtesy OSL Contemporary.

Regarding the writings of Peter Osborne, the transition might have been interpreted as radical, but I don’t think what I was doing was very radical. If you read or listen to any interviews from that time, I never thought that what I or any other artist around me was doing was particularly radical. I though it was just within the line. There were some artists that were rather “against this” and “against that”, but I don’t think and never thought that there was a large radical break. It was just other materials, like the change from oil paint to acrylic, from acrylic then back to oil. It was and is just a matter of what you are using technically to do what you want to do. No one invented anything at that time. Everything was in the air. Everybody was writing criticism on what art should be. But the world was coming to an end: The Vietnam war, the whole concept of an American culture was collapsing, and Europe was in this total disaster about East and West and what was going to happen culturally. The whole place was literally a tinderbox. Of course the work then is going to be a little bit aggressive. The world sucked at that moment, as it is beginning to do at this particular moment. It is a very strong turning point in art, and that is why I am paying so much attention to what I want to do with the forthcoming exhibition at OSL Contemporary in Oslo. It is simple, not very radical, but I do hope that it will reflect some of these concerns.

In the 1960s artists were indeed exploring the medium of sculpture in ways that challenged traditional ideas of the sculptural art object, and the ontology of the object in general: a negation of traditional modes of autonomy of the art work. I am thinking about Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s rather famous 1990 essay on Conceptual art, where he argued that Conceptual practices “performed the post-war period’s most rigorous investigation of the conventions of pictorial and sculptural representation and a critique of the traditional paradigms of visuality.” 

Benjamin believed, and would still believe at this point, that the Earth shook when certain colleagues of mine and me myself showed art publicly (this was, however, not a thing just going on among a small group of people in New York, but internationally). But in contrast to Benjamin I don’t think the Earth shook, I think it just it turned the way it normally does, and it was the right turning. I don’t know how to explain this problem about the academy then. The academy did not really exist before the ‘70s, and then it began to take precedence. I think it was because of the need for employment of most of the artists. And sometimes there was a disconnect between what was propaganda and what was not propaganda. And the propaganda was of course very positive; it was whatever it was, but it all required the status quo of staying status in quo. And there were a lot of artists whose work was not engaged in the status quo. It did not have to remain status or quo because there was not a market for it anyhow, so they may as well do it correctly: Very simple, very pragmatic. And when there was a market for it, you decided that the work had become so absolutely a proof of itself, at least we all felt that it was useful within the society, that you could deal with it, that it had a value, and you could improve that value, make more of it and place it in the world. Not so bad. It is a very positive way of looking at it, but it is very involved in the fact that art has a capability to change people’s perceptions of their stage. And that can help find your place in the sun through art. Art is not going to give “it” to you, but it certainly helps. And art might help you finding new places under the sun if you happen to be cold, and that is a wonderful thing. 

Lawrence Weiner, from the exhibition WHISKED AWAY FROM, 2016. Courtesy OSL Contemporary.
Lawrence Weiner, from the exhibition WHISKED AWAY FROM, 2016. Courtesy OSL Contemporary.

Maybe the world did not shake. However, it was a new paradigm. Can a similar change be identified in our contemporary society? Visuality and pictorial and sculptural representation is constantly pressured by and within new media. How is the condition of “language as sculpture” reflected in your contemporary work, as for instance in WHISKED AWAY FROM?

I don’t know. Most of the work I am doing is completely contemporary. But I am the last person to know if it is making the “cut”. In fact, when I am closer to the other side of the shore there has to be someone else looking at it and that is the public, that is the receiver. Buchloh was sometimes pessimistic about things, but in fact it is a legitimate concern: if it is about objects or if you are just making something and presenting it, that puts art back into another stake, and I see it at times. I see it now, and I saw it then, as an aesthetic where it is possible to have an interaction with society as an artist. One does not have to be a scientist or an activist – one can legitimately be an artist and participate with all aspects of society.

You have underlined that you are a materialist artist whose concern is with real relationships between objects, materials and human beings. In other words, there seems to be an investigation of the relation between art and life, a theme central for historical avant-garde art. How does your art and thinking reflect on this relationship?

Art and life. It is a pretty standard concept. My concept of art and life is that there is absolutely no difference between art and life – art is a part of life and life is a part of art. What I think is that the subject is very often turned into a sociological subject. That is not what is needed by the art world because the world of journalism does it better. Art does much better concentrating on the relationships between materials and people than worrying about other events in the world. As human beings you can protest and do things, anything you want and need to, to present yourself as a human being. Such an act or protest does not, however, necessarily have anything to do with art. This is why I see no difference between self, art and life. It is actually not that complicated at all. There are other things going on in life besides art – there are other essential pleasures. Not many, but there are other essential pleasures.

Lawrence Weiner, Artspace, Auckland, 2015. Photo: Sam Hartnett © 2016 Lawrence Weiner / ARS, Artists Rights Society, New York  / BONO, Norway.
Lawrence Weiner, Artspace, Auckland, 2015. Photo: Sam Hartnett © 2016 Lawrence Weiner / ARS, Artists Rights Society, New York / BONO, Norway.

Let us continue speaking of life and the human being. In 1988 you first installed the work AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE at Marian Goodman Gallery. Human vision and perception and the relations between vision, the art object, and language seem to register profoundly in this work. Could you perhaps say something about this particular work in terms of vision and human perception? How far can the eye see?

One of the major observations is that there is no average or standard with regards to what the eye sees. Each eye sees differently. Each eye sees colour differently. It sees everything differently. But AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE is literally an occasion of whatever it is you can think of in any terms. It means what it says, as far as you can see, a sculptural form putting us into this position.

I wish to move on and talk about another profound work: your contribution to the canonical exhibition Xerox Book. The “exhibition”, which was a book printed by a Xerox photocopy machine, consisted of work by eight artists, many associated with the Conceptual art movement: Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris and yourself. Benjamin Buchloh has referred to the exhibition as the first truly conceptual exhibition, both in terms of the materiality of an art work and exhibition values. The book was printed on standard A4 paper and artists determined their own way of participating in the book. What you all had in common, however, was that you used the photocopy machine in the production of the art. Your work shows 24 photocopy pages of a graph sheet that has been reproduced by the Xerox machine twenty-four times. The texture and quality of each page varies due to the toner process of the machine. The following handwritten text in the right bottom corner reads:


Lawrence Weiner, Xerox Book, Seth Siegelaub and John Wendler publishers, 1968 © 2016 Lawrence Weiner / ARS, Artists Rights Society, New York  / BONO, Norway.
Lawrence Weiner, Xerox Book, Seth Siegelaub and John Wendler publishers, 1968 © 2016 Lawrence Weiner / ARS, Artists Rights Society, New York / BONO, Norway.

All pages are copies of the same sheet. Their difference is marked by the process, which gave the works those distortions. It was one sheet of paper, one sheet that they made the twenty-four copies out of with the Xerox, as far as I know, but I wasn’t there. In terms of the meaning of the work, I think the written and copied words say it all, don’t they? I really tried my best at that time to make those words say it all, what it was all about. Remember the words from Statements that we discussed earlier. That was not about utterance, like the statement you get at the end of the month when you have to pay your bills or what you get from the butcher and the baker. It told you what the work was. It was not about an utterance of any sort because it does not say anything else or more than what it is.

As a mass-produced work it demolished the aura and idea of the artwork as authentic in a Walter Benjamin sense, by reproduction, enabled by the democratic photocopy machine. One may note that this demolishment in turn was a protest against not only the original but also ideas of artistic authorship.

I would that say there are some people who think that some drawings, for instance, are made for reproduction, that is what they are for. But in terms of the machines, and all of that in relation to myself, all the technology has allowed me to be able to get the work out to a larger audience in a position so they could find the books, find the catalogue, find the video, and then they can go and deal with the work on its own level. But I do not see it as a problem. Walter Benjamin was quite brilliant, except when he wrote about film. The entire problem of the ‘60s and ‘70s was that we were still giving credence to having an argument with the people who said that art was one of those “other” structures when in fact it was not. That’s all. It is really not much more. It was deliberately on the barricades. But yes, if you took that position and then you made your living as an artist, it made your life difficult. Yet sometimes you really believe in something and you are lucky enough to be able keep putting it out, then a little bit of difficulty is what you have to deal with, so what are you going to do? You know, the work – the Xerox Book – was able to get out, and it seems to have found a means of functioning within society, which makes me pleased. It is a privilege. The privilege we have as artists is not the privilege to make art – that is our right – but the privilege is that you can get to talk to the world every day, and that you can listen back. This is the real function of the artist, for me at least.

The work – and the entire Xerox Book – is also about the emerging new photocopy technology and about exploring how new technologies affect what an artwork is, how it can deconstruct the image, and so forth. The technical process of the photocopy machine itself became visualized on your Xeroxed graph sheet. Such reading of the work understands the art work as a process – the art work as it comes into being – rather than as a finished product, which leads back to your book Statements.

Lawrence Weiner, Just another thing taken & changed (a wood) (a stone), Velin d`Arches, 1989.  © 2016 Lawrence Weiner / ARS, Artists Rights Society, New York  / BONO, Norway.
Lawrence Weiner, Just another thing taken & changed (a wood) (a stone), Velin d`Arches, 1989.

Yes. It is always in flux in some way. It is always changeable, within limits, to accommodate the needs of the people that trip across it or accept responsibility for it. It is flexible enough for that. Its basic content is unchangeable – it is unbreakable. If it is breakable it is bad art. Artists are capable of making bad art sometimes, but when it works it works well.  

I finally wish to talk about materiality and objects in terms of change and in relation to another in one of your books, published in 1989,


What is remarkable here is your exploration of organic materials as things, as objects.

Oh yes. It was done as a part of my notebook when I was in New Guinea working on an exhibition for Galerie Micheline Szwajcer, and I began to have conversations with people as we were wandering through the bush. And there seemed to have been some civil unrest so people were a bit more open than they usually were, and I found myself sitting with these people, drawing and talking. This was a book about materiality, about the idea of a different culture and how they approach things.

There is notably a relation between nature (stone, wood) and culture (language, discourse) here. Can objects and (organic) materials ever exist for us outside language? This is of course a question of the anthropocene and changing concepts and paradigms of nature and culture and our human existence on this planet.

I don’t think any objects exist to us outside language. We have to know them in some form in order for us to know that they are there. Even if you are falling over an object you have to give it some semantic form. You cannot say I am falling over “something”, you have to find out what this something is. Even when you say “something” you have named it. So, language is an integral part of our perception – people who have lost their sight have to explain things in another manner but they still give names to that which they can picture in their mind. You have to give it a name to be able to use it. I usually work from the materials out; I know how the materials physically react and how they are working, and from there I turn it into something to do with an observational language that eventually changes, and finds a place for itself. It is the same for a painter. A painter looks and decides what size the canvas that structures the image should be, and then begins to attack it, begins, begins again, and begins again, and then bang! you got it. It is the same for every artist, anybody doing anything. It is even the same if you are making pasta. It’s all the same; there is no difference. They always want things to be different, to be more real. But nothing is more real. Either it is real or it is imaginary.

Installasjonsbilde fra Lawrence Weiners utstilling WHISKED AWAY FROM på OSL Contemporary, 2016. Courtesy OSL contemporary.
Installation view from Lawrence Weiner’s exhibition WHISKED AWAY FROM at OSL Contemporary, 2016. Courtesy OSL Contemporary.