Lawrence Weiner, (b. 1942), has been making what he calls ‘sculptures’ since the 1960s: wall installations consisting of words, often in bright colors. The basis for his installations is the idea that language is material. Weiner’s installations are flexible: size, language and color are variable; how they are depends on the location. Weiner maintains that: “Art is the empirical fact of the relationships of objects to objects in relation to human beings and not dependent upon historical precendent for either use or legitimacy."
Making art is Lawrence Weiner’s way to judge his relationship to the rest of the world. It is a need. Placing his sculptures into the world and letting them adapt into their situation, gives an insight into how things work. For Weiner, art is about this: somebody noticing a structure. It is this conversation with one’s time that the artist considers to be his most important task.
When making an installation, for Weiner, it is all about finding a work that is in dialogue with the world at that particular moment. It is about finding a basic, universal problem. Making an installation is asking a universal question in a way that, once people realize that it is a question, they can answer it in relation to themselves. But how to do this? Weiner notes that with each installation he does know what to say. The problem consists in finding out how to phrase the question; the problem is to find out what syntax to put it in. Each situation is new and requires its own syntax.
An exhibition is a placement in the world; it is a participation in the world. This participation is two-sided and concerns not only the making of the work, but the viewing as well. Weiner’s installations challenge the viewer to think about how he can incorporate the work and the questions they provoke into his life. The universal questions posed by the artist should be answered by the viewer. This conversation with the public is most important. The reason for this is that when the viewer incorporates the work into his life, it functions as art.
Weiner’s installations are open for interpretation: each person understands the work differently and that is exactly what he wants. He sees no reason to close something off. The artist remarks that if the work is open, you do not have to have any false populism, you do not have to adapt the work and can present what it really is. Keeping it open, the viewer can adapt it to his own abilities, by trying to place it into his life. Leaving the work open for interpretation also allows it to reach many people.
Weiner’s work is about creating an awareness that you too can understand the world. The greatest joy for him is “when somebody enters an exhibition and goes on: "what is this shit?" and then all of a sudden you hear this strange: "oh, I get it."” To Weiner, it does not matter what the answer of the viewer is or whether he likes the work or not. It is about there being an answer. Because: when there is an answer, the work is successful. When there is an answer, the work becomes part of the place.
According to Weiner, art is very much about use. He adds that otherwise he would not bother to do it. As a teenager Weiner organized labor in New York and was involved in human rights movements. He thought, however, that with art he would be able to reach more people: “I made the decision that art was far more useful for the society.” Weiner decided to become an artist when he was about 16 or 17 years old. He chose to try to make art in the world and change people's perceptions of themselves and their own values.
Making work that changes people's perceptions of themselves comes with a responsibility. Weiner seems to feel this responsibility every day. He notes that once the work went on the wall, he found himself in a situation he did not want to be in: a situation in which you have a moral and political contract, that when you are going to present an installation, you have to make political design choices. “That becomes another part of another language. It becomes an inflection, but it's still not the work.” It is the problem of finding the right way to say what it is you want to say as well as having the awareness that what you say can have a great impact. He adds that art is a fight: it is about taking people's dreams away. The artist feels that when you change a basic perception of reality, you change somebody's entire sense of themselves.
What Weiner thinks he changed are logic patterns and “the way people think about the way that they would be able to present what they are thinking to other people.” In other words: that there is a way that you can communicate with others, that does not rely upon the precedent of what was being used. Now, over 40 years later, he is happy that “a little bit worked.” Weiner believes that his work made – and continues to make – it possible for people to have a better appreciation of the world and a better appreciation of their life.
Weiner mentions that he is a very sensitive person and can change his opinion from day to day. But when asked whether he is living a fulfilled life himself, his answer is negative. In saying this, the artist clarifies that he takes into account that he has his own personal questions about how one must maintain the possibility of living a fulfilled life. It is not that he has any regrets: one cannot change the past. We have to look at the future. “Looking forward, I see things I would like to be doing differently […]. But again, that's not the kind of thing you can change. It's a hegemony, it's an imposition on you: you don't call up the culture which is your adversary at the moment and tell them what you intend to do. Because they are in a position to build up all the barricades possible.”
During the conversation, there are several moments that Weiner refers back to how the artworld used to be in the past. He is disappointed in today’s situation. He explains that 20 years ago, art was about making objects and states that objects are things that are in the way. The statement is a reference to the painter Ad Reinhardt who once joked that sculptures are the things you fall over when the lights go out. Weiner says that back then, it was about making sculptures in the sense of things that people fell over. The viewer had to get up and decide whether the objects were worth walking around or whether to throw them away. The situation was simpler at that time: “you know better, you do better; if you don't know better, you can't do better.” He adds that “the whole point of an artist is to develop not as themselves, but develop in their practice with a relationship to the world as it is changing.” To Weiner that does not necessarily mean being on mode: it might just mean getting better in relationship to the world.
The reverse of being able to have a conversation with the world and having success as an artist, is fame. Weiner has been mentioned as part of the art historical Canon. The artist is aware of his position: “I know who I am. I know what I have done and what I could do and all of that.” He remarks that generally people understand who you are by understanding who you were: the past determines the present. During the 24 hours, he mentions several times how, while he is standing next to them, people speak about him in the third person rather than starting a conversation with him directly. For Weiner, however, the past has little to do with the questions he comes across in the present and that trouble him on a daily basis. Instead, the artist suggests that maybe only the last work that is showed should be discussed, even though also this is still in the past.
Rather than looking at the past, Weiner worries about the future and in particular about his upcoming exhibitions. The artist keeps looking for new ways to work: for him, it is about how the work is incepted. He focuses on this beginning and tries not be lead by the paradoxical situation he finds himself in. He remarks that we live our lives with our position and our decisions implicit. These decisions must, in fact, be explicit and this expliciticity must in some way leave behind the things that have given the privilege to be able to attempt to be explicit. For Weiner, the fame he receives has got nothing to do with what is going on in the world and therefore with the questions he raises with his work. The artist prefers the situation Jean-Paul Sartre created for himself: winning the Nobel Prize, while continuing to sell l’Humanité in the streets.
With regard to his fame, Weiner remarks: “I am not a human being; I am a kind of object.” But although Weiner considers himself to be an object, to the question of whether he feels like something that is in the way, he seems mainly concerned with the next generation: “Whoever does something or gets something together, for the next person you are in the way.” But the artist is not ready to step aside yet, only a little.
Karlyn De Jongh and Sarah Gold are independent curators and authors from the Netherlands, working with the project Personal Structures. They organized symposia and exhibitions in a.o. Amsterdam, New York and Tokyo as well as at the 53rd and 54th Venice Biennale. With the Global Art Affairs Foundation, they publish books and document Art Projects, in coöperation with a.o. Lawrence Weiner, Hermann Nitsch and Roman Opalka.view all articles from this author