ART / A word or two in your eye: It seemed a good idea at the time. That was in 1967. But has Lawrence Weiner finally served his sentence? By Andrew Graham-Dixon
Andrew Grice has been Political Editor of The Independent since 1998. He was previously Political Editor of The Sunday Times, where he worked for 10 years, and he has been a Westminster-based journalist since 1982. His column, Inside Politics, appears in The Independent each Saturday.
Tuesday 25 January 1994
Weiner's oeuvre is deeply mysterious, although this has nothing to do with the work itself, nor with the texture of the experience that it offers to the beholder. Its mystery, rather, lies in the simple fact of its existence - in the fact that a man, presumed to be sane, should have considered it worthwhile to devote his entire life to the creation of an art so manifestly and unrelievedly tedious. Weiner's career in art - that he should have wanted to pursue one, and that he has been able to do so - is one of the most intriguing riddles of modern visual culture.
Wall to Wall, at the Serpentine Gallery, is among other things an opportunity to ponder the continuing enigma of Weiner's life and work. His contribution to this group show simply consists of a text running across two walls of a room, which reads as follows:
'A ROPE (OF HEMP) + A CABLE (OF STEEL) + A THREAD (OF SILK) & BRAIDED (ALL TOGETHER)'.
This is an entirely characteristic example of Weiner's art, which consists of nothing but such short and gnomic texts presented in his preferred sanserif typeface. The texts generally suggest an action of some kind, apparently selected for complete pointlessness, dreamt up but never actually performed by the artist. Other, earlier examples of his work include the texts
'ONE PINT WHITE GLOSS LACQUER POURED DIRECTLY UPON THE FLOOR AND ALLOWED TO DRY'
'A SQUARE REMOVAL FROM A RUG IN USE'.
Minute variations in the presentation of the work may occasionally be noted (half of Weiner's text at the Serpentine has, inexplicably, been chiselled out of the wall while the rest is simply painted on) but these can hardly be said to amount to creative developments, in the conventional sense. Weiner's work is always, in essence, the same, and each new Weiner contains, implicit within it, the puzzle of a whole life spent in the concoction of such small and inconsequential instructions.
Weiner may, in part at least, be the victim of his own past, and of the encouragement offered to him in early life. Twenty- seven years ago he conceived a work of art which many of his contemporaries deemed to be Historically Significant. In 1967, having spent several years making paintings based on, among other things, television colour test transmissions, Weiner hit on the notion of substituting texts for images. He gave up painting altogether and produced the first of these, the ur- Weiner, the fons et origo of his entire subsequent work, which ran as follows:
'1. THE ARTIST MAY CONSTRUCT THE WORK. 2. THE WORK MAY BE FABRICATED. 3. THE WORK NEED NOT BE BUILT EACH BEING EQUAL AND CONSISTENT WITH THE INTENT OF THE ARTIST THE DECISION RESTS WITH THE RECEIVER UPON THE OCCASION OF RECEIVERSHIP.'
This was held to be Important because it initiated a new form of art, then believed to be ripe with radical possibility: Conceptual Art, an art so purified and ethereal that it need not even exist, save as idea.
Many variations were played on Weiner's premiss ('the work need not be built'), which spawned a thousand gestures of what passed for radicalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s: the non-existent exhibition; the exhibition that consisted of a text pinned to the gallery door informing visitors that the gallery would be closed during the course of the exhibition; and so on. Weiner was (and still is) widely regarded as a founding father of Conceptualism. Having founded what had become a movement, he may have felt both duty bound and fated to continue ploughing its arid and infertile territory. Art history found a place for him but perhaps it also did for him in the process.
Weiner's work has a history, of kinds, and might (charitably) be seen as a late 20th-century development of the Dadaists' use of words in visual art: instead of concrete poetry, Weiner writes concrete prose. However dull it may be, Weiner's work is not exactly meaningless, and certain insinuations and implications can be teased from it. It might even be said to stand for certain beliefs and to enshrine something like an ideology. An implicitly Marxist repudiation of some of the traditional characteristics of traditional art objects, as visible signs of wealth or power, may be inferred from Weiner's persistent refusal to make works of art that can in any meaningful sense be owned or traded. A certain idealistic notion of art as an activity whose essence is to dreamily subvert the status quo may lie behind the sorts of gestures that his texts counsel.
'A SQUARE REMOVAL FROM A RUG IN USE'
is the sort of action which, if carried out, would tend to disrupt life in the average household, and Weiner's inexpansive statements (the one at the Serpentine included) often imply a fondness for the disruptive, the gratuitous, the entirely pointless but somehow - the suggestion hovers - mystically liberating act.
An old avant-garde idea of the artist, as a sort of holy fool, may lurk behind Weiner's work, but if that is so, it has been terribly debased - weakened to the point where all it can produce are dull sighs of mildly subversive intent. Weiner may not be an artist of any great significance, and his work may be unremittingly tedious, but he presents an interesting case none the less: an artist straitjacketed by the limitations of what once seemed like a major aesthetic innovation; an artist condemned to the Dantean punishment of confinement within the small, small box he has made for himself.
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