It all started with a photograph, one taken in 1969 during the run-up to the seminal exhibition ‘Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form: Works – Concepts – Processes – Situations – Information’ which was initially held at the Kunsthalle Bern between 1969-1970 before being transposed and re-staged in part at the 2013 Venice Biennial at the Fondazione Prada.
It shows the young American artist Lawrence Weiner, today a grandstanding figure of conceptual art, meticulously and laboriously scraping the plaster off a wall to leave a clean square of the building’s original masonry exposed (A 36” x 36” Removal to the Lathing or Support Wall of Plaster or Wallboard from a Wall (1968/2013). By doing so he reveals in the most simple of manners the present yet hidden facets of the architectural space while undermining the inflated institutional context of the Kunsthalle as a kind of elevated space that is disconnected from the politicised reality outside the gallery walls. Such concerns are shared amongst many of Weiner’s fellow participants. Michael Heizer smashed the pavement beside the Kunsthalle with a wrecking ball (‘Bern Depression’) while Ger Van Elk replaced a segment of the paving stones outside (‘Replacement Piece’, both works 1969). Meanwhile, Joseph Kosuth released a series of advertisements in in local newspapers and Richard Long completed a three-day walk through the Swiss mountains nearby. Such actions were firmly distanced from the hermetically sealed gallery environment, fulfilling Harald Szeeman’s curatorial ambition for a state of ‘controlled chaos’.
Illustration 2: MATTER SO SHAKEN TO ITS CORE…
This photograph set me thinking about the nature of Weiner’s practice itself. ‘A 36” x 36” Removal to the Lathing or Support Wall of Plaster or Wallboard from a Wall’, like much of Weiner’s earlier work (which subsisted of actions such as pouring paint, bleach and seawater in the gallery space and creating explosions to hollow out craters in the ground) retains its power of immediacy across the divide of its recollection. The attention he gives to a chance-driven process in these early pieces links Weiner to his radical American forbears, figures like John Cage, Allan Kaprow and even Jackson Pollock, while his interest in the physical properties and the material specificities of his actions reflects both the Post-Minimalist and Arte Povera practices with whom Weiner would remain aligned. However the idea holds the potential to be conveyed through description (language) as much as it does, or has done, through actions conducted within in a physical space. Such ideas are timeless – Weiner’s ‘A 36” x 36” Removal to the Lathing or Support Wall of Plaster or Wallboard from a Wall’ does not change its status as a work whether it is executed in 1969 or, as was necessitated, in 2013 for the re-staging of a past exhibition. The photograph acts as a cipher for the idea and becomes s an appropriate stand-in for the work itself; the concept it pertains to continues to exist within the viewer’s head.
Illustration 3: A PENNY HERE / A PENNY THERE installed in the Chapel
This is facilitated by Weiner’s very specific titles; which often seem to function in an instructive manner, implying a sly functionality at the core of his methodology. Eventually language itself would become the main subject of his practice and take precedence over action. His later works consist of large text-based interventions in a physical space, often formed out of cut vinyl pasted to a variety of surfaces and very often devised on a site-specific basis. This approach would continue to form the basis of much the artist’s subsequent career of over 50-years, along with works in other media including film, publications, sound and performance. Weiner’s actions are immediate, simple and democratic – in his 1968 ‘Statement of Intent’ he clearly identifies ‘universal availability’ as a key guiding principle, a sentiment shared by other Conceptual practitioners such as Douglas Huebler, Robert Barry, and Joseph Kosuth (the four artists would exhibit together at the January Show at the Seth Siegelaub gallery in 1969)– all of whom share a similar discrepancy between the idea of a ‘de-materialized’ practice through such abstract notions as language and the importance of the physical exhibition space as a catalyst for the generation of new ideas. Weiner, however, never denied the material aspect of his work and even stresses its status as sculpture. Such a notion is not as unlikely as it may seem at first, many of Weiner’s selected phrases and their placement in space do conjure ideas of weight, balance, mass and form. This is conveyed both through the way in which the words are strategically arranged around the architectural facets of the exhibition space and the ideas and emotions that specific phrases evoke. Universal concepts such as ‘Earth’ and ‘Ocean’ hold a a metaphorical ‘weightiness’ that, bearing the strange inversion of scale that Weiner’s work often entails, convey a visceral immediacy. Weiner’s work remains universal to the core – to the extent that works are not specific to any one language or format, but could end up being placed on the side of a building, placed on a t-shirt or embossed in a manhole cover.
Illustration 4: SO FAR FLUNG installed in the Green Drawing Room
Blenheim Palace, then, makes for an interesting choice of venue for a new exhibition of new work by the artist, entitled ‘WITHIN A REALM OF A DISTANCE’ – this phrase being an oft-repeated motif in Weiner’s recent output. The artist has most recently been represented in this country by the exhibitions ‘Straight Down to Below: Lawrence Weiner’ (part of the Artist Rooms on tour at Tate Modern and National Galleries of Scotland) at the Woodhorn Museum and ‘All In Due Course’ at the South London Gallery. Situated in Woodstock in rural Oxfordshire, the 18th century palace is the seat to the Duke of Marlborough and the only non- royal non-episcopal house to hold the title of palace in England. It is also the home of the Blenheim Art Foundation, a private initiative founded by Lord Edward Spencer-Churchill and launched in 2014 with the aim of establishing a new programme for contemporary art in the historic grounds of Blenheim Palace. The not-for-profit foundations aims to create a space in which people can enjoy contemporary art outside of what Lord Spencer-Churchill and the Blenheim Art Foundation Director Michael Frahm identify as the conventional ‘white-box’ type gallery environment and its limitations; thereby mixing different influences in an enriching and sometimes surprising conglomeration of old and new.
The curatorial eye of Christian Gether, director of the ARKEN Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, as well as Weiner’s thoughtful examination of the relationship between language and space set up this involving and visually alluring paradox throughout the exhibition. The discrepancy between the historicized space, loaded with anecdote and allusion, and Weiner’s austere conceptual interventions engenders a highly fraught juxtaposition of different resources. Against the odds, this manages to generate a productive, suggestive tension rather than come across as a glib and ill-suited marriage of form and meaning. As with Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at Blenheim Palace last year (the first contemporary art exhibition organised by the Foundation) the art does not only embellish the already impressive location, but is informed by it and reacts off of it in ways that can be as thought- provoking as they are aesthetically pleasing. For example, a series of small works on canvas all based on the premise of something ‘Found…’ are placed surreptitiously around the premises, almost
hidden amongst framed memorabilia, antique portraits and tourist information boards. This entices the viewer to actively seek out the paintings whereabouts and so readdress and engage with the space around them. Similarly, he interjects his texts onto existing objects, such as the phrase ‘SO FAR FLUNG’ emblazoned in bright blue upon a ornate mirror in the Green Drawing Room, where it interjects in our perception of the space and seems to hover uncertainly in the viewers peripheral vision (ill. 4).
Illustration 5: MORE THAN ENOUGH installed in the Library
At times, it is hard not to miss the subversive streak that underlined the artist’s earlier work. There would have been a sense of destructive glee to be gained in the spectacle of Weiner scraping the finely gilded plasterwork away from the lavish Baroque walls, thus deflating the pomposity of his surroundings. Here, however, Weiner’s intentions seem more esoteric – recurrent references are made to the apparent alchemical properties of various substances that either remain elusive, identifiable only by chemical traits such as their colour or reactivity, or specifically named (Aluminium, Lead..) This motif is repeated in the Great Hall, which visitors to Blenheim first see on entering the building. Two phrases (‘beginning with MATTER SO SHAKEN…’) stretch out on either side of the hall, dividing it into tertiary segments and labelling each in a quasi-empirical yet prosaic way that relates somehow to matter and density (ill. 2). The weight of such materials as the heavy metals Weiner alludes to is offset by the unlikely placement of the texts in space. What is perhaps more surprising is how well these very modern works fit in to the historic environment of Blenheim Palace, subtly merging carefully accentuated forms and highlights of pure colour into the existing space. The works relating to matter are set in relation to the soaring pediments set in the decorative ceilings of the Long Library, conjuring thoughts of mass yet defying gravity, both through an implied alchemical transformation (the reiterated syntax of ‘MORE’ suggesting a searching, experimental quality to some elusive process just out of grasp) as much as an assured understanding of the dimensions and potential of light and space.
Illustration 6: MORE ALUMINIUM THAN LEAD.. installed upon the Library Ceiling
This is all the more commendable given the grandiosity of the surroundings, enough to smother many a more bombastic artist. In places, Weiner places directly against the context of the stately home, as in the work reading ‘FAR AWAY AS TO COME READILY TO HAND’, which hangs on a banner that covers one of the ornate tapestries in the distinctive State Room,. Apart from a few gracefully curved lines, which echo the arabesque trappings of the interior, Weiner offers no unnecessary visual fuss. Instead his banner functions as if to blank out the redundantly exoticised scenes of the past as portrayed in the tapestries, usually bombastic celebrations of a military or colonial variation (ill. 7). It is as if the artist wishes to wipe the slate clear for the generation of new ideas, a process that Weiner identifies as constructing a simultaneous reality in an existing support structure for art laden with ‘objects of desire’ accrued over the passage of time.
Illustration 7: FAR AWAY ENOUGH AS TO COME READILY TO HAND installed in the State Room
Weiner is sometimes more evidently intrigued by the architecture itself, such as in the circular swirl of text that follows the pre-existing features of the decorative ceiling pediments in the Library (‘MORE THAN ENOUGH..’, ill.5 ). An disingenuous statement, ‘A PENNY HERE / A PENNY THERE’, placed morosely in the chapel attached to the main building, suggests an ambiguous sense of reverence (ill. 3). Art may be offered as a force of spiritual salvation, yet whether this work could also be read as an underhand reference to the financial accumulation of both religious and market institutions remains unclear. Throughout ‘WITHIN A REALM OF A DISTANCE’, Weiner achieves a harmony of balance through the most simple of means, demonstrating that an economy of action can sometimes be as effective as a more spectacular exhaustive approach. His work speaks in a direct, yet understated, language. Through his evocative arrangements of language in relation to a very particular space, Weiner once again succeeds in celebrating the power and beauty of an original idea well realised.
LAWRENCE WEINER : WITHIN A REALM OF DISTANCE runs from 10 October 2015 – 20 December 2015
Words/Photos: George Micallef-Eynaud © artlyst 2015