(Subject to Change): Lawrence Weiner and the Contingencies of Language

Two days before his exhibition “THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CUL-DE-SAC” opened in March 2009, at the Power Plant in Toronto, Lawrence Weiner was supposed to give a lecture on his art and life to a sell-out audience. What he did was not conventional lecture fare. Instead of telling the audience things, he asked them to pose questions that would act as a catalyst for a lecture that would transform into a conversation.

The reaction was prolonged silence. Since a critic abhors silence as much as nature does a vacuum, I asked a question about the way his language functions in comparison to the way it is deployed in the work of Roni Horn and Ed Ruscha, artists to whom Weiner is close and for whom he has expressed considerable admiration. While the circumstances may have encouraged the timing of my question, it wasn’t unconsidered, since I have been wondering about the uses of language in sculpture and its use as sculpture. This latter function is closer to Weiner’s understanding of the word as object than it is to either Horn’s or Ruscha’s. Her handling of language tends to be poetic, both in its borrowings and application; Rucha’s is whimsical and impish, with a heavy reliance on puns.

In contrast, Weiner’s is steadfastly uninflected, willfully incomplete and tantalizing, maybe even perverse. He often employs puns, compressed fragments of language with inherited meaning. The title of his recent touring retrospective, co-organized by the Whitney and MOCA LA, “AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE,” is a case in point. It’s meaning is unequivocal at the same time that the answer, depending on who responds to it, is numerically vast. Whose eye, under what conditions, in what place? What at first may seem an unambiguous, straightforward declaration of one thing, or action, or condition, begins to transform into something quite different and more complicated the longer you think about it. The viewer’s tendency with Weiner’s work is to turn the statement or phrase into a question. The artist himself has a preference for the substantive. As he says, “I really see everything in nouns.” The transition from making to apprehending, then, traces a shift from the declarative to the interrogative. That is precisely how Weiner wants his words to function; they may be descriptions or facts (and it is in this sense that he considers himself a “realist”), but they are also catalysts for an interaction with the viewer/audience. In this understanding, the read changes from realist to magic realist. We enter into an engagement with the alchemy of words.

This is what happens with the title of the Power Plant exhibition. A cul-de-sac is a dead end, an urban space with deliberately constructed limitations. The term carries with it a slightly negative tinge; if the cul-de-sac is closed off, then whatever is on the other side is everything without constraints. Weiner’s own work functions like a cul-de-sac; its literal meaning seems like a dead end with a single, flat meaning. But as soon as you begin to apply any interpretive pressure to his minimal language, it opens up to myriad possibilities. It’s worth noting in this regard that in the language of real estate and urban design, a cul-de-sac is desirable precisely because it is closed off. The blind alley is the perspective everyone wants.

If there is a mutable quality to language in Weiner’s practice, there is, as well, a sense of malleability in his negotiations with the history of conceptual art in which he has played a central role. It is generally accepted that he wrote his famous “Statement of Intent,” a declaration regarded as one of the foundations of conceptual art, after assessing the damage done to a piece he had made in 1968. The work consisted of 34 stakes arranged in a grid pattern on a grass field, all of which were joined together by twine. The field was used by students for touch football games and at some point the twine was cut. The conclusion that Weiner came to was that the piece wasn’t destroyed. “The work existed purely and simply by virtue of its having been made public,” he told an interviewer in 1988. “The eventual consequence of this was that the rendering of a work in language was sufficient.” In 1988 a piece of string could be the basis for a theory; 20 years later what he calls “this thing of who did what first” doesn’t make any sense to him and constitutes “a silly conversation.” As he says, prior to the incident with the string, his studio notebooks were already visibly “filled with everything in language.” It’s a case of story following language with the same ineluctability that required form to follow function.

Early in this interview, Weiner refers to the various retrospectives he has had over his lengthy career. “I learnt that the generosity of artists,” he says, “is what makes the art world work.” It is, in itself a generous observation. Weiner is a quietly expansive man, with a deep, carefully modulated voice. When he speaks, the words come out like objects, as if the larynx and the cavern of the mouth had chiselled and shaped them before they were allowed to enter the world. But his observations make clear that his life is shaped by necessary and passionate connections. Those conditions and qualities were made evident in his response to the death of his long-time friend, the artist Gerald Ferguson. They met in the halcyon days when the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax was one of the best, and most controversial, art schools in North America. When Border Crossings asked him if he would write a eulogy, Weiner’s response was to honour his lost friend, another member of what he has elsewhere called “the universal family of artists,” by making an art piece. (The tribute is reproduced on pages ____ of this issue). The directness of its language, the way it stays lodged in the real world of observation and then rises to the more real world of the imagination, is a triumph. The reason Lawrence Weiner can speak so plainly about the generosity of artists is because it is a plane that he himself occupies.

*To read Robert Enright’s interview with Lawrence Weiner, conducted on March 13, 2009, in the Board Room at the Power Plant in Toronto, pick up Issue 112 on newsstands now.

The exhibition, “THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CUL-DE-SAC” opened at the Power Plant on March 14, 2009, and continued through May 18, 2009.

Volume 28, Number 4: Micah Lexier

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #112, published December 2009.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.