Conceptual art's founding father opens up about his five-decade career disrupting the norm
“I try to make work that nobody can use if they are not willing to accept a change in whatever logic structure they are stuck in,” explains Lawrence Weiner. It is the day before the opening of his solo exhibition BE THAT AS IT MAY at the Lisson Gallery, and accompanied with a glass of whisky, he begins to unravel a five decade career in which he has deconstructed artistic practices and expanded the accepted notions of the art object. As the title of his new show suggests, Weiner proposes “are we going to accept this as art?” Something that has continued to fuel his fascination with materialism and breaking down the structure of things. THIS AS THAT (BE THAT AS IT MAY) is printed on the window of the gallery, projected inwards and outwards, allowing it to be viewed simultaneously without occupying the room itself. It becomes a material fact, less to do with the way the text is presented and more to do with its relation to space. Here, Lawrence Weiner discusses growing up in the Bronx, pretty girls at MoMa and his dedication to changing attitudes.
Dazed Digital: When did your fascination with language begin?
Lawrence Weiner: I'm not even that fascinated by language. Language became the means to break the hierarchal standard. I got good at what I was doing. Language became a necessity because painting had reached a certain point. It just wasn't allowing me to go as deep into the relationship of what interested me - human beings and objects. Remember, at that time, it was not a radical choice. There were thirty or forty artists who began to see language as a means of making art. It wasn't radical. It wasn't even a departure. Nobody was paying attention to you apart from your little art world. It didn't much matter. You didn't have to fit in. The whole point of the work is that it puts a material fact out. It has no metaphor. I don't know how someone will react. It doesn't carry a hidden meaning. You don't miss the point, the point is there. Each individual person comes to art and looks at it. If it doesn't have a metaphor, they will take their needs and their desires and build a metaphor from what they are looking at. That is why Mondrian was so powerful.
DD: You began your career with explosion events...
Lawrence Weiner: That was something else. It was 1960 and I was in California. I did a piece of work where I made a mistake, not that we got caught. We didn't even get prosecuted because there was a whole lot of people and I guess the judge at Mill Valley realised that if he held anybody, he would be stuck with all these people. I think we were sort of scary, but not frightening like Hells Angels. I thought that each individual explosion was a sculpture. I had to function and deal with it that way. Four years down the line I had my own crisis. I decided that I didn't want to participate in this world anymore. Looking back, it was a very post-adolescent mentality of not wanting to do something. From then onwards, it wasn't about each individual explosion. Each hole meant something to somebody and the idea became obvious, that each hole would always mean something to somebody. That was the point in making art, that it meant something to somebody. I guess I didn't stop producing this kind of work. Instead, I stopped thinking about the specific individual object. I began to realise that the drama of each individual work was the object. I guess it took me a while.
DD: Growing up in the South Bronx, was there a concept of art?
Lawrence Weiner: Only by chance, yes. I had seen art but I didn't really understand it. They gave out free passes to public school kids for the Museum of Modern Art. It knocked my socks off. I made a joke, but it is not really a joke, it is the truth, that whenever you went to MoMa, there were always very pretty girls there. So, that was my introduction into so called 'art'. I guess I wasn't such a loud mouthed kid as I thought. An awful lot of people, and I don't know how they had the patience, were extremely kind to me. Seriously. I didn't have to fight my way through. As an artist it was another story. When it became obvious to me that I knew what I was going to try to do, I remember some very established artists telling me “Hey kid, everybody says your crazy, your not crazy, but how to fuck are you going to make a living?"
DD: Did that excite you?
Lawrence Weiner: No, I had used up my excitement by that time. The gentile poverty of being an artist was far less daunting than trying to decide where I fit in positively in society. I come from a background of social engagement and civil rights long before it was fashionable, so I felt a bit of guilt for stepping aside and saying essentially instead of changing the temporal, I was literally trying to change the culture. It took a while and an awful lot of guilt. A lot of self searching to get to the point where I began to think it really was possible, by making art to change the logic structure of society.
DD: There must have been a strong feeling of change since the release of your first Artist Statement?
Lawrence Weiner: No, I was lucky because I had an audience from the very beginning. Mainly consisting of artists. It was small, perhaps it made noise, but it had no power. I never felt like I was one against the world, it just was a little hard. There were difficulties, but they were from my own choice. I had the opportunity to teach, but I wanted not to. When you teach, you take on an authority and you are responsible for people. Artists are not supposed to have authority. You are supposed to really and truly be the scribbler on the ground. Maybe it was a romantic choice. The making of art is about what you show, it is not about this persona that they are trying to build around you.
DD: Do you feel your work is ever romantic?
Lawrence Weiner: Aspirational, yes. Of course, doesn't everybody? With every work that I show, if people accept the logic structure it would radically change their attitude towards life. I try to make work that nobody can use if they are not willing to accept a change in whatever logic structure they are stuck in. Art is supposed to change the way you relate to the world at large. Hey, thats not romantic, is it? But, I guess aspirational is not so bad.
Lawrence Weiner's BE THAT AS IT MAY is held at London's Lisson Gallery until 12 January 2013