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Lawrence Weiner on fury and changing the world

We get to grips with the conceptual artist before the opening of his new show at the South London Gallery

TextHarry ThornePhotographyJoe Ridout

Talking before the opening of his new solo show ‘All In Due Course’ at the South London Gallery, Lawrence Weiner asserted, "I make something, and that’s what I do […] there is no metaphor for the whole thing." It is an ambiguous but simple practice, and sometimes it is the simplest things that inspire the most complex questioning.

Oft-referenced alongside the likes of Sol LeWitt, Joseph Kosuth and Douglas Huebler as one of the most celebrated first generation conceptual artists – a title that he is both bemused and irritated by – Weiner’s works prioritise meaning over physical composition, something that ‘All In Due Course’ demonstrates. Rendered in a typeface of Weiner’s own design, the typographic ‘sculptures’ manage to exist as both precise and oblique. Shared between the main and first floor galleries, the SLG’s Fox Garden and the derelict frontage of the neighbouring Peckham Road Fire Station, statements such as ‘stretched to the limit’ and ‘stasis as to vector all in due course’ create an environment that accommodates ranges of interpretation. They are both comforting and off-putting, both sensical and non, both here and not. They exist solely because they do, acting to inspire a questioning in those who wish to question.

Explaining his decision to design a temporary tattoo for the show, one that is now available in the SLG gift shop, Weiner rolled up his sleeve to reveal a weathered design of a more permanent nature, a heart wrapped in a blank scroll. Smiling, he questioned, “What’s the point?” And that, for all intensive purposes, is exactly the point of his art. What is it? Why is it? What does it mean to you? Tell me.

What is ‘All In Due Course’ a reaction to?

Lawrence Weiner: It’s not a reaction. It is something. If you can put things together then they will lead to an inevitable end, it’s that simple. Whether that inevitable end is enviable or non-enviable, that’s another story.

You have stated that art is not really an intellectual process, but the product of a certain anger?

Lawrence Weiner: That’s something else, that’s anger with a culture, trying to make art that fucks up that culture.

And you would say that you are still trying to do that?

Lawrence Weiner: Yes sir.

How do you convey this anger through the works of ‘All In Due Course’?

Lawrence Weiner: In relation to sculpture, there’s some kind of miscomprehension that inevitably sculpture is static. In fact it’s not, it can and will affect things. It gets back to the old Ad Reinhardt thing: you can tell it’s sculpture because when you turn off the lights you trip on it. And anything I make, you can push it out the way but if you remember it, the concept itself, you’ll trip on it – one hopes.

What does the context of South London Gallery mean to you?

Lawrence Weiner: I grew up in the south Bronx. I lived there until I was 15. At the time that I was growing up it was a rather unpleasant place. Peckham now is sort of like…whatever it is, but it’s an interesting place. Why shouldn’t south London have as much of a show as the Tate? That’s my feeling. There is no such thing as provincial. There’s a need for art and art is there and that’s it. I’m not against anything. Why shouldn’t I make the same quality show here that I would make in central London? Art means what it says, not something else. There are no hierarchies built into it. But that doesn’t mean you have to like everything, or find something wonderful in it. Sometimes you just don’t find it. You like boys or girls that are three metres high or boys and girls that are one metre high. They’re all boys and girls. That’s the thing with art.

“The point is that it is. And if it does function, it functions. And if it don’t… Alas.“ - Lawrence Weiner

And what about the gallery space itself?

Lawrence Weiner: Look at this place! It’s absolutely spiffy. And it’s not pretentious spiffy, it’s just spiffy. The place has a sense of itself, and the people here they work with the housing estates as well. I don’t know how much I believe in art education. I believe in art history education: don’t tell anybody what art is; tell them what other people have done. Those are my feelings, but they have other feelings and they’re doing it, so why should I be involved?

There’s no money in it for me as far as I know. We’ve made the art world now and it doesn’t have any room for people whose parents were not successful. We used to get 10% of the ruling class, who now can’t waste eight years to get a degree, but they’re interested and they get involved. We used to get 10% of the emerging, other classes. We don’t get that anymore, we get the one 10%. And they’re fine, there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re not any less or more than the others, but it’s not enough. We’ve closed off art being this vibrant thing that used to attract all classes.

Within the confines of this constructed, closed off culture, how do you feel that first generation conceptual art is accommodated for?

Lawrence Weiner: The ones that you should be talking about today are here today. The ones that we were talking about, they accomplished something and they’re just not here today. I don’t know where they are. It’s not my business.

I was involved when I was a child with civil rights and labour organisations. You can help bring about a change with a radical situation, but you can’t live on that laurel for the rest of your life. You know, it’s Doctor Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet. He went and he worked with people that nobody would touch who had syphilis or gonorrhoea. It wasn’t the best – it was sulphur, it stopped it a little bit. He is a hero! But now if you got the clap, you would want penicillin. That’s the same with art. You have to put the thing down. If it doesn’t function anymore, it doesn’t function, but you don’t have to leave it out of history.

So you feel that, if this art is able to stand on its own two feet, then it will subsist regardless of the profile of the current climate?

Lawrence Weiner: Yes, if it functions. If it has a legitimate, open conversation. Not some old codger sitting in the corner of a bar saying, ‘Well, in my day it used to be…’ That’s not the point. The point is that it is. And if it does function, it functions. And if it don’t… Alas.

Does that tie into the temporally charged nature of the name, ‘All In Due Course’?

Lawrence Weiner: Yes, it’s all in due course. Each thing. Each person’s accomplishments change the world.

All In Due Course runs from September 26th-November 23rd at the South London Gallery.