Arni Runar Haraldsson
Vancouver Art Gallery (1991)
C Magazine #29, Spring 1991
[ 1,016 words ]
Since the late sixties, American conceptual artist, Lawrence Weiner has consistently employed language in his work. Along with other conceptual artists, notably Robert Smithson and Joseph Kosuth, Weiner is a forerunner of a second generation of conceptual artists such as Jenny Holzer.
His work has evolved from an earlier conceptual adventure with visual reductionism and dematerialisation toward a gradual affirmation of plastic presence — a progression away from the Utopian ideals of a particular moment without completely abandoning its ideological aspirations. One of the constants throughout has concerned the notion of context. Conceptual art acquired meaning through its context — its placement in both space and time. By developing and maintaining a specific individual signature, conceptual artists were able to explore variations of meaning through variations of context.
Placed Upon the Horizon (Casting Shadows) is a recent work by Weiner, made specifically for the Vancouver Art Gallery. Permanently situated on the gallery's exterior frieze, above majestic steps and Ionic columns, the inscription (in upper-case letters) is carved out of yellow cedar. From down in the street, the natural beauty of the raw cedar assumes a richness akin to the gilded lettering often encountered on the façades of official buildings. During the day, the inscription is made legible by natural daylight, but at night, devoid of artificial light, the work announces in allegorical manner the conditions of its own existence.
As public sculpture, Placed Upon . . . recalls earlier work by Weiner intended for outdoor display, such as Many Coloured Objects Placed Side by Side to Form a Row of Many Coloured Objects, which formed part of his contribution to Documenta 7 in 1982. This inscription was situated on the exterior frieze of the Museum Fridericianum. Writing on Documenta 7, Benjamin Buchloh prepared the subsequent reception of this work: 'The particular function of this work was the restoration of the real conditions of discourse which underlay the accumulation of mythical objects on display inside the museum. Its placement in an architectural setting insured a public mode of address, and its particular material (bronze-coloured letters applied with automobile lacquer sold by Chrysler to BMW) pointed to the extension of the conditions of imperialism from economic to aesthetic matters.' (October 22, Fall 1982) From this it would appear that Weiner's art operates as a type of critical commentary. And yet, he had insistently denied (as he did during a public dialogue in Vancouver) that his art is invested with political intent.
Indeed, Weiner has consistently refrained from any imposition of meaning. Thus an integral aspect of his work is the existence of a 'receiver' who, upon entering into 'exchange' with the work, partakes in the construction of its meaning: 'Art that imposes conditions . . . on the receiver for its appreciation in my eyes constitutes aesthetic fascism.' (Weiner, 1969) Similarly, his denial of subject matter may be understood not as a subordination, favouring form over content, but rather for him the subject matter of a work is its material.
Consistent with his thinking about language, Weiner has continued to produce open, verbal constructions which are not strictly self-referential but may also refer to sculpture, architecture and painting. Placed Upon . . ., for example, alludes to its own specific placement and may consequently be read as addressing (however indirectly) the institutional context of presentation, as well as its immediate architectural environs, whereby the institutional power and property relations underlying the museum structure may he equated with the corporate power. At the level of material (yellow cedar), reference is made to the production and accumulation of capital and transformation of nature. However, given the openness, the poetic and philosophical overtones of his verbal constructions, all is open to speculation, since the ideological discourse surrounding the institutional context of the museum is today totally overdetermined. Weiner works in and around this problematic of context, denying claims of institutional critique while employing modes of address and strategies that suggest otherwise.
The trajectory of his evolution may shed some light on this seeming contradiction. After the mid-sixties analysis of the context of specific objects, propositions and functions appeared exhausted, artists began to consider the society and culture in which such objects operate. The critique of the art object, along with an increasing need for a renewed social content, prompted many artists to engage with the mass media and the public site. Thus an artist like Jenny Holzer, a descendant of conceptual art, has learned from its failure to develop a social constituency beyond the art world. She takes into account the position of the subject; her work intervenes at the point of the production of the subject rather than of the art object. Her use of public sign systems — displaying slogans or vernacular statements — places in contradiction certain ideological structures, which thus play off one another. Whereas Holzer uses language to call language itself into crisis, Weiner conceives of language as both matter and idea. His statements tend toward the philosophical; hers toward the socio-political.
Conceptual art initiated the relinquishment of sculpture and painting in favour of language. The subsequent dematerialised work was constructed in an effort to escape the grasp of institutions and the condition of objects. Physical manifestations of the categorical art object, almost abjured in this process, have since made a reappearance. Two works by Weiner are emblematic of this progression: A Square Removed from a Rug in Use (1968) and Placed Upon . . . . One concerns a gesture of removal while the other is an affirmation of plastic presence. Placed Upon . . . is in many respects a departure from certain of the orthodoxies of earlier conceptual art. Indeed, one could describe the work as entertaining notions of aesthetic beauty — the shape of the letters, the colour of gold, the classical setting and so on.
Weiner's work engages current modes and practice while harbouring traces of the recent past. His work thus encapsulates an aspect of the crisis evident in much present art concerning the reconciliation of an autonomous practice with a critical one.
C Magazine #29, Spring 1991.
Text: © Arni Runar Haraldsson. All rights reserved.
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