A Question of Prescription
Lawrence Weiner retrospective at K21 Düsseldorf

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2021

‘As far as the eye can see?’ I hear someone snicker behind me in the queue at Dusseldorf’s K21. ‘That won’t be far today without my glasses.’

Weiner spoke recently in an interview on art without the need of metaphorical glasses, an exhibition situation where human beings bring their gaze to a work of art, with all their needs and desires, and create their own meaning from it. There is no didacticism, no imposition, just ideas and principles. In the ‘As Far as the Eye Can See’ exhibition these principles, so quintessentially Weiner, are translated into the language of the exhibition location (as is the artist’s practice) and mark the start of a retrospective journey of this Conceptual Art giant’s oeuvre, which will run until January 11th, 2009.

Over 300 language based works, ranging from sculptures, animations, exhibition posters, artist’s books to Weiner memorabilia (my particular favourite being a set of ‘Die Damen’ stockings), all pristinely displayed, stretch as far as the eye can see round the corners and curves of the K21’s complex architecture. Weiner’s words ‘An die See auf die See von der See in die See grenzend’ cleverly frame the focal point of the space – a semi circle of porthole windows lying half below the water level of the museum’s exterior pond. The earlier work, ‘A Level of Water’ (1969) provides an interesting, yet fairly obvious counterpoint – a technique that sets the precedent for the rest of the show’s non-chronological juxtaposition of work.

Weiner’s earlier concrete objects such as ‘What is set upon the table, sits upon the table’ (1962-63) and ‘Broken Off’ (1971) are ensconced between a glut of his later statements, appearing in a conservative vinyl typeface of monolithic proportions. The curatorial hand has consciously separated documentation and ‘Works’. Grouping exhibition posters from the last 50 years, and putting materials such as wooden games (‘One Plus One is Two’) and a number of Art & Project bulletins conceived by the artist in showcases. Preparatory sketches and floorplans made by Weiner fall somewhere between these clearly defined categories, indexing the often fraught process between idea and execution, even of conceptual works.

The resulting materiality of the show facilitates what could perhaps be the only kind of tribute possible to an artist whose chief aim was to reflect on the relationship between people, ideas and objects. To flog an already tired metaphor, if these are to be the spectacles through which audiences envision ‘Conceptual art’ then one must question the prescription.

The prerequisite reading list needed to gain an informed understanding of both Weiner’s intentions and his canonical position in Western art of the 20th Century, reveals the unfeasibility of his principles in their current context of reception. His premise that ‘…the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership’ places the burden of understanding on the audience with whom Weiner intends to converse in his retrospective; a new generation of viewers who is not necessarily on speaking terms with Lucy Lippard and her Six Years: the dematerialisation of the Art Object. Thus Weiner’s own words, ‘Made unsuitable to/for Put out of place to/for Catered to/for Not quite done to/for’ and ‘Taken from here to where it came from And taken to a place and used in such a manner that it can only remain as a representation of what it came from’ become ominous signifiers of what may be lost in translation through time.

If the motivation for any retrospective is to survey an individual creative narrative, then education is the unpopular ‘E’ word missing in this Weiner monologue. Acknowledging the simplicity of artistic concepts cannot result in a myopic vision of conceptual art’s real complexity. Richard Serra’s words come to mind: ‘…every generation defines itself’ and within the context of regional contemporary art practice and display, this show’s absence of the necessary ideological, and therefore optical, aids suggests that the playful, radical significance of Weiner’s artistic experimentation is further than the eye can see clearly.

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2021