The Language of Stuff: An Interview with Richard Wentworth

Richard Wentworth has played an important role in the development of British sculpture since the late 1970s, repositioning the readymade (industrial objects, either bought or found) into disarmingly poetic and curiously metaphysical works. In the mid-1980s, his manipulated tables, buckets, and chairs appeared on the international scene in the context of his generational peers and fellow countrymen Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, and Bill Woodrow. Through procedures of joining, inserting, and pairing, Wentworth attempts to draw objects out, uncovering their various selves and rerouting what and how they signify. His activities go beyond producing discrete objects or installations, although he has done this consistently with great wit and dexterity. He resists the temptation to pump up the size of work or to substitute permanent materials for challengingly conceptual ones. He has chosen instead a “broader is better” strategy, which has him photographing the streets in his London neighborhood and those of several other European cities. There he finds a continuous flow of urban flotsam: remnants of industrial obsolescence, commonsense solutions to daily dilemmas, and a geometry that lurks in abject spaces.

Installation view with (foreground) Spread, 1995–99, ceramic plates, 6 meters diameter; (background) Flight (Two Storey Rorschach), 1999, ceramic plates and steel pins, dimensions variable; and (on wall) From Occasional Geometrics, 1999

Wentworth recently began curating, organizing an exhibition called “Thinking Aloud” for the Haywood Gallery in London. This show functioned like a Kunstkammer (collector’s cabinet), bringing together works by Walker Evans, Mel Bochner, Philip Guston, and Tom Sachs, among others, and objects including patent designs, a sheet of Princess Diana commemorative stamps, a brick mold, and a Braille typewriter. These juxtapositions challenged distinctions between high and low, and use and value and, like Wentworth’s art, provided an opportunity to contemplate slippage.

The University of Oxford and the San Francisco Art Institute recently honored Wentworth with the first 1871 Fellowship, a unique residency program for visual artists. Named for the founding date of both Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art and the San Francisco Art Institute, the fellowship provides British-based artists with an opportunity to pursue in-depth research, develop new work, and exchange ideas with colleagues and students in both the UK and the U.S. The selection of Wentworth (self-described as “an artist who might have been, in different weather conditions, a historian, anthropologist, architect, or urbanist”) demonstrates the breadth and importance of his work as well as his embodiment of the kind of artist that the 1871 Felowship organizers seek to recognize: those who are “adept synthesizers of intellectual, social, and political information in a global context.”

Installation view of photographs with (top) London 1987 and France 1993, 1995; (bottom) England 1978 and London 1979, 1995. Unique prints, 48 x 107 cm.

Stuart Horodner: I came across a statement by Jean Baudrillard that reminded me of your photos: “To take photographs is not to take the world for an object, but to make it an object, to exhume its otherness buried beneath its alleged reality, to bring it forth as a strange attractor, and pin down that strange attraction in an image.”

Richard Wentworth: I think it makes me feel slightly sick to my stomach to leave home saying, “I’m going to take a photograph.”

SH: You may not leave the house to take them, but you have the camera and are in a state of reception.

RW: I would hate to make that sound like a High Art condition. One way of expressing this is that artists make their own luck. I’m interested in the idea that humans are mood. I know that part of mood is socialized. What we are doing now, we would not do nearly so vivaciously at 9:30 in the morning.

One of the things I like very much about London in the morning is being on the bus, and the bus feeling like a huge bathroom. It’s just full of people who smell of the bath. Everyone’s got wet hair, and the bus isn’t really designed to accommodate it. In winter it becomes a huge sauna. It’s an incredibly collective thing. Everybody, within the last hour, hour and a half, has shared a common experience that was intensely private. They got wet—water coming through this huge urban structure, which has been raised to a temperature that they find acceptable, to which they’ve added something—soap. They’ve brought themselves up to this condition which they regard as their public selves. So they go from a very private condition to a very public one. This plays on two nouns we use, usually quite lazily: one is “nature” and the other is “accident.” Where are these in a city? In a city, a blade of grass sticks up, tries to meet the world between two paving stones, and it says, “Oh, I found this little vestige of possibility.” As a rule, something will come around and tell it not to be there—our constant decision that this thing is good and that one is bad: “Do not cut down that tree, I love it,” and something else which begs, “Please come and remove these.” The selection is intensely political. What could you say in a city is an accident? There are different orders of deliberateness. I see formalism wherever I look, and then I see all the ripostes to formalism. I find it incredibly poignant that the world is resisting. And I think that’s the pump at the back of the photographs. The photographs, in a way, have to do with the rub.

Plates, 2000. Site-specific work installed over the entrance of the Haus der Kunst, Munich.

SH: You’ve shown with Gabriel Orozco, who said something like, ”I’m not interested in the work of art when you are looking at it in the museum. I’m interested in how it affects what happens to you when you leave the museum—how you look at everything else.” I remember seeing several of your photographs in Artforum in 1985 and thinking that they were about finding, framing, pointing. Look at this, and look at this. And it was art with a small “a.”

RW: I find it difficult to look at the forms of the world and not art historicize them. I don’t mean that in an academic way, I’m not well enough trained, but it does sort of amuse me. I’ve only recently learned how important light is. I’ve taken so many appalling photographs, where I thought I’d done the work, and it’s simply some illegible arrangement. The other thing is, of course, that I never really had any expectations that they’d be published. It’s strange realizing that there is an appetite. I don’t look at them at home, they’re not on the wall. I like the fact that slides and transparencies are invisibilities. So, in one sense, they never become images. What makes them images is if I decide to show them to someone else, or I decide to look at them with light behind them.

What I find stimulating is the residue of human agency. I’ll give you an example. On Thursday I had to go to a museum in Manchester. I’d been invited to curate a gallery, which turns out to be a fabulously compromised project. I thought it was, “You can do what you like and you can have as much space as you want,” but of course it isn’t. But in a way it’s quite good for me to see what I can do wiggling on the end of a line.

I got a cab from the station to the museum. A large part of Manchester had been rebuilt since the war and I drove past a pretty derivative ’70s building with a big enclosed courtyard area and overly designed steps that were probably five- or six-sided. You can find them anywhere in the Western world. The idea is that you can leave in any direction. Actually a fucking irritating, stupid piece of form, but it stretched through the whole site, and I just glimpsed it from a speeding cab. Then I saw that balanced on these steps were four chairs and that there was a tape that went incredibly, laboriously from the chair…what caught my eye was the drunkenness of the chair. Even as I say that, I realize that I’ve made a work, “The Drunken Chair.” But I’m not someone who goes around…a trainspotter collecting drunken chairs.

I thought, “I’ll be late, all those heavy people from government, the meetings, it won’t look good. I bet it’ll be there later.” This is very typical…a very strong impulse, almost a sexual impulse, very fast response. Then there is another pressure that makes me procrastinate, makes me think “It will be alright,” and I might even think, “Maybe the light will be better.” So I went to the meeting. Eventually I got out and went back to the steps; of course it was gone.

What was interesting was that I had a confirmation of why it had been like that. They’d painted the edge of the steps because the steps were so badly designed that you’d think you’d die on them. I photographed the white line because there was something very interesting about standing at the top and seeing the white lines range up across this stupid form. But actually, I was just angry with myself because I thought the dynamic of it was this mass of steppery and the attempt to signify forbidden territory. The white line was a warning. I’m articulating it for the first time now. The chairs were anchors to allow somebody to warn people that there were warnings that weren’t yet cooked.

The Loops, 1996–99. Book, assorted plates, and metal on glass, installation view.

SH: In one of your catalogues there is a photograph of your studio floor.

RW: Quite an old picture. I’m very interested that people want to talk about technical things in relationship to artists. Why, for instance, David Smith didn’t have assistants. It’s all a bit romanticized, but, nevertheless, he did it himself mostly. He could make jokes about his signature, he actually had a virtuoso signing thing, but the work contains the authority of making. Thinking and making, making and thinking. When something is welded to something in a Smith, it’s incredibly articulate. It’s not like any other kind of welding that I know of, and it’s absolutely unlike someone like Tony Caro, where you feel it’s sort of gentlemanly: “Join this to that”—and it’s joined. I’m not suggesting for a minute that it’s going to break off, but with David Smith, you can actually have a feeling of talking to it while going round.

I think you have to learn by procedure. Half of the most interesting things in the world are the result of spilling the water and turning around. Moments of recognition. We struggle to articulate ourselves, and you can often hear somebody say the same thing three or four times because they are in a constant state of criticizing the way they said it the first time. We don’t like humans who say it right the first time, or we find it spooky. The process of articulating is trying to make it a little less inadequate then how we felt it was three minutes before. What I meant was the way you discover procedures. Morris Louis discovered that if you just add more of this, it goes more like that. And that meant a lot to him. Somebody else would say, “My paint’s all thin.”

Most of what interests me is anti-heroic. I didn’t realize that until quite recently. All of these things [picks up a coffee cup] are where the interest in the domestic object comes from. We even say that this is the lip. It’s just dripping in anthropomorphic terminology. Give me an etymological dictionary and I’m very happy. It’s like having money in your pocket. That money was somebody else’s money and somebody else’s money and what’s more, it’s worthless. It just stands for something.

Roland Barthes’ Desk, 1997. Wood, aluminum, laminate, and nails.

SH: Which is why the mutability of language seems so related to what you’re doing.

RW: Yes. I love that it’s just tools that we stick together and spew.

SH: Robert Motherwell talked about having to find a “creative principle.” For him it was two parts—automatism and refinement.

RW: Yeah. By having things in the studio, and if there’s enough of them, it raises the level to which they might tap me on the shoulder and go, “Psst. Did you notice that I’ve been sitting next to so and so? And when you were out of the room, I spoke to so and so.” I need that. Those processes are contained within the performance of the work. There’ve been a lot of pieces I’ve made with broken plates. If you see them photographed they often look quite decorative, too gorgeous for their own good. But if you saw one in space, one of the things you should notice is that [putting saucers, cups, and glasses in a row] this point of contact is absolutely specific, that point is not. A lot of these are made with broken half plates, so this is not a very accurate line. There will come a point when we could measure the table in objects. You can do this and have a narrative of points of contact and a form of measurement. It’s got to feel like it gets from there to there with no question. Now that’s not the subject of the work at all, but without it the thing doesn’t work. What I’m trying to say is that some of the things that used to be part of the happenstance of working in the studio might now take place within a whole regime of working, and it can be miles away, using foreign bodies, or materials.

Hero, 1984. Galvanized bucket, Wellington boot, and tube, 48 x 37 x 31 cm.

SH: The sculpture Roland Barthes’ Desk is not two things whispering to you in the studio, saying, “Hey, we’ve found each other.” It’s an object that needs putting together. In making this, how does the choice of materials and title help to create a situation of cultural reach? The specific writer is brought to bear on the object, and one imagines him trying to negotiate the table.

RW: It’s a particularly good example of something where I couldn’t tell you…in the same way as you are Stuart, were you Stuart before you were born? Or Stuart when you were half the size you are now? The fact that our title and ourselves get hopelessly bound up with each other. I’m not Michael, I’m Richard, and I inhabit that in some way. I can’t tell you at what point that title met that object. The idea that I had the title and then made the work makes me slightly sick, so I suspect that I didn’t do that. I wouldn’t, I don’t want to do that. I’m trying to suggest that there has to be quite a sophisticated relationship, how these things come together, and if it was the wrong way around it would feel illustrational and I would resist. I have made things in the past where I have, well, “attacked” isn’t quite the right word, where I have “possessed” them. This is an embarrassingly Western thing to say…I like Nkisi figures and the idea that every time you drive in a nail you could be invoking something is very powerful. Barthes wrote somewhere about the nail in relationship to a piece of wood. I can’t remember whether it has a direct sexual dimension to it, but if you’ve ever put nails into wood, I mean that really is the most extraordinary experience.

So there is a piece of furniture as a given. It’s important that the desk has a certain authority and that it’s somehow located in time. It’s the kind of desk that could appear in a Jacques Tati or a Truffault film. There’s a bit of the International School, but it’s not great furniture. It’s that thing where bureaucracy comes with its own architecture. That kind of desk looks like a building. There’s something pitiful about the fact that there’s a readymade geometry that the surface has obtained, and you feel that the person who’s done it is struggling a bit. They clearly haven’t got enough of the material and they obviously don’t know how to put the material on. There’s a perfectly good technical method of applying that stuff, and as a general rule, you try to have a piece big enough to fit. It’s sort of like cooking with leftovers. The one thing that a desk has to be is a serviceable surface that is brought up from the floor and presents itself to you, and I’ve ruined it.

Local Colour, 1995. Wood, earthenware plates, and porcelain plates, 79.8 x 105.6 x 80.3 cm.

SH: As you have often done with tools and objects of use, buckets, plates, etc.

RW: What is very important is that there are all sorts of things that have to be at about the same weight. The nails declare the desk to be made of some wood product. Something about its volume, something about reading it as a deliberate act. You’re offered the possibility that this is some sort of accident, as if the nail machine went off accidentally, but you can feel…they are not in rows, and there are neither a lot of them nor a few of them. I remember finding that very difficult when I was doing it, and I did it very fast. The only way I can do something like that is to do it. To have the nails in my mouth as if I were an upholsterer, as if I were doing a job, when in fact I’m not an upholsterer and I’m not really doing a job. I’m doing something which is about doing a lot of jobs. I kept thinking, I can’t put the nails in and take them out. I’m not a cook, but I imagine a lot of serious cooking is like that. “I think this is about right. If it’s slightly underdone, it’s better than being overdone. I’m stopping.” This is as near as I’m ever going to come to being an expressionist. Those nails are almost expressionist acts.

SH: I want to ask you about the dictionary pieces. I thought of a linguistic play on them—What do you do with a dictionary? You look up words. How do you make a “Wentworth dictionary?” You look down.

RW: That’s very nice.

Installation view with (foreground) Flight (Two Storey Rorschach), 1999, and (background) Spread, 1995–99, ceramic plates, 6 meters diameter.

SH: You are offering an alternative language, a language of stuff.

RW: The thing that drives them is a constant anxiety about what it is that we do when we look. As this person just passed, did I think, “Girl,” or did I think, “Green jacket?” Language is so turgid, it’s so slow. As you turn your head there are multiple aspects of retinal recognition taking place. I don’t even know what the terms would be. So I’ve been thinking about that process, the miracle of selecting what we look at. Ideas about prior knowledge and how drenched we are in it and how un-innocent we are, and yet we would like to be so innocent. So when we move, which is probably the most miraculous thing we do (I’m sure we ought to celebrate first steps more than we should celebrate first words), we make narratives that we do not control. They are always new. If I go down the same street today that I went down this morning, it is still a new moment. The process of going across the terrain is filled with eventualities which I don’t believe are accidental. We report to each other, “A funny thing happened to me this morning” or “You won’t believe it, I bumped into so and so.” We constantly make fables about these eventualities, which in a way, to me, feel deeply predetermined. You feel like you are a minor player. To be specific, you walk along the street and as a general rule, you don’t pick up dog turds. But if you saw a gold ring, you would pick it up. Which means in fact, that you are naming everything as you go. The dictionary pieces are mostly about the dictionary as a place where you can go for a consultation. You can check out things that you half-know and see if you are half-right. They are very beautiful, sort of poor man’s Bibles, vessels of something we are completely filled with. The act of filling up the dictionary with things that are found in space and time is in one sense, cheap and literal, but what I like is that it is not immediately detectable. It destroys the book, but it makes something else. Makes the book look bulimic. There’s a limit to how much you can put in them. There are objects that can’t be put in them. I was thinking, should I pick up a brick? There’s a secondary thing. We read the world materially. If you go to a good secondhand book shop, you can look at all the ways the books are marked. You’ll find leaves; there are shoelaces, candy wrappers, bus tickets. You’ll find a Schwitters in the dictionary, and all that collage-y, European, 20th-century stuff is implicated, and I like that. If you are working with other people, you can lay out all the material and you can ask a third party to name everything you supply. In English, which is a mixture of Latin, French, Celtic, Saxon, and more, there are often five words for everything. You can say cord, string, line, and so on. It’s about the comedy of description and the pleasure of reality.

SH: You are deciding which practices and procedures are true for you, which offer possibilities. Can you tell me about the recent curating?

RW: “Thinking Aloud” was a quite interesting thing to do. In fact, what was fun about the show was that it allowed everything to be exciting. But it also said to artists, “You’re going to be exhibited next to something that is clearly not art, but has some magnetic field around it.” Do you know Cornelia Parker’s work? I have a kind of quiet squabble with her fetishization of the world. It occurred to me that I could get something from Cornelia that meant a lot to her, that was in a way her own fetish. We had a few telephone conversations, and I said, “Something that you feel has a force field attached to it.” She said, “I know, I know. I went to a sale, and I got this school-play dynamite. I know nothing about it but it was beautifully done. Broomsticks painted red, tape, and I paid two pounds for it. It sits on my mantlepiece and I love it.” And she said, “I’d not blown anything up at that point.“ I thought, fantastic. I didn’t know what kind of label I would write, but it was perfect. And then Roger who worked on the show, was doing some ordinary organization stuff, and he rang her up and said, “What title should it have?” Cornelia said, “I hadn’t thought of that. Oh, ‘In Advance of An Explosion’” And that’s how it went up, and it broke the spell. I should have found another way of presenting it. I think that’s a very good example of something having all the oxygen taken out or closed off. It’s still one of the prettiest pictures in the catalogue.

Flight (Two Storey Rorschach), 1999. Ceramic plates and steel pins, dimensions variable.

SH: I’ve often thought of doing an exhibition of all of the things that don’t happen, that we wanted but couldn’t get, and the details of trying to get them.

RW: And the timing: someone says, “Oh, you wanted that. No problem.” For “Thinking Aloud,” I wanted to include a drawing by Picasso of how to get to “Le Californie” (Picasso’s home). It was, “Take a left here, take a right here, don’t go up there.” A friend of mine explained to the drawing’s owner that I was honorable and that this was a Haywood-organized show, and all would be insured. But he’d gotten Alzheimers and it was at a point when he couldn’t grasp why we wanted it. My friend told me, “He can’t understand why you need the map,” as if he knew perfectly well that Picasso was dead, so why would I want to go to Le Californie now?

Stuart Horodner is the Visual Art Curator at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA).