1. Research Exhibitions
        2. Lawrence Weiner: Dicht Bij
        3. Text

        Dicht Bij: Thinking about the work of Lawrence Weiner for the exhibition as it came to be

        Maria Hlavajova

        24 January 2010

      1. Lawrence Weiner came to the Netherlands in the early 1960s, and the inspiring character of the Dutch art scene made him return in 1970 to stay here in some way until today. Back then Amsterdam was one of the productive “point[s] of unrest” in the world as he called it. The city, with its particular lifestyle and internationality (epitomized in the field of art, as he recalled, by a scene active around Art & Project and the Stedelijk Museum’s history-making exhibitions), led Weiner to make it his part-time home, next to New York. Having since lived “with one foot in the new world and one foot in the old,” today the Netherlands “offers intense fruitful relationships, both within and without the art world.” In the intervening decades, the art world—“much as what happened worldwide,” in the artist’s words, “went from an aspirational, at times charmingly naive hope to involve itself with the entire world to the advent of an extremely paternalistic nationalism that seems to have dampened the initial enthusiasm. It went from a post-Galilean world that was aware that it revolved around the sun, to that of a pre-Galilean concept of a world revolving only around itself…”1 Both in and beyond the field of art, the turning point causing this shift could be perhaps detected in the widespread resignation many feel today about the end game of neoliberal capitalism; resignation disguised as self-congratulatory indulgence and self-styled hegemony, certainly in the so-called West after its (default) victory over the alternative political construction of communism in Europe. It is a condition in which competitiveness has taken the place of solidarity and market value has replaced longing for a better world, both efficiently obscuring the horizon of other possibilities of how to relate to each other and to the world itself. In the months leading up to his exhibition, precisely this condition became the main subject of the conversations between Weiner and myself.

        Yet, as Weiner has it, “Art ain’t about you. Art ain’t about me. Art is about we.” And if any requirement is to be made of art, it is that “it is public.” In other words, that it engages with matters of the political, that is to say, with the space of relationships to others, of collectivity and, indeed, of solidarity. In this worldview, art, at the point of making itself known to the world, necessarily enters into dialogue with the powers that be. Contrary to the diagnosis of resignation mentioned earlier, art—perhaps unlike other fields of human endeavor—is always “a questioning of implementation.” Yet why do we waste this potential on things past, on what has been? “Why are we constantly looking at a situation in terms of a previous situation when the function of art is a determination of logic structures and patterns as they exist not in relation to how they have existed?”2 Thus, Weiner’s work is always in and for the present, driven by his dissatisfaction about the configuration of things that he sees before him. For the reason to make art is to dislodge the prevailing consensus in society, and to offer another pattern, an alternative to the structures that define the way we live now—even if this is not necessarily asked of the artist by society, or even if what he or she has to say is uncomfortable for society to hear.

        The notion of (western) hegemony is one such unspoken “consensus” that Weiner inevitably challenges through his mode of making art that is about “the relationship of people to objects and of objects to objects in relation to people.” His proposition—“Not any longer the West, the East, the North, the South”—dismisses these troubled (geo)political categories as well as the continued exercise of domination to which the so-called West clings in order to preserve its illusory place at the top of the world. In the work presented, he points towards a range of hierarchical conditions: “on the up,” “on the above up,” “on the below up,” and from there, both pictorially and linguistically, he lets a series of drawings unfold in which the dialectic of the hegemonic mass versus its subservient counterpart is disrupted, and through this clash, proclaimed untenable. Weiner invokes the well-known fictive figure of Humpty Dumpty in this construction, which serves the discussion playfully: Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall/Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, goes the original riddle. Weiner adds: “At the moment of contact the dialectic is no longer viable (Humpty Dumpty…),” and offers the last three lines of the conundrum (replacing the gender of the king from the original to that of a queen): “All the Queen’s horses/And all the Queen’s men/Couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

        The damage that follows the clash of competing ideologies is made visible by likening their fate to a broken egg (as Humpty Dumpty is typically portrayed after the fall). This damage is evidently irreparable, yet it opens up a field of new possibilities. “Brought forth by the resonance of a dissonance” is a new order of things, that of “Dicht Bij.” As artistic imaginary, the Dicht Bij remains in a field of ambiguity. Somewhat atypically for the artist, no English translation is offered, but for those with knowledge of the Dutch language Weiner presents us with a construction that is not grammatically incorrect per se, yet does not indicate any precise meaning. If it were written as one word, “dichtbij” would point to that which is “close by.” When separated, the two words open up a broad realm of meaning that is undefined and non prescriptive, full of connotations destabilizing sharp divisions (of the world and other), and oscillating between the endless possibilities from “near” to “closed” to “belonging to” to “around” to “next to” to… Avoiding a potential imposition upon the viewer, Dicht Bij is presented as an object, a work of art that exists as language—the ultimate Weiner material.

        “It’s language, from what I see,” he says and continues: “My prose is disjointed because I see in terms of nouns. And I see any activity as a noun because I see it as a material process that I understand is art.”3 Like the textual abstractions in this exhibition, Weiner’s text works employ a writing style that itself seeks ways of avoiding any authoritarian charge, dismissing the hegemonic inclinations of the surrounding world, and preventing the dictatorial character of both language and world structures from seeping through. This requires setting his own grammatical rules, such as avoiding the use of verbs or altering the usual gender conventions, while assuring that the object is still understandable by way of overlapping with that which is part of the material world in the stream of life.

        Language, like any material Weiner works with—stone, steel, wood, water—carries in itself complex information about the environment it originates from. Imprinted in it indirectly are not only the concrete political events we experience in our daily lives, but also the shadows of the compromised human ecology of society at large. Topical political, cultural, and economic events are thus necessarily inscribed in Weiner’s work, though it never speaks explicitly about any such things. For if it did, art would do nothing more than duplicate what is so commonplace elsewhere in the society, where “the round-robin of aggressor/victim/aggressor is at this point just a conversational daisy chain.”4

        Art, on the contrary, “at its best attempts to present a reality (a material reality) that when put into any context shows another logic pattern.” If such another logic pattern can be registered, and if with it the various modes of relationships might be changed through an encounter with a work of art, however fleeting that might be, the change will resonate throughout society. Indeed it can be that engaging with such a work of art about our world might in the end mean engaging with our world… differently.

        1 Lawrence Weiner, “Art Is About We: A Conversation with Lawrence Weiner,” in Citizens and Subjects: The Netherlands, for example, edited by Rosi Braidotti, Charles Esche, and Maria Hlavajova (Utrecht/Zurich: BAK, basis voor actuele kunst and JRP|Ringier, 2007), p. 309.

        2 E-mail correspondence with the artist, November 2009.

        3 Lawrence Weiner, interviewed by Phillis Rosenzweig (1990), in Having Been Said, Writings & Interview of Lawrence Weiner 1968–2003, edited by Gerti Fietzek and Gregor Stemmrich (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2004), p. 237.

        4 E-mail correspondence with the artist, November 2009.