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Richard Wentworth interviewed

 

Habitat Artclub Magazine, Spring 1999

Richard Wentworth: The artist Cornelia Hesse-Honegger told me this story about how her dad was working abroad in New York in the 50s, and he managed to persuade his company that they should make an art collection. Now this was an incredibly foresightful thing to have done- I mean you wouldn't have done that in the 30s. But this was the mid-5Os.

David Barrett: The right time.

Exactly. And so he told Cornelia - who was just a little girl at this time - to get herself an autograph book: he said something like 'It will be really worth your while sometime'. So now she's got this heroic autograph book which is just stuffed with artists like Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Willem de Kooning, Barnet Newman...

So she went round all these lofts, which is where people were living, and her description was captivating; it was the first time I realised that people were literally camping in industrial spaces. This is 40 years ago, remember: it wasn't an aesthetic thing to have a little stainless steel kitchen down the far end - that's as far as the water pipe reached and so that's where the kitchen was. And I thought 'Christ, they're wagons in the wilderness. They're camping, y'know, cooking up the beans and the eggs round a campfire'. But it's an industrial desert and an absent wagon train. We'll never have that here. There's no point even yearning for it; it's just not in our background.

I guess we should speak about 'Thinking Aloud'. [Ironically:] What's the big idea?

God. What a terrible question.

Did you ever work out the big idea?

No, absolutely not.

You never got it down to less than three paragraphs?

If you approach somebody and ask them if you can do something, then you're quite likely to give it a particular spin. But what happened here is that somebody thought I was good for a show... and I'd always said 'Well, sweet of you, but I don't want to do one'. And then after years of this I kind of gave up and agreed to do it. So in a funny sort of way I never felt that I owed anything, I didn't feel the need to really formalise the show. Although I knew the kind of thing that I was interested in, since I had never had to sell it to anyone, I figured that it would take care of itself. It's the same as: how often are you walking down the street knowing exactly what you are doing? If you're up for it, you may be on your way to the tube or you may have an appointment, but if you can fit in a couple of adventures on the way...

One way of looking at the show is to ask what is it that makes some things reportable, or captivating, or irritating, or why something's impressed itself on you? It's a process that we're constantly involved in. When you leave here, David, does the cat get reported? Do the roadworks outside? Or do they drop out of the picture and the book I showed you become the dominant memory? Or is it something completely else... something about the noise of this creaky chair, or whatever? Not that those things are per se important, but they are all the little charges in the world. You sort of know from all the time you've spent with other humans that, although they're quite precious - because people reported them and vice versa - there isn't really a system. They sometimes end up as anecdotes, but in a way they're never exhibited. I thought it would be interesting to try and exhibit a conversation, the way we select from values that are hanging in the space. As if thought were broadcast.

There is an experience of things which is not quite 'coincidence', but you start to go 'Hey, if I've seen that ten times... and each time it's felt more substantial'. What is that? And should one necessarily - at the end of that process - ever know? The show is an attempt to deal with that as a sensibility or feeling, within some very practical boundaries.

Like the fact that at Kettle's Yard [the show's first venue] the Julian Opie painting didn't fit in the door...

Actually, it didn't fit in the lorry.

This is something else that is a good artworld truth: people's pictures are the size that the materials come. People take 35mm photographs because it's something that they've grown up accepting. They may wish that there was another format and the odd madman would probably build their own camera, but it's not as if the world isn't already full of modules. I hate that thing: 'Oh, artists are so free!' Artists, actually, are problem solvers: 'What do you mean there's only this much green paint left? Well, I'll make a very small green painting then'.

So you can see why the provisional part of the show never felt like an enemy. If I have a taste for the rambling anecdote, it's probably quite a deep desperation within myself to make sense of my own brainwaves, which is what artists do. Why else do people fart about on a piece of paper or canvas? There's obviously some internal need or truth that their activity is pressing on, which is why they keep on doing it.

I guess a certain aspect of the show comes from the fact that we put all that shit out there [motions toward the window], there is nothing out there that we didn't do... okay, the light we didn't do... but really all the object-clutter-stuff, we put there. And yet it goes on escaping us. I think it's just a very odd thing that, if we did it, how come it's so fugitive?

[Telephone rings] Hello? Hello? You've got the wrong number... it's okay.

One of the luxuries of being older is that you know your instinct is a good friend. Mostly things in the show have been accidents: I saw the box of dinosaurs for six weeks running in Brick Lane market and I just couldn't work out why they were more bizarre than all the other stuff there, but they just kept on irritating. Then there was that thing where you think, 'If I ask to buy the box of dinosaurs, they'll know that I've got a thing about them and it'll cost a thousand pounds'. So you get in a state about it. And when I finally said [best Cockney Wide Boy's accent] 'How much are the dinosaurs then?', and she said 'Fifteen quid the box'. I just went, 'Oh. Have you got more?'

I had no idea at that point that it would end up in the show, and I don't even know what its status is, but I think it's incredibly important that they're the same dinosaurs, in the same cardboard box that they were bought in. They have a sense of inevitability, which is very close to the experience of art. There's a level at which they... I don't know what the adjective would be, but it's more than 'poignant'.

Generally the reception of the show has been very positive.

I think one of the reasons for this is that people are quite refreshed. They're quite struck that a mechanism that they're fitted with anyway allows them to deal with all these objects. Like coming in here: the cat has a different status from the cups, from the TV, from the books, from the telephone, from the spectator. We don't go mad about it, but it's all negotiated, and certain things will rise to the top. Some things are even called 'art'. We are pictorialisers, we are equipped in this way.

With something like the box of dinosaurs, it's nice to come across an object which speaks even though it has no-one that it is speaking for: it's just kind of... come about. Yet it operates in much the same way as an artwork.

And this brings a difficult moment: the transporting of the objects into a gallery is quite strange, because suddenly you place a weight of expectation on them, and they may not cope with that intensity. But it is important in a show to test things and have some of them fail. It's like buying cheap tools: as you're hammering you go 'This is a complete waste of two quid, I'll finish this job...

'...and go and buy a proper set...

'...and keep the metal bit as a doorstop and burn the handle'. I remember finding all these kid's tools that were made in China, where the name of the tool was written on each one. It was as if Marcel Broodthaers, the Surrealist artist, had sneaked into the shop ahead of me and named each tool. They were quite well done, in a simple graphic way: 'hammer', 'wrench', 'square'. The punchline was one that says 'lever' and it's a spirit level, and you kind of go, 'Hang on...'. Then you realise that this is probably a long distance telephone call from Los Angeles to Beijing. In LA they're saying 'level', and in Beijing they're going 'Yeah, yeah: "lever"'.

It's interesting that we're so furiously naming things that we're actually naming some of them wrong. Although actually we're naming them all wrong because they're toys: and they're visibly toys, not tools. So that space between image and function, and naming. That seemed incredible. I just bought the lot.

There are some things in the show that point toward nature, but demonstrate straight away how the moment we name nature we just corrupt it. It's wretched: one of the worst transactions we have. Which is why I like Julian Opie's painting; it's called Landscape? with a question mark. That's the side of Julian that's really interesting, when he's observing, or handling our failure. Almost being poetic on another plane.

'Poetic' is a good term to be used with the show. The links between the objects - they start to speak together, which I guess is the intention: to try to make a conversation between objects. Like the Cuban toys: they're cobbled together out of whatever could be got hold of during the US trade embargo, and yet they still become commodities. Those objects alongside the box of remaindered dinosaurs... you start to get these things speaking together about global economics, bringing together very interesting areas, although not in a literal way. They're very 'floaty': you have to find your own connections.

The ideal visitor to the show would be someone who has sort of... found it. The idea that there were people who perhaps misrecognised Kettle's Yard as a shop, who perhaps had never been into an art gallery before. It's incredibly exciting to find something through that process - a process which we call 'innocence', although it isn't - you happen upon something. And it's actually all the better if later someone says 'That was a Rembrandt', or 'That's the most famous beach in Southern France'.

It's that Pitt Rivers Museum experience, where you don't really know what to expect. But then once you're in there you realise that you must have been expecting something, or why else would it be such a surprise to come across the things on display?

My feeling is that people in the show quite swiftly recognise that there are other people having related experiences, but they won't be the same ones. There's some sort of communality - or commonalty - taking place which is quite a healthy release of energy. It's like streets that get on with each other: not Neighbourhood Watch streets, but ones where there is some sort of collective reading, a simple recognition of 'Oh, we're all here'.

The question is: if you could pin the show down, would it be a better show? In order to transfer information, we have to characterise our experiences with words, but does that actually improve the experience? There are some rather obvious examples in life: is falling in love better when it's described well or not? No; it's just a stage that humans have some experience of.

The fact that the show is like some strange toy where the more you play with it the more it refuses to take up the form that you think it should have, is - for me - quite a happy discovery.

 
text copyright david barrett
images copyright the artists

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