This conversation took place on phone – calling from London to New York August 2019. A dialogue between artist Lawrence Weiner and writer/curator Francesca Gavin.
FG: Cities and urban architecture feel an important start to what you do. What are your feelings about cities? You have made work so internationally. Do you feel that that kind of space like responding to different locations is important to what you do in some way?
LW: It's about the idea of urban. Non-urban people have no idea about the other people in the world. And urban people have no choice but to have an idea. New Yorkers are different. I don't know what they are. It's not a hierarchy. Hong Kong is a disaster for me. I always thought until this nonsense started with the Republic, I thought I could live in Hong Kong. It's my fantasy. It was an emperor and a queen that decided they would do the Hong Kong deal. And gave away human beings, and it's called slavery. The land was owned then by whichever wanted it. But, giving human beings away is another story. The thing that's wrong with the Hong Kong. You can't just give people away. They tried to do that with Puerto Rico. They tried to do that with Cuba. You can't give people away. You can give land away. You can give houses away. But, you can't give people or children away.
Apart from one year at Hunter, you didn't have a formal art training in any sense.
I didn't like it. It wasn't for me. I couldn't do it. I was a little interested in art, but all of the art teachers were all failures in my eyes, which is very odd.
Like the famous saying those who can't do teach?
But I don't really believe that, to tell you the truth. I think that every location and every ethnic group, there's a certain percentage of smart and stupid and otherwise.
What was your impetus to start making art? 17 is a very young age to begin.
Everybody wanted me to be a schoolteacher because you got a pension. I come from that background. There was no money whatsoever. What was I thinking? I don't really know. I was laboring. I was going to be a civil rights person. I was muscle. Somehow or other, I made this decision: You can change the status of somebody working at things, but at the same time, you can change the whole world with art because you change the culture. That's what I was interested in, and that's what turned me on to being in art.
Were you angry?
I still am.
What makes you angry?
Inequities. I've survived them, but I never forgot them. I resent being in front of a person of authority, or at school, and being told racist crap. ‘We have enough of that kind here or that kind there. We don't need you anymore.’ I resent it still. I look at the people who got all the privileges, and they didn't produce anything. They didn't produce scientists. They didn't produce musicians. They didn't produce artists. They just didn't produce anything. They bought used cars and sold used cars. I hate to sound silly, but...
The fact that your work could take any form, could be on anything, does that have a political motivation for you?
It is a political motivation. There is no hierarchy in making a work of art. Gold isn't better than silver and silver isn't better than lead. And that's the same thing with human beings. The joke was always the digital age opened us up. Pixels don't care who they mix with. They really don't. A yellow pixel, a red pixel, a green pixel, put them together and they're fine. There is no hierarchy in digital relationships... A digital thought is that everything is on equal point. A lot of my work has to do with stopping racism at the core of the material itself.
You created your own font, Margaret Seaworthy Gothic. Where did the name come from?
From me. It is a gothic face, and it's a sans serif face. Language is common. It's like oil paint. I made a new typeface, that's all. I [recently] designed a new typeface for The Shed. The piece was being built outside on the bricks. It is typeface that is just vertical. If a brick breaks, you just replace one brick. You walk on it and there's always trucks on top of it and everything else.
You are incredibly prolific. Do you have a particular process? Are you always collecting text, words, notes?
There's nothing to do with words. Words are just the things that designate materials. I get interested in materials. I did the whole Dia [Art Foundation] show because I was fascinated in the fact that poured concrete was measured in the yards, not volume.
So what is your starting point?
I have no idea - smell or thought? It depends upon what I'm trying to do. Sometimes, I'll restructure it. I'm restructuring now a small narrative book for Mexico. It's about the idea of transient value and that is a big deal. Transient value means something in physics. The thing itself goes from having value to having no value whatsoever, all at the same time. I am interested in mathematics and physics, but not as a solution, and certainly not as a justification. The trouble with us is that we put up with a pseudo-academic people who think that the rationalization of something is the answer. It's not necessary. It is what it is and it works. You have to have the logic to it, but it's not a rationalization. It's not an apology. It's exactly what it is. Red is red. There are 50 kinds of red, but essentially red is red. So, you must have desperately pressing questions.
Tell me about the work that is being exhibited at OSL Contemporary?
The work doesn't require explanation. There's no base on anything. It would be anywhere. It could be on somebody's tuchus. I'm serious. For me, it's the same work. They come together almost like a nursery rhyme. Let's say it's one work. “LONG AGO FAR AWAY. STONES MOVED FURTHER & FURTHER AWAY ONCE · TWICE · THRICE. TWISTED AND TURNED UNTIL IT IS FIXED.” They work as one big work, but they can be broken into three parts.
You are about to show permanent works in Bergen. I recently saw another outdoor piece in Brussels. Do you like doing things outside?
I don't particularly one way or the other. I'm very careful about what I put outside and what I don't. I mean, it's nice people can read it. Inside, they can't read it. What's the purpose of a billboard? The thing in Bergen is quite nice, is it doesn't have to pretend to be anything. It doesn't have to know something. All you see is the thing. It's like a fried egg.
Are you thinking about your audience, the viewer?
There's no reason for me to make things if it's not for an audience. Art is made for people by people. If you're capable of doing it, everybody's capable of understanding it.
Lawrence Weiner lives and works in New York. Exhibitions include Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, England; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Barcelona; Tate Modern, London; ARKEN Museum, Køge, Denmark, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, Málaga, Spain; Haus der Kunst, Munich; Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg, Germany; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. His work has been included in dOCUMENTA 5, 6, 7, and 13 (1972, 1977, 1982, 2012); the 36th, 41st, 50th and 55th La Biennale di Venezia (1972, 1984, 2003, 2013); and the 27th Biennale de São Paulo (2006).
Francesca Gavin is a writer and curator based in London. She is a contributing editor at Kaleidoscope, Twin, Sleek and AnOther. She was the co-curator of the Historical Exhibition of Manifesta11 in Zurich, and has curated exhibitions internationally including Absent Bodies (OSL contemporary), E-Vapor-8 (319 Scholes and Site Sheffield), The Dark Cube (Palais de Tokyo), and The New Psychedelia (MU). Gavin has written five books including The Book of Hearts, 100 New Artists and Hell Bound: New Gothic Art, and contributes to publications including The Financial Times, Newsweek, Dazed, Artsy and Mousse.