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Ian Wilson




newspaper 32, May-June 2002

Interview Ian Wilson
by Oscar van den Boogaard

On April 19th the American artist Ian Wilson will lead a Discussion about the absolute in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Oscar Van den Boogaard spoke with him in New York about his Discussions and his desire for the abstract.

Ian Wilson (°1940, South Africa) is one of the mythical figures of conceptual art. In 1968 he decided to take his ideas about visual abstraction into the invisible abstraction of language, along with a number of other artists such as Lawrence Wiener, Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry and Art & Language. But Ian Wilson went furthest in the dematerialization of art. He wanted to speak instead of making things. He presented oral communication as an object and in doing so he liberated art from being bound to a specific place. Revolving around the question of knowledge, numerous Discussions have been held over the years in museums, galleries, or at the homes of private collectors in Europe and North America. Applying the Socratic method, Wilson opens a Discussion with a question about the possibility of knowledge. Participants deliver their own opinions through an informal process of response, debate, argumentation, or interjection. With direction from Wilson they spontaneously speculate about the nature of truth and the human condition while the work itself, juggling verbal paradox, steers clear of conclusive content. At the artist's strict insistence, the discussions are never recorded or published. A hand-written or typed certificate signed by the artist documents the date and place of the event and may be acquired by an individual or an institution.

Could you describe your latest Discussions?

These last years my Discussions have been about the Absolute. In the Palace of Fine Arts in Brussels I presented my ideas about this to an audience for the first time. I hadn't held any Discussions since 1986. It was a good audience; I remember it very clearly, many young artists. They didn't accept my ideas at face-value, they challenged them. I tried to bring the ideas together in a good, logical structure, it didn't work very well. Those young people were not prepared to accept what I was bringing forward. For months after the Discussion I tried to re-organise my ideas and to refine the logical structure of my ideas. The next Discussion I held was at the home of some collectors in Marseilles, a few weeks later. Actually, the same problems arose. For the rest it was a good Discussion, the people were good, they tried to get my ideas to work. A year later I had a Discussion in a museum in Geneva. I was relieved because there was a continuity and my ideas held ground. I was able to conceive of the ideas in a logical structure, that was acceptable to myself and to most of the people participating in the Discussion, perhaps it was bit formal, I was very concerned about bringing it to a good conclusion. The following Discussion was in Basle. You were there too. I really liked the Discussion because the first part was going well, it had a good continuity, an interesting Wittgensteinian critique of my ideas, I have read Wittgenstein so I wasn't completely surprised, I was able to continue, but what I didn't like about the discussion, there was a point at which I had worked on a number of ideas, new ideas that I wasn't ready to talk about, I thought I wasn't ready for them, and then you asked me a question, just at the moment that I wanted to bring the Discussion to a close, that question made it clear to me that I really should bring these ideas forward, and that is what I did, and from that moment on the Discussion became really lively, there was an excitement about the new ideas, in myself, and in the people who were participating in the Discussion.

I've forgotten what I asked you in Basle. Do you still remember it?

Yes, literally even, but I don't want to talk about that, that would mean that we end up in the Discussion, and I only want to talk about the Discussion, about the technique, and not about the content. We need to make a distinction between the ideas of this interview and the ideas that take shape in a Discussion, because it is my experience that when the ideas are published it is always a disappointment, but when the ideas are formulated in the Discussion they are good. The actual content of the Discussions has to remain in the context of the Discussions themselves. After Basle came Schaffhausen, it was a good Discussion, many people came, it was well organised, the ideas had a logical structure, it was refined by the different Discussions preceding it. I remember two good critical remarks. One came from a young philosopher, the other from someone who knew a lot about Art & Language. They raised issues I hadn't considered before, and so, because I know beforehand what I want to say, I had to integrate these remarks into the Discussion, and I wasn't really up to it. I have thought about the remarks for a long time, they were very instructive. After Schaffhausen came New York. That was the last Discussion. There were a lot of people, the continuity was good, the ideas were good, the participation was good, it was a very good Discussion.

How did you start with the Discussions?

It began in 1968 with the word 'time'. If somebody asked me what I was doing, I'd answer: I'm interested in the idea of time. I would insert the word 'time' in every conversation with whomever and wherever. It wasn't about the word itself but about the verbal communication that it stimulated. I remember that I met the curator Seth Siegelbaum one day, I said I was preoccupied with time, he was interested, he liked the idea. He wanted to put me in a group show with Kosuth and Wiener, but I didn't know what to show, I mean, I didn't have anything to show, and I wasn't ready to have Discussions. The years after that I wouldn't say that I was preoccupied with 'time' but with 'oral communication'. This way the conversations became oriented more specifically to speaking itself and spoken art.

What drives you to the abstract?

I think that the reason why artists preoccupy themselves with abstraction is that they try to express the truth as directly as possible. Of course, truth can exist everywhere, not just in abstraction, but we are still preoccupied with it in one way or another. The special thing about abstraction is that it allows one to go beyond everyday things, it is like going into a quiet room after having been on a busy street. It can be refreshing. What I am saying isn't important, I haven't thought about it long enough. The most important thing that abstraction does, is that it enables me to come close to the truth, it is a means by which I can approach things and build them up on neutral ground. I think that development in art is the development of abstraction. By means of language you can grasp the non-visual world.

You also made objects before you started the Discussions.

It all began with a painting, my first comprehensible work, a red square after Malevitch. After that I made shallow, bowl-shaped relief sculptures out of fibreglass, one-eighth of a sphere. They protrude almost imperceptibly from the wall, they do not cast a shadow. They are fabulous objects, I only made three of them. I will be exhibiting one of them at Gallery Jan Mot in Brussels. After that I started with the chalk circles. Circle on the Floor(1968). I showed the first one in Bykert Gallery in New York in 1968. I drew a chalk circle directly onto the parquet floor, 1/2 an inch thick circumscribing an area of about six feet in diameter. I was interested in its abstract intangibility. The circle can be drawn everywhere, at anytime, and still remain the same. I discovered that thinking and talking about that circle had a greater abstraction than reproducing that circle on the floor or the wall. The circle could be represented by using the word 'circle'. The circle could be brought to mind by the signifier. A following step in the dematerialization of my art was to use the word 'Time'. It was simple and to the point: if someone would ask me: 'so what are you doing these days?', I didn't have to say: 'Come to my studio and I'll show you'. The word time contained everything I tried to do in the white circle. During the eighties I experimented with the printed word. I made a couple of series of books in which a single abstract word, such as 'unknowable', 'absolute knowledge' or 'perfect' is repeated on every page. I also tried to summarise the nature of my Discussions in printed texts describing the epistemological relationship between the known and the unknown.

that which
is both
known and
is what
is known

that which
is both
known and
is not
as both
and unknown

is known
is just

(this text was printed on the back of an invitation card for a discussion in the Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven on the 3 June 1983.)

What is the impact of the audience on the Discussions?

I probably benefit more from the Discussions than the participants do, because I remember everything that is said, even if I do not answer immediately. If it is a good remark I cannot integrate it directly but after the Discussion I try to do that, often I'll be doing that for months. The ideas I get from the audience have a great influence because the Discussions are a work in progress, I am very easily influenced by everyone who makes a critical comment that points out the weakness in the logical structure, or something else, it isn't always a question of logic. It is a peculiar activity, I don't quite understand it myself either. An artist wishes to communicate. You write and I am preoccupied with 'speech'. I am interested in the shape of ideas as they are expressed, spontaneously, at the moment itself. By concentrating on spoken language as an art form I have become more distinctly aware that I as an artist am a part of the world.