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Ian Wilson





Interview Ian Wilson
by Oscar van den Boogaard, 2002

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




Source: Gallery Newspaper 32, May-June 2002