American conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner is a master of language. The artist, who is considered to be one of the founding fathers of post-minimalistic conceptual art and whose work often takes the form of thought-provoking typographic texts, would probably reject the compliment outright.
Not because he doesn’t appreciate the recognition his work receives, but rather because Weiner has his own unique take on the significance and meaning of what language truly is.
Weiner’s work, spanning six decades, is a force to be reckoned with. While the artist himself may say his creations are “completely within the realm of possibility” and that they are “not at all radical,” the countless people who were touched by his oeuvres would probably disagree.
One of the reasons the artist has managed to penetrate so many hearts and transcend geographical and political barriers is that he chooses to display his artworks in multiple languages. From Mandarin to Arabic, Weiner’s typographic texts, which correspond with the environments they are displayed in, read like philosophical statements or succinct and powerful poems.
“I believe that a work of contemporary art, especially a work of mine, when it’s presented, it allows people to have a logic structure and from that logic structure they find their own ‘place in the sun.’ It’s not a metaphor, you don’t have to accept my value structure, but the relationship between objects and objects in relation to human beings is still a viable issue in the making of art,” he told the The Jerusalem Post.
One prominent example for Weiner’s poignant work is the piece “No Tree, No Branch,” which was displayed at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2012.
The work centered around the Yiddish saying “Ale yevonim hobn eyn ponim,” (“all Greeks (i.e. non- Jews) have the same face”). Weiner took the sentence and tweaked it until it read: “All the stars in the sky have the same face.”
The work was then displayed in Arabic, Hebrew and English and surrounded by symbolic icons.
While the artist may have been inspired by the tension in the region when crafting this piece, he declined to discuss the meaning behind this creation or others.
He was, however, willing to affirm that he was well aware when creating this artwork that the majority of Jews living in Israel do not speak Arabic and vice versa.
“The entire point of art is to communicate with people. A form of some sort that designates what you’re trying to say. If at a certain place people are speaking French and Flemish, then the artwork would be in English, French and Flemish because English is my language. If the spoken languages here [in Israel] are Arabic and Hebrew, then it is in Arabic and Hebrew. I don’t see it as significant as other people do, but without the acceptance of other cultures, there’s no reason to be making art,” he noted.
On June 11, the New York-born, raised- and-based Weiner was at the Knesset to receive the prestigious Wolf Prize from President Reuven Rivlin alongside this year’s seven other winners, among whom were avant-garde artist, composer and musician Laurie Anderson, Prof. James Allison who developed a breakthrough treatment for cancer and physicists Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz who discovered an Earth-like planet in outer space.
Hours before the ceremony, the artist spoke to the Post about his decades-long connection to the Jewish state and the honor he felt on this special occasion. “I have worked here for the last 20 years on and off, making shows for the Dvir Gallery [one of Israel’s most respected commercial galleries], for museums, for film festivals in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv,” he said.
“In my entire adult life as an international artist, winning a prize in Switzerland or in France or in Spain or in Israel, [means to me that] I have made it for those cultures. I’m taking it as a compliment,” he shared.
Despite his excitement upon receiving the Wolf Prize, Weiner said he feels the Israel of 2017 is different than the country he encountered and showcased his work in before. “It feels different because the times are different than they were before. A lot of the idealism is not here. But idealism doesn’t exist any longer,” he lamented. “There seems to be a lack of idealism these days.”
When asked if he thought the problem lay in the changes that language and interaction themselves have undergone since the introduction of modern technology, Twitter, and emoji-filled instant chats into our lives, Weiner didn’t necessarily agree.
“As long as we communicate, I’m fine with it. I think that gestures and such are completely understandable to people. They don’t question whether it’s art or not, they question what it means. And that’s the point. Language always brings you back to questioning what it means, not to questioning its form – it has no specific form,” the artist explained.
Perhaps he thought the problem stemmed from the unbridgeable differences between the Israelis and the Palestinians? Or maybe the lack of idealism was the result of the tumultuous times we live in – the surprising US elections that saw Donald Trump elected for president, Britain’s historic vote to pullout from the EU, the raging civil war in Syria?
To begin with, Weiner said he did not believe in pinning the blame on anyone. “This idea of resistance makes no sense whatsoever. They [world leaders, decision- makers] are not your parents.You are the ones responsible for making a culture,” he stressed.
“You are not there to move the hill or please one person or another, you are there to make a culture that works... a culture that does not require acceptance of values and takes for granted that there are certain lines that are not crossed,” he continued.
“My idea of success [could be found] back in socialist Israel and in the United States [and it is] that you work hard, you develop your culture and your children do not have to resemble you in order to be able to function. That’s the great joy of a successful culture.”
Weiner also said art could have a meaningful impact on how people live out their lives. “The work that I have done and the work that other people have done has helped change people’s perceptions.
The important thing is to be able to give people means to change their perceptions of the world as it changes itself.”
Weiner urged that the solution to any conflict, not just the Arab-Israeli one, lay in the hands of the youth. “It’s this generation’s responsibility,” he stated.
Coming back full circle, the artist concluded: “This generation should have some sort of a goal. To have a language that you can communicate with.”