CONVERSATION BETWEEN NEVILLE WAKEFIELD AND HELMUT LANG
HL: Séance de travail 1993–1999 was created in 1998 and I feel it has enough relevance today. It reflects excerpts of my work, but equally important, it extends to the earliest expressions of individual and social existence. The audience gets involved without asking and becomes part of the piece itself.
HL: I like the idea of shedding any kind of preconception.
HL: So it became impossible not to engage this object into a broader cultural ecology and
dismantle the traditional boundaries and values of aesthetic and cultural status.
NW: It’s interesting that the formal pairing and mirroring that runs through the work also makes itself felt in the symbolic content, which seems often to be about marriage of opposites, life and death, freedom and fascism, and so on. The eagles now seem more like sculptures of angels...of heavenly beings rather than terrestrial power.
HL: I wanted them to be relieved from the pressure of an artifact and to be looked at as openly as possible.
NW: Yeah, of all the pieces that’s maybe the most dramatic intervention into a kind of pre-constituted idea.
HL: The perception of feelings has changed with the redefinition of form and surface, which I think is consequently what I am interested in.
NW: [Laughs] Lovingly crafted and equally lovingly destroyed...
HL: Louise Bourgeois said recently "I have always said that materials are just materials and that they are there to serve you. The subject is never the materials but what you want to express”. I believed her.
NW: Would you say that’s also true of the bumper pieces?
HL: I’d say that to the extent that they use recycled and manufactured materials they still speak to that idea. Not having a formal training, I felt less obliged to use traditional distinctions between sculpture and painting. What I’m interested in is replacement forms that break the classical frames.
NW: And like relationships, they have this history of impact and abuse which itself carries a certain kind of beauty.
HL: [Laughs] But also protection. They are also end pieces, obstacles to be overcome that mediate between the interior and the exterior.
NW: You describe your working process as essentially reductive. It seems that you often start out with ideas and materials that are quite elaborate and then gradually strip them of ornament and tradition to become these quite minimal enigmatic forms.
HL: I only find it interesting if it is the logical consequence of opulence and if the work is demanding it.
NW: Right. When we first started talking, you were following a direction that seemed to have much more to do with notions of skin and sentience, and that starting point seems to almost be entirely stripped away. I was thinking about the "surrogate skins," which are perhaps the clearest expression of that original intention, and it struck me that even there you are using accumulation as a form of erasure.
HL: The surrogate skins for me are layers of opportunities and contain on each layer ideas and possibilities. Every layer is equally important. In their invincible collectiveness they accumulate a certain weight. The last layer is literally the "skin," and the final result, although it could have been stopped nearly at any given point.
HL: Yes, it is a process of accumulation, elimination and knowing when the piece is strong
enough to fight you.
NW: How does this relate to the idea of the ideal, and particularly the role of imperfection as compromising something that becomes too pure.
HL: I would not even call it an imperfection. It is rather that in the deviation from the expected of the unexpected, it is possible to find the new and the need for mystery and enchantment.
NW: Do you believe in the life of objects? I mean, without getting too corny about it, that there is an aspect of animism, of spirit core, to some of this.
HL: Not in a rigid sense. The idea of soul is simply about a certain form of impression that you want your object to have, comparable in a sense to when you see a person for the first time and look at them but don’t speak to them. You take away a self-made impression that goes beyond appearances, and you yourself influenced that vision. This aim is true to the object.
NW: Is that encounter also reflective of another encounter-namely, between classicism and modernism-that has in some way or another underpinned your sensibility? I’m wondering about the extent to which modernism is about the introduction of impurity into classical ideals.
HL: I’m only interested in classicism if it is genuine and not used to cover weakness. The need of modernism is implemented in reevaluating the relevance of former guidance, symbol and rules.
NW: It’s the difference, perhaps, between a process of discovery and one of illustration? I think this kind of working process also allows the end result to be a question rather than an answer, and I suspect that is important to you.
HL: My initial ideas are never my outcome-rather, a framework of thought. I want the end result to be visually strong and emotionally layered.
NW: It’s perhaps the Zen version of the final outcome-that the exhaustion of the process of looking is itself the end result.
HL: That conclusion might pre-date any formal art.
Neville Wakefield is a writer and commentator on contemporary art, culture and photography. He currently is a senior curatorial advisor for PS1 MoMA and the curator of Frieze Projects at the Frieze Art Fair. He is also the creative director of Tar magazine, first issue to release, October 2008. Neville recently organized the celebration of designer Adam Kimmel at Pitti Immagine Uomo held in Florence. He collaborated as the guest editor with W Magazine on their annual Arts Edition, November 2007 and again for the 2008 edition. He is a co-founder and co- producer of Destricted, a series of films that address the issue of sexuality in art. Neville curated Helmut Lang – Alles Gleich Schwer at Hanover’s Kestnergesellschaft.