Words on Film


‘I do not mind objects,” pioneer conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner told an interviewer in 1969, “but I do not care to make them.” Instead, the former painter became known for a dematerialized form of language art, composing and exhibiting off-kilter aphorisms that evoke equal parts philosophical proposition, Zen koan, and instruction manual, often referring to physical spaces or mental states. His words have been typed onto sheets of paper, painted on gallery walls, published in journals, or affixed to the exterior of buildings: “An object tossed from one country to another”; “A translation from one language to another”; “Earth to earth ashes to ashes dust to dust.” Four decades of the thinky stuff now graces the Whitney Museum, which is holding Weiner’s first U.S. retrospective, entitled “As Far as the Eye Can See.” The show includes his foundational pseudo-syllogism Declaration of Intent (1969), which encapsulates his career-long modus operandi: “1. The artist may construct the work. 2. The work may be fabricated. 3. The work may not be built.”

But for all his rejection of object-making, Weiner is no slouch behind the camera: During the past four decades, the artist has made over 30 videos and films, ranging from brief animations to feature-length cinematic productions. Presented in a generous Whitney-programmed series at Anthology Film Archives, Weiner’s moving-image output continues his interest in forebrain language play, but reveals a more sensual, even unabashedly pervy side not seen elsewhere.

Weiner shot his first tapes in the earliest years of video art, at a time when numerous artists were taking up the new PortaPak rigs as a means of instantaneous record. In ghostly black-and-white, Beached (1970) and Broken Off (1971) show him enacting simple routines: In the former, he pulls logs out of the water; in the latter, his hands snap off bits of branches, then end the tape by yanking a video cable from its plug. To and Fro. Fro and To. And To and Fro. And Fro and To. and Shifted From the Side (both 1972) are even sparser, showing Weiner’s hand moving small objects on a tabletop from side to side, or front to back, as he voices his own instructions. In Beached, he calls these “material possibilities for videotape”—not normative exemplars of how the works should be performed, but merely electronic snapshots of how they might be. Like his proto-conceptual paintings from 1968, One Pint Gloss White Lacquer Poured Directly Upon the Floor and Allowed to Dry and Two Minutes of Spray Paint Directly Upon the Floor From a Standard Aerosol Can, the titles of the works become generators, as if the artist were merely a computer executing a program.

An unusually early example of video-to-celluloid feature filmmaking, Weiner shot A First Quarter (1973) on analog tape, then kinescoped to monochrome 16mm, creating a soft hybrid texture. The result more closely resembles a low-budget cinematic effort of its time than video art proper; the content, however, is merely faux-narrative. In disconnected sequences, three women drive a car down the highway, and a couple makes out in a living room. Dialogue consists solely of Weiner’s trademark art-incantations, evoking ideas more dramatic than the film itself: “A wall shattered by a single pistol shot”; “Twelve churches exploded simultaneously”; “A glacier vandalized.” Shot in bedraggled Berlin, Weiner’s follow-up feature, A Second Quarter (1975), continues a similar structure, now bilingually, with weird eroticism breaking the dry pace. In one scene, a bearded Weiner interrogates a woman in a cluttered office—they both speak in his language-bits, leading to a rough mouth-mashing; in another, two pretty ladies translate Weiner-words from English to Italian in a bathroom, as one of them shaves her legs, poised on the edge of the tub.

This sexual streak, largely masochistic, runs through much of Weiner’s work of the ’70s and ’80s. In the short film Passage to the North (1981), the artist sucks a woman’s toes as he phones in a telegram to Canada. His most narrative effort, the Netherlands-set Plowman’s Lunch (1982), casts his wife in streetwalker garb and features a hetero-male cross-dressing scene. Girl-on-girl action frequently appears, as in the video Do You Believe in Water? (1976), when two nude women fondle each other on a pink table. These undertones explode in A Bit of Matter and a Little Bit More (1976), which documents full-on hardcore fucking in an unappetizing pale-green video.

Despite these overtures toward a more powerfully visual experience, Weiner’s film- and videomaking never emerge from his language games to stand autonomously, though some come tantalizingly close, as in the No Wavish, tenor-sax-driven Altered to Suit (1979). They’re fascinating as historical objects, less so as experiences in themselves. But this limitation seems to be Weiner’s intent: Each instance only functions as a further iteration of a continuous, decades-long project, still bound by the parameters set out in 1969.