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Juliet Anno 20 Numero 110 dicembre 2002

Joseph Kosuth

Elena Carlini


Art magazine

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Untitled, 1997. 41,5x63cm

Un'osservazione grammaticale, Modus Operandi 1988

Clock (One and Five), Versione Inglese/Latino 1965

In September the city of Bolzano, an important centre of contemporary art, inaugurated a new “wave” of artistic operations all situated in peculiar urban or landscape settings. The first of these events was “Guida”, a multi-episode exhibition that involved various local museums and many artists; the second was “Archivio di Nuova Scrittura” a special re-collection of conceptual art, visual and concrete poetry and lastly “TransArt” which presented a vast program of contemporary and experimental music performances. Most of these projects have been actively promoted by Museion, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Bolzano, thus making it possible to “insert” two artworks in two different settings, as part of the exhibition of “Guida”. Firstly, one can find Joseph Kosuth’s art alive amongst the houses and the church in the small town of Parcines, located in the vineyards at about one thousand meters above sea level. Here Kosuth has intervened in the Mitterhofer Museum, which has the largest historical collection of typewriters while Hamish Fulton’s artwork has been realized at Castel Juval, Reinhold Messner’s “fortress” located on a high peak north of Merano. During the opening celebrations at Castel Juval, there was the chance to discuss with both Kosuth and Fulton; the following is the text of our interview with Kosuth while the one with Hamish Fulton will be published in the near future.

Language and photos co-exist within your artwork in a “non-objective” dimension where concepts, definitions, implications, critiques are all intertwined; the photographic images are not presented for their immediate visual character.
I would like to point out that the photos are no more and no less visual than the rest of the artwork, since we use our eyes to read as well; the act of reading is visual. Let’s not confuse ‘visual’ with ‘formalist’.
Yet, you picked one of the most interesting typewriters of the museum, a very complex one apparently; did you pay any attention to the visual or sculptural quality of this object?
No, if you want to speak formalistically, there might be even more interesting typewriters in this museum, but I picked that specific one because it was Nietzsche’s typewriter, and he was the first philosopher to use this device. There is a memory or history of our intellectual life, which always seems to be unrelated to what is happening in terms of technological life; to think that Henry James was the first novelist to use a typewriter and Nietzsche the first philosopher, locates that production of culture in a way that I find interesting. It gives a kind of anchoring into something like the banality of daily life, which is a way of demystifying the institutional phase of that production of meaning. When you have thousands of typewriters, you really need to select just one. The enigma machine was another one that interested me also very much because it preceded the computer and it was embedded with lots of signification, but I liked the idea of the glimpse we have of the human producer of meaning - Nietzsche - when we look at the typewriter he used.
After seeing your intervention at Parcines, it was quite intriguing to listen to Hamish Fulton talking about the artwork he did at Castel Juval after the 24-hour walk with Reinhold Messner. Both works involve language and the notion of memory but while Fulton, to delineate his art, needs almost to appropriate the physical reality, acting directly on it, your approach is totally removed from any personal action or individual memory. Your quote from Nietzsche next to the image of his typewriter, refers to a world of matters and occurrences devoid of any intrinsic value, it is man who outlines value, which is a mental construct. On the other hand, in the Seventies you did Practice, a printed placard that demanded the public to take personal responsibility and intervene on the artwork itself, thus delineating a rhythmical praxis transforming it.
First, I think you are not accurate to say that my approach “is totally removed from any personal action or individual memory.” Art, as the production of meaning, itself constitutes “a personal action”. Don’t make the mistake of confusing such ‘personal action’ with making yourself the subject of your work. This is an appeal to art’s modernist origins where the Judeo-Christian messianic tradition sees the artist as a substitute Christ, or shaman. This is precisely why women had a difficulty in the art world being artists before conceptual art and post-modernist practice: they didn’t fit that mould. An expressionist female artist is a contradiction in terms and one sees few of them, even in Transavanguardia neo-expressionism. I couldn’t make my work without ‘individual memory’ by the way, but it isn‘t the subject of the work. I believe that Hamish has essentially an expressionist attitude, thinking that we should care about his experience - because he is the only one having the experience of the walk in the woods - and the fact that that comes back as an artistic language is just an another basis for essentially a formalist art, not so different than Expressionism or any kind of basic modernist agenda. In a sense such work utilizes art to institutionalize what is a personal experience. The presumption is that we should care about this personal experience. What made the difference in the second part of the 20th century was the will to go out of the modernist agenda and realize that artistic practice was truly about the making of meaning, art being always ‘personal’ so one doesn’t have to be the subject of one’s work, and that you can do it in a variety of ways. The issues, after modernism, are not formal ones. We did not prioritise or fall into a certain trap where you deal with the traditional idea of art, which always arrives with prior meaning so the individual artist has a hard time utilizing it because the prior meaning blocks what he or she can do at this moment in time. It loses the anchoring to reality that new art must have, it is thereby less authentic. The form of speaking, and the speaking only of the tradition in the history, is not reflecting what an individual is doing; this was the great contradiction behind Hamish’s comments. The truth is that the physical experience he was talking about is only a reference point; it is like confusing real experience with what you watch on television. You are so uncritical of this sort of “skin of reality” the media presents that you confuse it with reality. I think there was a fundamental problematic about the art of that period, when we realized that the means by which we were making art had become opaque and that in a certain sense they were only representations of a form of authority. That authority would eclipse any possibility of making meaning as an individual alive in a specific moment and wanting to have a certain political, cultural effect as well as a sense of responsibility. I respect Hamish for the kind of artist he is; he is simply outside of what I think the responsible agenda is now, to be an artist now.
Let’s talk about other artists with affinities to your work, like Lawrence Weiner, Douglas Huebler, Robert Barry, or Art & Language; often you have being “grouped” together under the definition of Conceptual artists but there are differences.
It was more a moment, than it was a group! Now, to be really accurate, I see my own work in those terms I established as ‘conceptual art’ and the others work having been still based on an earlier idea of what artistic priorities should be.
You are definitely one of the Conceptual artists; are there others you see pursuing this interest nowadays?
We sort of ‘arrived together’ on an art scene and there were some superficial relationships; certainly Lawrence Weiner is out there now, more active than Barry or Huebler - who is no longer alive - but it is essentially modernist work, it is really post-minimalism, if one uses the term that professional art historians like to use. That is: it is defined in relation to Minimalism because in fact it is a continuation of it, just like Daniel Buren stripes-- although Daniel is a far more interesting artist. Post-minimalism was important work, within the limit of its historic moment, but it was a closure of an earlier problematic, not the initiation of a new one. We were all thrown in the same pot because of a moment in history we had arrived, there were similarities from a negative perspective, that is from the modernist point of view, which had to do with dematerialization, use of language, thus there seemed to be some kind of bridge between all of us. In fact, as the practice became clarified, you can see the differences and they are more important than the similarities. I think I have much more to do with the early Art & Language, for example and there are some artists like Boetti, Paolini or Prini at the beginning, who have more to do with me. They are artists I have tremendous respect for. We also arrived together and showed at the same time with Gian Enzo Sperone. I respect a lot Pistoletto too. I feel in many ways as much part of the Italian art world as New York’s. This is why it was so easy for me to have a studio in Rome, it was always my second city after New York since the 70’s.
What would you say about Seth Siegelaub?
He was a fantastic person, and still is, I use the past tense because I refer to the period when he was busy with the artists. I had visits from dealers who would say: «Well, when you get twenty or thirty, please give me a call!» because I had no money and I had to begin in a notebook - which is what Lawrence Weiner based his book ‘Statements’ on, it was this notebook I had in my studio. I used a notebook because I could not afford to really produce things, so they stayed in notebooks. But Seth was really very committed, he was not after money, rather trying to participate, collaborate with the artists putting the work in the world. He would be the kind of person who would go for lunch and have an avocado so that I could have a photostat made. After I went to Castelli (in a year or two the other three came also) Seth said: «Well, I suppose my job is done» and became a distributor for left wing books, named International General. He did that for some time and later focused on textiles and books on textiles. Seth is really a special person.
Can we talk about Christine Kozlov? I have seen some of her work but for some reason it is not so visible or available anymore, somehow forgotten.
Christine and I were in art school together and had a personal relationship. She was also my best friend and we had a great dialogue. She had her particular kind of work which was very much her own and I think that we both learned a lot from each other as art students do. Then, things begun to happen and, as I was the ambitious male and a little more theoretically oriented - I was more of an activist while she was a quiet, introverted person - I was out fighting for this idea of art. At a certain moment she said something which filled me with tremendous feminist guilt (me as a feminist, not her); she said «Well, you are doing it for both of us now» and I said: «No, you cannot say that!» But it was quite horrible. I remember Lucy (Lippard) being in contact with her because at that point she really stopped; I tried also to encourage her and she eventually began to do work again but at a certain critical period she was quiet when she should not have been quiet, because we needed her. She was really the first woman in the Conceptual art context. Hanne Darboven was in it quite early as well; Hanne was very interesting and quite special. I met her at the time I had this exhibition place called the Museum of Normal Art.
It was a gallery, wasn’t it?
Yes, but we never even imagined that anyone would buy anything in it. My cousin was paying for it as a bartender. One day, a friend of mine working in an art store, told me about of this German girl who was buying pencils and paper at the store. He thought that I might be interested in the kind of work she was doing. So I called her up and we talked for four hours; she was very tough and what she was doing alone, every day was completely wild. I exhibited her work at the Museum of Normal Art, with On Kawara, and later Robert Ryman. I was quite flexible to what “Normal Art” could be, but it had to do with normative and the idea of art effecting a discourse, slightly didactic but not quite. It was a modest thing but it worked; I tried to create a possible alternative to the regnant power of the “Greenbergian” formalism which was really organizing the museums, the art magazines and everything else. At a certain point there was an article on “Newsweek” about the new art, which horrified me for the way they talked about me; it was all about “this eccentric person”. At that point I realized people would only give ideas any seriousness consideration only if there was a movement; ideas had to become more important than individuals, therefore I began looking for people doing idea-oriented work.
At this point we could talk about Dan Graham and works like Schema.
When I invited Dan Graham to speak at my art school we had a big fight which was taped. He was swearing he was a poet and not an artist but to me being a poet was like being a painter, you had tradition defining your activity. He said he had no problem with that. It was not until the early Seventies, after we basically ‘won the war’, that Dan decided he was a Conceptual artist. Later he took his articles from the Sixties he had written as articles not as artworks, and signed them as artworks! I think he was one of the most interesting early video artist - this is his important work - but I do think that his so-called conceptual art is not correct as such, it is a doctored history, and it wasn’t necessary. A work like Schema was meant by Dan as a poem or ‘concrete’ poetry, in fact he always tried to get his work in the Concrete Poetry Archive where he thought it would have its cultural home, but they did not accept it. I was very much fighting against Fluxus or Concrete Poetry instead; I really wanted to create another kind of meaning space for my activity, to protect it from other things which were just superficially
What would say about Stephen Kaltenbach?
He sort of disappeared at a certain point but he did those metal plaques which were interesting. Lucy Lippard was intrigued by his work. Though the issue is that you need a body of work, one or two works are not quite enough, you have to be in an engaged struggle within the history of ideas and fight for this. I always had an argument about for example “Henry Flynt”; he was someone we never heard of until, some years after the first Siegelaub’s show, and conceptual art was established, critics got interested in the context and begun to dig around. Somebody in France found Ben and someone else found Henry Flynt who wrote about something called Concept Art although, if you read it, it is clearly something else, more in the context of Fluxus. The discovery of Henry Flynt is almost as you had found someone who did paintings just like Jackson Pollock in a barn in Iowa in 1936. Does that mean that the Jackson Pollock who effected people’s ideas, is less important because somebody happened to do paintings that looked like his albeit for different reasons, in a barn in 1936? The point is that meaning is constructed within the community. But this is about “careerism” of art historians, trying to come up with “stuff”. A little bit like few years ago with Benjamin Buchloh and others at October trying to re-write history for their own career needs. It did not work fortunately because this kind of revisionism does not serve anybody and it is not just pointless, it is wrong. I do think that was a passing moment and the scholarship on our work is back on a more accurate path.
I would like to know more about your work in Napoli, both in Piazza del Plebiscito and, underground, in the Dante subway station. Which is the kind of interaction you establish with the architecture? Is it just a neutral background?
No, it is more than nature. Most of the work I did, like the series of Guests and Foreigners installations as well as the Zero & Not series, had an interaction with the architecture which was providing the syntax. In other cases is less so, but I still have a good working relationship with architects because they find that my work articulates and enriches the architecture, establishing a meaningful relationship with it rather that just using it as a natural environment.
Sometimes you choose neon tubes as writing device. Can you tell me more about them?
Yes, I do a certain amount of neon work; I started in 1965 because I needed something with a lot of qualities that I could unpack to construct the tautologies, so these works with neon, electrical glasses, letters, English, had many qualities I could sort out and use. It was part of signage, of popular culture as well, it was not a fine art material, people were accustomed to see signage and I could use it in a way that you would not normally see it, with different typefaces, treating it in a dryer way than advertising does. It became for me one way to write, and it has been there as one way of work. Modernism is defined as being about the limits of the medium but my work is not media defined, I work in all kinds of ways, neon is just one of them.
Earlier, you mentioned Italo Svevo, a writer from Trieste whose work very much interested you. Could you talk about your interest in the psychoanalytic discourse?
Well, there is one for sure! I wanted a body of thinking which was ubiquitous and formed the culture of my time, something that would give me an arena of meaning production with which I could play. Certainly Freud provided that possibility for me.

Interview by Elena Carlini