The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2017

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MAY 2017 Issue

Ian Wilson

Installation view: Circle on the Floor (Chalk Circle), 1968. Chalk. 72 inches in diameter. Courtesy the artist and Jan Mot, Brussel.
On View
KW Institute for Contemporary Art
January 20 – May 14, 2017

In The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Rancière writes on the pedagogical relationship:

The ignoramus is not simply one who does not as yet know what the schoolmaster knows. She is the one who does not know what she does not know or how to know it. For his part, the schoolmaster is not only the one who possesses the knowledge unknown by the ignoramus. He is also the one who knows how to make it an object or knowledge… [But] what the pupil will always lack, unless she becomes a schoolmistress herself, is knowledge of ignorance—a knowledge of the exact distance separating knowledge from ignorance.1

While visiting Ian Wilson’s current solo show at the Kunst-Werke (KW) Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, I found that Wilson’s work was foundational to the central concerns of this passage: the potential, formation, and translation of language; the relations between artist and audience, author and reader; and the creation, implications, and emptiness of knowledge. In approaching each of these subjects, Wilson claims to investigate time itself. Simultaneously, three other artists’ parallel solo shows at KW challenge and respond to Wilson’s work: a sound and installation work by Hanne Lippard; paintings and installation by Adam Pendleton; and sculpture, sound, and video by Paul Elliman.

The first works in Wilson’s show are paper-based: postcards, letters, press releases, advertisements, and announcements are arranged in two display cases. Each element reads as an exhibition announcement, with a date, location, and event item: “A discussion in context of an exhibition (topic announced in the gallery), March 26, 1973, Jack Wendler Gallery, London.” Though Wilson did indeed hold these advertised discussions at various locations throughout the 1970s and ’80s, they were neither recorded nor published; for a viewer who may not know whether or not these discussions actually transpired, the postcards in the display case are, in effect, only technique. This becomes increasingly clear as one reads the text on standard copy paper hanging in a nearby frame: “There is a discussion.” These four words are a work—the statement that there has been, is, or will be a discussion.

In the second of the two display cases, this concept of marketing an idea extends to the “idea” of the artist himself (for it is his word and presence that a viewer may have begun to doubt): in an open spread of a New York Times Magazine from 1968, amidst a column of advertisements on the right page, a small ad reads simply, “Ian Wilson.” The date, time, location, and content are all absent. One is simply left with the artist who performs himself as a work, a show, an artist.

Through these postcards and advertisements, Wilson has not only destabilized the concept of the artist who makes work and the idea of what form that work should take, but has also framed the artwork as an insecure form of knowledge. Returning to Rancière’s writing on the concept of the “knowledge of ignorance,” I find that Wilson’s work hinges on emptiness, circles around that bubble of knowledge without puncturing its soapy sheen. “Can something be ‘made’ clear?” Wilson asks in one piece. Is transparency a virtue? Is that which is opaque also unknowable?

Most visually striking about the show is the absence of physical work (one room of the exhibition space is literally empty) and the reliance on paper and text as work. One exception is a drawing in chalk on the floor of the next room, Circle on the Floor (Chalk Circle) (1968). As a floor piece, the work is easily ignored, punctured by viewers who suddenly find themselves surrounded (and come to know the work). There may not be an “approach” to the work, but rather a realization that one is within it. The chalk circle is not apprehended but understood. It is also ephemeral. As with stone sculptures whose faces have been effaced by the grease of desiring palms, this circle changes over time, eventually disappearing. What is known becomes unknown.

In a cavernous cement-floored hall, within view of Wilson’s show, is Hanne Lippard’s Flesh (2016), a large metal spiral staircase, painted a creamy off-white color, that ascends into a stout space, its ceiling just five feet above the salmon carpet. Prior to Lippard’s architectural intervention, this “space” was a non-space, a recessed part of the ceiling with skylights. Offering unveiled visual access to the rooftop foliage and surrounding buildings, Lippard’s installation addresses Wilson’s parodies of the acquisition of knowledge—ascension to new perspectives and coming to know what was unknown. Expanding upon Wilson’s use of language as a precarious rhetorical device, the sound piece that plays within this space addresses its liminality and new inhabitants: “Those who cannot stand upright, please sit.” Along the way, standard clinical questions twist into existential interrogations: “What are your aims, goals, reason for being? Reason for human being?” Lippard stutters and slips through language with homonyms and mispronunciations that create new words and meanings. Words melt into the bird calls outside.

Ian Wilson, Sections 1–57, 1971 – 90. Courtesy the artist and Jan Mot, Brussels.

Deconstructing language is also the theme of Paul Elliman’s presentation in another KW gallery upstairs, As you said. While Lippard choreographed the viewer’s body with her sound piece, Elliman choreographed a performance that was then performed by Elena Giannotti and filmed at the site of Wilson’s chalk circle downstairs. The sprightly dancer skips, bends, leans against the wall, and stands on her toes in a series of exploratory gestures. The gestures seem only to be exercises. She circles around meaning. Other works in Elliman’s show similarly construct and deconstruct lexicons in modes reminiscent of Wilson’s. On paper, in advertisements, on the floor, and in glass display cases designed by Wilson, series of objects by Elliman become formal languages—such as an extensive collection of bent paperclips entitled We could speak (Běla Kolářová) (2010).

Adam Pendleton’s take on Wilson in the show, shot him in the face, is perhaps the most abstracted. The presentation also draws on a poem by Ron Silliman, Albany, that poem is essentially concerned with the concept of the “new sentence,” one that is “conceived as an independent unit, neither causally nor temporally related to the sentences that precede and follow it.” Non sequiturs and disjointed logics abound in these KW shows, but Pendleton seems to shape his response to Wilson through linguistic references to sociopolitical events and exhibition histories. The central visual material is an adhesive text-based vinyl mural, If the Function of Writing (2017), applied to a long diagonal wall in the gallery. Collaged within the text are enlarged black-and-white photographs of Chinese fabrics with fragments of corresponding wall texts that were used to explain the significance (or referents) of the various signifiers—an exploration of how meaning is made.

Though there are many layers of content within each of the four shows at KW, en masse they represent a semiotic interrogation, a game of call and response. Perhaps Wilson’s promised discussion has again transpired for an audience—and as with many discussions, its most critical consequence is yet another series of questions.


  1. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (Verso, 2009), 8 – 9.

The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2017

All Issues