Ian Wilson at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin
by Ana Teixeira Pinto
This January, the KW (Kunst-Werke) in Berlin reopened its doors with a new director at the helm, Krist Gruijthuijsen, and new institutional structure, which will see the KW parting ways with the biennial it brought into being. Gruijthuijsen will take on the functions formerly held by Ellen Blumenstein (chief curator) and Gabriele Horn (director); the latter will remain the director of the biennial, now an independent organization.
Gruijthuijsen has introduced a new exhibition format, revolving around the work of the conceptual South African artist Ian Wilson: three younger artists—Hanne Lippard, Paul Elliman and Adam Pendleton—were invited to enter into a dialogue with Wilson’s oeuvre, taking his work as a starting point for theirs. The genealogy the exhibition draws is careful to bypass Wilson’s more obvious progeny—Tino Sehgal, Rirkrit Tiravanija—extending the question of artistic influence beyond a conceptual scope, to include phenomenological and architectonic registers.
The strategy, however ambitious, is not without risks. I personally felt the first pairing to be unconvincing: Hanne Lippard’s usage of a recorded female voice imbues the space with a gendered dimension, which becomes the content of the work, whereas Wilson’s emphasis on communication, though performative, is wholly devoid of sensuous elements. This is not inconsequential, faced with of an overpowering culture industry and the new symbolic universe of market semiotics, which emerged in full force in the 1970s, conceptualism sought to secure a state of semi-autonomy for artistic production via a strategy of negation, each work becoming more focused as it wrestled with its opposite, the commodity form. From this perspective, Conceptualism is a polemic about the function of art as a social institution, rather than a style. Though the program of de-reification also leads to what Zöe Sutherland called a mysticism of the negative, famously mocked by the Situationists in “Absence and Its Customers,” Wilson moved away from this reductionist approach.1 While his earlier works, like Circle on the Floor (1968)—literally a circle drawn with chalk on the floor of the exhibition space, reproduced in the current show—still carried high Modernist echoes, his 1970s production followed Fluxus’s neo-Dada quest to erase the distinction between art and everyday life.
Fittingly, Wilson’s exhibition at the KW is centered on the body of work the artist called “Discussions,“ his reconceptualization of the artwork as a debate or spoken exchange. He began this series—if one may call it a series—by spontaneously engaging gallery audiences: when asked what he was working on, he would reply “time,” opening an exchange on the word. At the KW this series is represented by a typewritten text that announces: “This work is installed when the word time is spoken,” Time (spoken), 1982. Every time someone engages him in informal conversation, the work comes into being.
Wilson would eventually expand this experiment into a discussion format. In 1976, at the invitation of Rudi Fuchs, he began to organize discussions at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (the event took place yearly until 1986).The artist would invite the participants—in the 1970s he started to issue postcards announcing the discussions and the venue at which they would take place—and suggest a topic, but the argument would unfold organically, and Wilson would never allow for audio or film recordings (though the Van Abbemuseum published a compilation of discussions based on the recollections of those who took part, including Rudi Fuchs, Daniel Buren, Lawrence Weiner, Michel Claura, René Denizot, Massimo Minini, Giuseppe Panza, Merrill Ryman, Christel and Urs Raussmüller, Sylvie Winckler, Oscar van den Boogaard, and Luca Cerizza).2
Inside the KW, this refusal to create a record is exhibited as a register, specifically a tally of past events held at John Weber Gallery in New York, the Van Abbemuseum, and the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, represented by a selection of invitation cards ranging from 1970 to 1999. But this presence-of-anabsence also speaks the idiom of the fetish, turning semantic indeterminacy into institutional surplus. Framed and ossified, Wilson’s manifold negatives (de-reification, de-skilling, de-materialization) gesture toward a positive: an idea of culture as urban, classless, and universal, which in the 1960s and 1970s was embodied in the rising numbers of middle-class baby boomers and by the framework of social democracy.
The discussion the artist will stage at the KW on May 14 under the title “The Pure Awareness of the Absolute” will meet a radically different world, in which communication is fraught with difficulties. Whether Wilson’s Socratic approach to debate as an art form could be employed to negate the present state of affairs—a great deal has been always asked of artists and art institutions—is an unfair question, yet one that is nonetheless institutionally urgent to ask.
 “Absence and Its Customers,” Internationale Situationniste, no. 2 (December 1958).Translated by John Shepley
 Ian Wilson: The Discussions (Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum; Barcelona: MACBA, 2008).
at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin
until 14 May 2017