Ian Wilson, A Discussion, Yvon Lambert New York, New York, 09/20/2007

I visited the discussion by Ian Wilson on the 20th of September 2007 at Gallery Yvon Lambert in New York. I found out about this event through a regular information listing on line that lists art world events and openings. Ian Wilson was a name for me I associated with the early wave of conceptual art around Seth Siegelslaub without really knowing much about him. I was particular drawn to this lecture since it wasn’t announced as a show. I had never seen a show of his and had nearly no specific “images” or for that matter “ideas” of his work. For over a decade I have been photographing seminars and lectures and wanted to include him in my “seminar/lecture” series which consists of photographs taken during those occasions.

The gallery was packed with great artists who attended his event. I was sitting in the third row behind Laurence Wiener and his wife Alice in the first and  Louise Lawler in the second row. On my right was Robert Barry. There were also faces of younger artists familiar to me. I still had no clue what to expect since I really wasn’t familiar with his work. I also didn’t know who to expect, didn’t know Ian Wilson’s look, whether he was a person I have seen before, met at some event, shaken hands with.  Then he enters, tall, elegant, in a gray suit over a white sweater, carrying a scarf. His appearance had something solemn and impressive. Before he came to stand still something unexpected happened. I was just about to get ready to photograph him when a flash went off, a flash from the camera of Alice Wiener.  This wasn’t really surprising me since, in these days, people photograph everywhere. Ian Wilson replied to her in dry manner, “don’t photograph.”

So here I was with my camera, having bicycled downtown from Harlem just to see him, to photograph him and  somebody ‘flashes away” my opportunity to do so. To my own surprise, with a quasi-annoyed reflex, I barked  semi-silently into Alice’s neck: “You ruined it for me.” I felt very guilty about this stupid remark of mine since she is such a nice person. Weeks later, at Lawrence Wiener’s Whitney opening, she told me that she felt bad for days as well and apologized. When the talk began, I was secretly defying the order and took nonetheless some pictures from the event without having been noticed by Ian Wilson. I did that in a careful way without disturbing anybody. A couple of days later, somebody named Liss wrote me the following email:

Rainer, We have never met but I saw/observed you at the
Ian Wilson 'Discussion' yesterday. I have been slightly
familiar with your work and your investigations, so I'm
curious about something - particularly Ian's request that
the event not be photographed/recorded. I'm wondering
how you are making sense of photographing the 'discussion'
insofar as ignoring Ian's explicit request of no photographs.
I guess I'm seeing his request as integral for how that
work operates in our memory or imagination. Why wouldn't
you want to honor that?

I was surprised and an email exchange started in which he convinced me not to use any of these photos for my work. Interestingly enough, I seem to have touched upon something quite crucial in today’s media saturated world: an enclave with no pictures allowed. If museums (now also some galleries – Gogosian for example) don’t want you to photograph, it is strictly for the protection of commercial copyrights. When certain artists don’t want any pictures taken, it has something to do with the way they create their own image to control it. Of course, this is an entire topic by itself and it could be a fine paper analyzing and comparing all the many reasons why a person wants to control his/her image. I promised the email writer who declined to have anything to do with Ian Wilson and who was familiar with my S/L series to not use these images. This incident reminded me of another conceptual artist of his generation: Years ago, I was meeting a couple of times with On Kawara for small discussions in Japanese in a Tribecca coffee shop, always the same. I didn’t know that he didn’t want to be photographed at all. But by accident I took a picture of him which turned out well. Kawara-san really gave me the feeling that I might be the only person in possession of a photograph of him since he seemed to have made it a project – to walk through live without having a picture of himself taken.  This obviously would be an impossibility since any official document today comes with images and cameras are fixtures everywhere non-stop recording us on nearly every intersection, in every bank, on every train, or subway stop.

When a curator of Ian Wilson contacted me asking me to write these lines on his lecture I felt again somehow uncanny: I was naively asking myself, how did these people recognize me, how did they find out about my contacts, or worse, did they already know that I took images I wasn’t allowed to?  Is everybody working for Ian Wilson? Are they checking up on me again? Now, here are a few words about the discussion itself. Having myself been working with discussions, reading seminars and talks since the early 1990s, it took me very little to understand that Ian Wilson wasn’t talking about his work but was doing his art work. Talking was his actual artwork. And for that matter he expressed himself with the same elegance and straightness as he appeared, as he dressed. I remember the discussion very axiomatically shaped, with some classical opening sentence which then was used as a steppingstone for venturing higher and higher into metaphysical territory. Very quickly my ears revolted since I am not too receptive for discussions of the “Absolute” and other supreme forms of being.

At that moment, only a few corners into the discussions, - one must imagine the talk as a walk through a middle age city like Venice - the artist-turned-philosopher risked of also turning into a preacher. I started to see Ian Wilson’s picture with his bolding head, his very serious look and his solemn verticality overlap with timeless but old images of a pilgrim fathers, of preachers, of ascetic monks, of powerful figures in religious, spiritual or judicial business. Laurence Wiener was the first to intervene and started to reject his sentences, accusing Wilson of elitism and of being non-democratic, if I remember it correctly. I agreed with Wiener and asked Wilson myself a question critical of his deductive method to arrive at something behind our very comprehension. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t much we don’t or even can’t understand or know but dealing in metaphysical real estate is something that I not only reject but translate into politics, into a quest for political influence and power. The problem is never the Absolute itself since an assumed Absolute or Supreme power wouldn’t hurt or bother anybody since it can’t communicate or manifest itself due to the fact that these fantasies are always human projections, part of our cultural baggage. But the problem starts with those who interpret it, who guard it, who “know it”, who defend it, who design it who speak for it, who watch it and make money and politics with it. There are even those common unfortunate, miserable dammed figures who kill in the name of the Absolute, the name of god, the name of Supreme power or energy, or name it the way you want it.

So, I soon realized on about which journey he was talking, or on which journey he was taking us and decided not to follow it. I more or less left the discussion mid-through and anticipated some meditative session to follow. I was told later, by a person who attended it to the end that the discussion really ended with some zen-like meditation something I never was able to tolerate or even enjoy. But nonetheless, and in spite of my materialist, anti-idealist, anti-metaphysical position, Ian Wilson impressed me quite a bit and I was happy I saw it, participated in it. I very much respect his discussions and enjoyed that he was doing and saying what he believed, even though I couldn’t agree with anything said or suggested. I am very glad that he again shows younger generations of artists that he exists, that he has been doing this for decades since these kind of discussions-as-artwork are the latest (even selling) spleen on the conceptual art-circuit.

Rainer Ganahl, 2008


-- below letter received:


Re. Impressions of Ian Wilson’s discussions

Eindhoven, November 29, 2007

Dear Mr. Ganahl,

At present the Van Abbemuseum and Jan Mot are preparing a publication on the conceptual artist Ian Wilson. It will be the first catalogue raisonné focusing on Ian Wilson’s discussions. The book will be published in close cooperation with Ian Wilson. Currently we are also talking with some other European institutional partners about participating in this project.

The publication will contain a list of Ian Wilson’s discussions. It will further include an art historical text relating to his work, reproductions of announcement cards and certificates, an early interview, a text by Ian Wilson, a biography and a bibliography. Concerning one other aspect we are turning to you for help.

In a meeting with Ian the idea was developed to ask a selection of people who have assisted in his discussions to share their impressions of them and to publish parts of these writings. As you are on the list of people that Ian has given us, we would like to invite you to write down some of your impressions. The text can be just a few lines or longer, as you prefer. You can write directly in English or in your native language and we will take care of the translation.

To give you an idea it should be an impression of a specific discussion. For example you can write about an unusual situation, the location, or the atmosphere among the public. Or you might write about the form of the discussion, its contents, or the way the artist presented his ideas and the effect it had on you or on the audience. Be it humorous or serious, please feel free with whatever comes to mind. In case you attended several discussions, possibly there was something unusual that made a particular discussion different from others. You might also refer to their similarities, however, specificity is preferred over generality in this project.

We would be happy to receive your text before the 1st of January, 2008. A selection of the received reply will be used in the publication.

Looking forward to your kind cooperation and thanking you in advance, also on behalf of the artist, we remain.

Yours sincerely,

Chantal Kleinmeulman