It would be difficult to think of a better pairing of artist and architect than Lawrence Weiner and Peter Zumthor. Despite the fact that Weiner described Zumthor’s 1999 design for Kunsthaus Bregenz as ‘difficult’, his exhibition ‘Wherewithal’ (Was es Braucht) makes it seem as though Zumthor had him in mind all along. Although context is always key for Weiner, it is ‘content’ (as he wrote in 1982) that is ‘the reason for artists making art’. Ingeniously, the exhibition’s compound title nods to both: ‘where’ implies site (context); ‘with all’ the act of bringing together objects (content); and ‘wherewithal’ the means and potential to actually execute the idea.
Throughout his career, Weiner has referred to his two-dimensional works of words and phrases as ‘sculptures’. Indeed, they can seem physical, and palpable here is a dialogue between Weiner’s sculptures and Zumthor’s architecture. At one end of the ground floor, the 2016 work DOWN (HERUNTER) – written in Wiener’s large, graphic font, Franklin Gothic Compressed – blocks the light of an enormous wall of opaque glass. At the other end of the space is UP (HINAUF) (2016). The initial dialogue between sculpture and architecture thus becomes a conversation between English and German, between raw materials and compound structures and, by extension, between events and their reconstructions.
UP … and DOWN … both build upon an earlier wall-work from 1995/97 that is presented on the ground floor: BUILT UP WITH STONES FALLEN FROM THE SKY (GEBAUT MIT VOM HIMMEL GEFALLENEN STEINEN), written to curve upward in one language, downward in the other. Originally installed in a private space in Düsseldorf, this piece’s reappearance at Kunsthaus Bregenz ties to the theme of previous histories: the act of reconstruction, or the phoenix-like condition of many post-World War II cities.
On the first floor, an alarming phrase reads: MANIFEST PRESSURE LEADING TO THE RELEASE OF WHATSOEVER PIEZO CAN BE FOUND (INNEWOHNENDER DRUCK BEFREIT JEGLICHES PIEZO SO VORHANDEN). For this 2016 work, the relative mass of the English letters in blue presses into the lighter-coloured orange letters in German to trigger a visual vibration in places where the letters overlap, like a ‘piezo’ effect in response to stress. The sculpture echoes the constructional logic of Zumthor’s glass ceiling grid (clipped together by metallic hinges), and the building's sectional concrete walls. Conceptually, however, it recalls Weiner’s very first work, Cratering Pieces, which was shown in 1959–60 in Mill Valley, California, and comprised craters made in the earth using dynamite. Here, these explosions take the form of collisions in language.
Two other sculptures, MASSES OF STONE CLOSING OFF THE LIGHT OF THE NIGHT (STEINMASSEN DIE DAS NACHTLICHT ABSCHOTTEN) and MASSES OF STONE CLOSING OFF THE LIGHT OF THE DAY (SEINMASSEN DIE DAS TAGESLICHT ABSCHOTTEN) (both 2016), share the gallery with MANIFEST PRESSURE … . The white-vinyl letters of the first two works overlap in red, as though they are an abstraction of blood squeezed between stones in concrete dust. Similarly, the piece DRAWN OUT FROM A STONE (AUS EINEN STEIN HERAUS) evokes past destruction and recuperation: for what do we ‘draw out’ from stones other than the fallen bodies of the dead? The only work visible on the third and final floor is THE BOULDERS ON TOP RENT & SPLIT (DIE BROCKEN OBENAUF ZERISSEN UND GESPALTEN), which is given the full weight of its words by its emphatic isolation.
In a statement about this exhibition, Weiner playfully likened ‘tectonic’ plates to ‘teutonic’ histories, and one can certainly detect in the show’s design a sense of building pressure, moving upwards from the ground floor. But the reverse is also true. At whichever level one enters the show, it is clear that Weiner is taking the spatial severity of the Kunsthaus as raw material for his politically and physically impactful sculpture: Wiener’s cosmic continuum between destruction and creativity.