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La Vanguardia-4/3/2013

Lawrence Weiner, the father of conceptual art; in Barcelona to present a new sculpture

I’m 71 years old: we fought for civil rights, against discrimination. Today only the rich fight for the right to get richer. I was born in the Bronx, but I went to an excellent public school. No pixel rules any other pixel and together they form the image. I’m collaborating with the ArtAids Foundation.

“If I understood myself, I wouldn’t need art.”

For dignity
Weiner sports the beard of a prophet and a cavernous voice that he wraps around sentences that tickle your brain cells. And when he recalls his past as a dockworker he feels “illuminated by the lights of ships crossing night.” When his mother found out that Lawrence wanted to be an artist, she said: “Art is for rich people and women!” She was wrong, because her son has been poor and an artist, but also a proud waiter, labourer and stevedore. And ended up exhibiting in major museums. One thing that the father of conceptual art is incapable of making is a meaningless statement. And, gesturing to the sculpture with a monolith dedicated to the victims of AIDS, he says: “If you can give dignity to a stone, you can also give it to a person.”

Do you still believe that a bomb going off is a sculpture?
It wasn’t a bomb. It was dynamite. A bomb is terrorism; dynamite can be a form of art, because if it is handled with precision it can create forms and void.

You risked your life for art.
I wouldn’t be so pretentious. On one of my jobs as a labourer I got a licence to buy dynamite. And I used it.

And they let you use it artistically?
It took me years to reach the conclusion that it could be used for art. The police didn’t share this idea, so my group and I ended up before the County Judge.

Did he believe you?
After five minutes, the poor judge could see that we weren’t terrorists, just a bunch of crazy beatniks, and he tried to find a way to get rid of us. First he gave us a fine, but we declared ourselves insolvent.

So he sent you to jail?
That would have been fine by us, but the last thing the judge wanted is to have us roaming around the County. So he addressed me in a fatherly tone and asked me to please take myself and the dynamite somewhere else.

How did you learn to use dynamite?
I bought a book. You could learn too. We can all learn to do all kinds of things if we make up our minds to do it.

And you’ve always kept one foot in the worksite: construction, mines, the port…
Just like everybody else. Only ten percent of Americans can allow themselves to live without working. My parents were blue collar workers in the South Bronx, except during the war when my father was a soldier in the Pacific.

But you always wanted to be an artist.
First I was an activist fighting for rights against racial and gender discrimination.

Good job.
And I worked on the wharfs, aboard a petrol tanker… When I was 16, I started working nights as a waiter. In the bars in SoHo I met artists and I wanted to be one of them.

Did your parents help you?
When I told them, mum cried: “You’re going to break your father’s heart… An artist! That’s only for women and rich people!” And she was right.

Only rich people decide what art is in museum boardrooms: what goes and what doesn’t. Rich people and those who work for them. All other Americans simply don’t have the chance to develop criteria because they can’t afford to go to university.

What about the huge middle class?
It’s really only ten percent. The rest simply survive as best they can.

What does it mean to be an artist?
I’m good at defining the relationships between a piece of plastic and a piece of wood. Perhaps somebody who sees them as part of a work can understand their own place in the world.

What is your place in the world?
If I totally understood myself, I wouldn’t need art.

But you’ve had a retrospective at the Whitney and big museums in the US.
At the Whitney they asked me to place explanations alongside the works, because people wouldn’t be able to understand them. I refused. Art explains itself. Damn! I don’t know whether or not they understood, but thousands came.

I don’t explain; I show. It’s better to say something by doing rather than explaining.

How did you learn?
The Bronx wasn’t an easy neighbourhood, but McCarthy punished left-wing intellectuals at university by sending them to local public schools: Superb teachers!

And free.
It wasn’t free. We paid taxes. In any case, twenty languages were spoken in New York and you could discuss philosophy with Jesuits and Buddhists on the same street. That’s how I learnt that ethics and aesthetics are the same thing.

Prove it.
Look at my work on AIDS for the ArtAids Foundation in Mercat Santa Caterina.

It’s just a stone.
If you can give dignity to a stone, you can also give it to a person. Between ethics and aesthetics, the mistake is to think that if your mother is beautiful and good, those who aren’t like her are ugly and bad.

If something is beautiful, is it so all over the world?
What art can show is precisely that beauty and goodness can be expressed in many different ways, all of them equally good and beautiful.

But not all of us are good at everything.
See the pixels on the screen of the mobile phone that you’re using to record this conversation?

I can’t see them, but I know they’re there.
There is no pixel that thinks it is better than any other pixel. That’s why they all work together without worrying about colour or place of origin. Every time you use your mobile you’re proving that hierarchies don’t make things work – they take advantage of the fact that they work.

Mobile phones have chips that are in charge.
They have a different role. Different people are good at different things, but that doesn’t make them any better or worse. A nurse is no better or worse than a surgeon. But a good nurse is better than a bad surgeon.

Lluís Amiguet