“I learnt it all backwards, I see mistakes before I see order… Most people don’t know what physical labour is anymore, or the fact that things take the time they take.”
Conversation lies at the heart of Richard Wentworth’s artistic practice. The artist, who played a key role in the New British Sculpture movement of the 1970's, now uses finely crafted manipulations and photography of found objects to consider the interactions between people, things, and places as a constantly evolving dialogue between art, nature, and the built environment — a conversation regulated by an almost invisible language of use, gesture, sign, and happenstance. This is most evident in his expansive project Making Do and Getting By, a photographic archive of street observations spanning more than forty years, which bears extraordinary witness to the seams, fractures, and leftovers of human experience during an explosive period of urban growth.
Through a keen attention to the physical details of human behaviour, Wentworth captures the barely perceptible actions with which people casually adjust their environments. Tactics of observation become the artist’s tools to unpick the way artefacts become signs, exposing these objects to the possibility of subversion, and adaptation by anonymous users. These nuanced investigations into objects and place explore the capacity for consumption to be a creative activity worthy of critical artistic practice. His 2015 publication of the same name brings together a fragment of Making Do and Getting By, and provided a pivot for a dialogue with the artist around the uses of street observation.
Interview and text by Alec Scragg.
A first glance, Making Do and Getting By appears a simple collection of images: documentations of casual littering, ad-hoc repairs, signage, and the curious placement of commonplace objects — from coffee cups to tomatoes. There is an interest in composition in the relationships of use and gesture that form between the object and its setting, but these images are not artistic photographs in the traditional sense. Indeed, as Wentworth himself states, “I’m not a photographer, I know that a photograph is not a very great tool; it’s not a spatial experience. Instead it is sort of a cipher for the mind.” Thus for Wentworth, his work is an extensive project of reportage: situations in which the artist does not intervene but rather observes and chronicles nature and people, art and artifice, decay and regrowth.
Wentworth gravitates toward instances where resourcefulness and practical intelligence have transformed an everyday problem into an opportunity for unintended yet earnest creative expression. His collection is “not all the things I like” he insists, but rather an archive of sensory ingenuity; indeed, the strength of Wentworth’s project lays in both its range of content yet consistency of representation. This format draws out a rich concatenation of human behaviours that demonstrate the ubiquitous importance of thinking with one’s hands -- or, in Wentworth’s own terms, “subcutaneous intelligence”. While the spectrum of these moments is too varied, everyday, and mundane to be characterised under the more loaded term of “craftsmanship,” it nevertheless revels in a vital and common sensibility. Vital in the sense that the documented moments often respond functionally to present needs, common in the way they create simple gestures which can be intuitively read.
With Making Do and Getting By, Wentworth draws similarities between the constructed details he confronts in the street, and the assembled nature of language itself. His images serve as a grammatical primer for a language of things. By documenting situations whose content lack straightforward description, Wentworth explores the limits of our everyday vocabulary to nominate, describe, and construct our sense of the physical environment. For the artist, the project “is about all of the things that we suggest to each other by gestures—the weirdness of how quickly we can sense things. I’m not that interested in people understanding things.” By positioning itself in the liminal space between observation and communication, Making Do and Getting By promotes a certain kind of literacy, a grammar of physical assemblage that alerts us to the constructed nature of language itself. The process of reading the images is akin to how one reads a foreign dictionary, with an initial lack of understanding, a continual act of cross-referencing between pages, a certain joy in casual perusal, and perhaps even bemusement as we begin to relate our own personal experiences to the images. It is a dialogical work that questions what it means to pay attention to detail and questions assumed manifestations of nature and of culture.
There are details throughout Making Do and Getting By that transcend functional signs to expose a poetic dimension to everyday experience. Photographs of ephemeral situations — newspapers stacked for distribution, the remnants of street cleaning — invite us to suspend a moral judgement and enjoy the formal qualities of detritus before their disappearance. These fleeting moments reveal the vital practices of adjustment that remain intrinsic to our built environments. For Wentworth these are expressive of a fundamental, “imcompleteability that contains the deep metaphor of our edgy, unresolved lives. There is so much ‘before, during, and after, before, during…’”
Yet if Wentworth’s concern for the details of such places is a challenge to the way the temporality of the environment tends to be expressed, it is within the processes of construction and development that his work finds enlargement. Indeed, such processes have been most notable within Wentworth’s own neighbourhood of Kings Cross and St Pancras, an area where a former industrial character has been the particular focus of aggressive regeneration in which found historic buildings achieve value as sites of ‘heritage’. But as Wentworth points out, “'Heritage' has become a trickster word, something that happens when we compare things poorly. Your local post box could become iconic. Half of London is made of fables. […But] perhaps the most interesting thing that happened in my lifetime is not the saving of St. Pancras Station but its vigorous use.” By documenting the transformation of this area through its transitional details rather than the architecture of its completed buildings, Wentworth reveals a different narrative of development as something inherently provisional, in which grand ideas of conservation fail to articulate the ways in which the "past" is unfinished.
In this context, Making Do and Getting By stands as a sharp riposte to the aesthetic purity of much contemporary architectural design. A desire for precision and neatness within the professional practices of architecture and landscape design seem, compared to Wentworth’s observations of environmental and human nature, contrived attempts at control. The "tidiness" of this kind of professional design ignores the ad-hoc and messy ways in which place is both physically constructed and brutally tested by day-to-day use. As the production of our environment becomes increasingly procedural, authorship is reduced to the pre-defined vision of the designer, which is always reductive. That which is deemed superfluous — often including the traces of its construction — is removed. This visIon of the public realm ignores the instrumental importance of "stuff", not just in the making of place, but also in providing anchors through which users attach meaningful experience to the environment.
By turning a lens onto the seams and fractures of the environment, Wentworth’s photographs show an alternative approach to a pervasive yet sterile culture of place-making. He captures the details of making and use that are all too often thought of as playing secondary, supporting-roles within the construction and adaptation of our surroundings. When given the attention they deserve, these earnest moments frequently upstage their professionally designed counterparts. Wentworth’s images reveal details of explosive joy with a richness of provisional meaning, each one opening up a place to new readings and playful repurposings. Making Do and Getting By — the book and the greater project at large — ferments a discourse around the ways our places are made, how we use them and, more importantly, how we read and re-read them. Together these images constitute an odd device to educate desire by reinvigorating our curiosity. As such, Wentworth’s publication is a contemporary pattern-book, something to prefigure the creation of richer, inexhaustible, and more delightful places.
To learn more about Richard Wentworth's work, click here.