As I strolled up to the Kings Cross café where I was to meet the British sculptor Richard Wentworth I noticed that the rubber doormat was being used to hold open the front door on a day which was already sweltering first thing in the morning. That, I thought, is exactly the kind of thing Wentworth would like. Sure enough, he rolls up a few minutes later, greets me and excuses himself while he takes a quick photo of the surrogate door wedge.
Since the 1970s Wentworth has been documenting precisely this kind of ingenious and creative use, re-use, misuse and abuse of everyday things. His photographic series entitled “Making Do and Getting By” is an open-ended poem to improvisation – a coat hanger propping open a broken sash-window, brooms used as barriers to close off a doorway, a cigarette stubbed out in a bottle-top and, he is keen to show me the latest one on his camera, a paintbrush wedged between a pair of cupboard handles as a makeshift lock.
But the series is also a heartfelt poem for the Kings Cross he lives in (an exhibition at an old builders’ supplies store was entitled An area of Outstanding Unnatural Beauty), a world in which things take on an almost human pathos and charisma – a glove impaled on iron railings, creative littering in the form of styrofoam cups wedged behind drainpipes or railings, broken office chairs and TVs piled on the pavement.
It is a world where discarding becomes a creative act, where things are placed deliberately and produce new meanings and possibilities. Once you look at the work it is hard not to see the world in those terms, to see objects as things with parallel lives of their own.
In his sculpture too, Wentworth creates curious and beautiful paradoxes, everyday things somehow made strange: ladders, buckets, junk-books, lightbulbs, punctured and penetrated by other things, leaning and balancing, given character through juxtaposition, by being displayed on shelves, suspended on wires, by being massed together. These things bring with them the ghosts of Laurel and Hardy and Jacques Tati as much as that of Marcel Duchamp.
“I’ve got some kind of filter,” he tells me, “so I always see that [he points to an odd, undersized manhole cover next to our table] before I see the pavement, the crack before the glass. I see figure before ground. To me that’s a kind of syntax of assemblage, which is actually what culture is.”
Wentworth’s world really is a world of things. By the end of our conversation virtually every object on our table has been used to demonstrate a point. Even the table itself, which wobbles (he gently admonishes the designer). “I’ve never been able to let go,” he says, picking up a knife. “I know this is a one-piece knife and how odd it is that the blade and handle are made in one and that once the handle would have been made of something else. These things are all forged and formed and they all have meaning.”
Then he gets out his new digital camera and points out a scratch. “This must have happened in my pocket, keys or something – at what point does use become misuse or abuse?” He points to the battered surface of the table – “look at this, this is good isn’t it? So why am I upset about my camera? These things we have now, they all look like they were made in heaven, look at that bottle of water, where did that come from? These things are like us, they have skin, they can be damaged and wounded. Like this.”
He points to a small circular scar on his palm.
“I drilled into this accidentally. It’s very useful when you need to buy a new drill bit” – he holds out his stigmata – “this size please.”
So does he think this world he’s been so assiduously documenting is disappearing under all these shiny, brand new goods?
“No, it’s not disappearing. Look, I don’t seek this stuff out but it just seems to find me” – and at that he scrolls through some pictures on the camera alighting on one of a “closed” sign crowned with a handwritten “We are now”.
“What other kind of closed is there?” he asks me, then (“look at this”) he shows me the paintbrush/cabinet lock (“and this”); he scrolls on. “This 1930s building in Baker Street is being rebuilt and there’s a hoarding wrapped around the site. At the top is a flagpole, the whole building seems to be building up to this flagpole, which is all about empire and saying ‘we are here’. Someone has gone to the trouble of getting some stickers and made a flag of St George on the rendering.”
And there it is, a stiff sticker flag on this virtual future. Funny, poignant and ingenious, it’s all about the lengths people will go to, to do eccentric, often extremely funny, occasionally touching little gestures.
Although Wentworth’s work is so tied up in the ingenious strangeness of the London streetscape, there seems to be something vaguely Parisian about it. In fact his photos appeared together with those of Eugène Atget, the French photographer who died in 1927, in an exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery five years ago. Atget’s images of a disappearing old Paris inspired the Surrealists and the surreal is ever-present in Wentworth’s images. But also present is that very French idea of the flâneur looking at what happens on the city’s streets, and the Situationist idea of the dèrive, the urban walk that exposes the hidden patterns of the streets and the life that seeps up from the beach below the paving stones.
But one figure in particular comes to mind: Duchamp. In fact one of Wentworth’s sculptures was based around a very familiar looking bottle rack.
“I bought that rack in France, as an antique. Incredibly the French name for it is an ‘if’, which I just love. I’m a kind of inserter. I don’t mean to do it, things just stack. I’m sure there’s some kind of psycho-sexual thing there. It was like
waving at Duchamp – and I think I got away with it.
“I once spoke to someone who photographed Duchamp and he told me how vain he was. There are artists who wilfully self-mythologise.”
Born in 1947, Wentworth studied first at Hornsey College of Art and then the Royal College. While still a student he worked for Henry Moore, and then became a key member of the highly influential New British Sculpture generation of the late 1970s, which included Tony Cragg, Antony Gormley, Richard Deacon and Anish Kapoorl. Since 2004 he has been Master of the prestigious Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford. So he is profoundly qualified to talk about what he describes as “a small tribe producing luxury goods”. Overall, in fact, Wentworth is alternately politely withering and gently forgiving about the art world. For him it is “a bit of an ingrowing toenail – you have to decide if you can live with that discomfort”. Later he says, “we can’t really tell what’s good art. There’s a longer story there and some of this stuff will become part of our culture. The good stuff sticks and the other stuff floats off, like not very good transfers.”
As we start to wrap up, he looks at all the bits and pieces that have accumulated around our table.
“It’s all about stuff,” he says, “all these things, here at our service. Everything is always performing. Your bag is sitting there open, waiting for you to put stuff back into it, my glass is waiting for me to finish off the water. These guys’ laptops [he gestures towards our neighbours] are acting as fortifications, their screens as modesty boards in the same way we might use these books as barriers.
“We’re negotiators, not controllers. All this stuff surrounds us and hits us and, in order not to go mad we have to throw some of it out but it’s the pieces we keep inside us which make us us, which make you Eddie and me Richard. In the end it’s all stuff in the plughole.”
As we leave, the doormat has been moved slightly, to a different, more deliberate angle. He gets his camera out and takes another snap.