James Putnam
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In conversation with Richard Wentworth, April 1997.


James Putnam: As an artist who is very interested in the relationships between all kinds of objects do you see some evidence of their historical continuity which you’re aiming to illustrate by your display here at the British Museum?

Richard Wentworth: Yes I think that there is an absolutely straightforward and obvious example which is familiar to everybody - once upon a time the flowerpot refined itself to an ideal form that is actually an echo of industrialisation, the familiar stacked polystyrene cup from which you drink coffee on the street. Flower pots fit inside each other and they even contain their own poetry which is that they’re meant to contain earth and they are made of earth - they’re actually called terracotta. Plastic arrives and someone discovers that you can make them just as easily out of plastic, they’re much lighter, you get more to fit in a linear foot than you can with ceramic, they don’t break and what colour do they come in? They come in terracotta plastic! To take another example: - If you remove a biro from it’s outer case, it looks exactly like a quill - it’s just like the calumus of the bird's feather that used to be the writing instrument but what I think is exhilarating is that Mr. Biro, its inventor never spent time with a quill trying to industrialise it. This is an elliptical thing where you come back to something which is essentially a revision of that form.

JP: You’ve chosen a selection of Ancient Egyptian drinking vessels to use in your display. What interests you about these rather utilitarian ceramics?

RW: In these ancient drinking vessels we may recognise our own habits, from sipping to gulping, and notice also that the objects’ edges are always formed in sympathy with the shape of our mouths- we emphasise this mimicry by calling this edge ‘the lip’. We also associate smoothness with hygiene. What we drink may itself not be so different, even if its production is very distant from us, industrially controlled and distributed. In turn this has changed our behaviour, to a kind of nomadic grazing in which people no longer stop, but choose to drink and eat whilst on the move. The containers are made from the materials which arrive with miraculous sheen, simultaneous symbols of hygiene and prosperity. The difference between the glass and bottle, the plastic bottle and carton, the jar and can are blurred into single commercial and utilitarian purpose.

JP: The modern drink containers used in your display have been collected from the vicinity of the Museum what is the significance of this?

RW: The discarded objects which I have retrieved from the streets immediately to the south of the British Museum are contrasted with some Egyptian counterparts from the collection. It is the graphic element which most profoundly distinguishes late twentieth century items, the way in which typography and the printed surface become inseparable from the object. Type is distorted into pictograms, logotypes and symbols. The diversity of which requires its own Rosetta Stone to decipher. If the print is an integral part of the pictogram, which is one and the same as ‘the label’, which is part and parcel of the container, and if the contents are inseparable from the endorsement, we struggle to discriminate between form and content. Coincidentally, this is the condition which much art aspires to.

JP: This collecting and adaptation of found objects is a regular part of your artistic practice, so do you think that having the opportunity to create a display within an institution like the British Museum makes your statement more culturally poignant? In fact I recall you aptly referred to this current collecting process as the ‘archaeology of the dustbin’ or perhaps more specifically we could call it ‘the archaeology of the bin-liner’ or even the gutter.

RW: Putting the rubbish out is an age old ritual, sometimes it seems almost like it’s symbolically placed. People have always had to make the distinction, and this expresses an anthropological point, between the raw and the cooked, the clean and the dirty, the abstract and the pragmatic, in fact all those discarded objects are very culturally revealing. They are highly aesthetisized objects of amazing, capitalist complexity and how they get transported to the shops around the museum and get drunk, before getting discarded, is a wonder. The main sources of Egyptian archaeological remains are the tomb and the rubbish pile. What might archaeologists of the future make of us? How would they decipher our waste and attempt to recuperate meaning? If we were buried by Egyptian rules, what would we expect to take with us?

JP: In the British Museum’s collection, for instance, greater focus and importance is inevitably given to a granite statue rather than to a pottery drinking vessel - do you feel that those two objects should be accorded the same significance?

RW: Well I think that there is a very sophisticated way in which those two things can be seen to co-exist - the granite statues didn't just arrive out of a culture which never had a drink and by the same token the people who drank made granite statues.

Richard Wentworth at Kings Cross

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