On Richard Wentworth: A Socratic Soliloquy About Immediate Associations of Imagery

This article will analyse Richard Wentworth’s artistic and curatorial practice through a Socratic dialogue method in order to create a holistic understanding of his dual practice. I will look at some of Wentworth’s interests, and how his ideas and investigations manifest into sculptural forms as well as curatorial projects. As a source of inspiration, I will use images published adjacent each other as a spread in two different publications. One of these publications focuses on Wentworth as a sculptor who works with found objects, whereas the catalogue for the Hayward Touring Exhibition, “Thinking Aloud”, is primarily concerned with his curatorial practice, and aims to reflect his methods of selection and juxtaposition. The associations and conclusions expressed in this article are entirely subjective and based on personal associations.

The Socratic Dialogue

The Socratic Dialogue was initially developed in the Ancient Greece, and although it is named after the philosopher Socrates, the dialogue is mostly observed in Plato’s writings as a form of literary style. The dialogue indicates a method of philosophical inquiry in establishing truth. It usually includes two or more participants, one of which is often Socrates who is mainly asking the questions. In the dialogues, Socrates guises himself as ignorant to the topic in order to encourage the participants to share their opinions without hesitation.

When asking questions, I will approach my subject matter (images) with no prior knowledge, as Socrates would have pretended to. Each question is aimed at establishing a truth about an image relying on personal connections and immediate associations. Knowledge gained from each question is thus accumulated upon a previous statement that is acknowledged to be true. This article, therefore, will mostly comprise intimate links made between images taken from the publications mentioned above.

As a researcher who is interacting with these exhibitions only through publications, I intend to establish an understanding how an artistic and curatorial practice can be represented with, and analysed via published images. The Socratic internal dialogue, thus, plays an important part in this method as a way of creating knowledge out of observations and helps to solidify this empiric knowledge. In one of the publications I will be observing, Wentworth is presented as the brain behind the exhibition entitled “Thinking Aloud”, the one who makes the connections, so to speak. Similarly, in the other publication, he is the artist who selects and brings together seemingly unrelated objects. My artistic practice is primarily object-oriented, very much akin to Wentworth’s. Therefore, it is vital for me to create a bridge through which both of my methodologies freely flow in and out of one another. In this article, I aim to dissect Wentworth’s selection process to understand the differences and similarities between his curatorial and artistic choices. In other words, how do artists select when they curate?


Q: What do you see in the first image?

A: The nerves inside the brain. An organic entity, alive and responsive. It is flickering with a constant surge of electricity as blue dots connect with the red ones. It is carrying information up and down the body. It makes me wonder if it is signaling to pain or pleasure.

Movement; there is so much movement in the image. This motion has a wispy quality to it, like a woman’s hair swaying the in the wind, like cigarette smoke disappearing in the air.

It resembles a fresh wound, a deep cut perhaps, blood rushing into the centre to escape through the gaps; these little colourful dots are the openings on the skin.

It evokes a sense of unease, the feeling of fainting. It is an infected skin lesion, tough and scabby, protected from the outside world. Underneath, the cells are hard at work to heal.

It is the shape of a giant ant, made out of millions of smaller ants. They are carrying food into their nest, working together. They do not know each other, but they all work for the same goal. They are workers and collaborators.

Q: What statement can we make from your observations?

A: The London railway map symbolises connectivity, movement and working together. The image conveys exactly what a railway service should signify for communities.

Q: What do you see in the second image?

A: It is a crowd, a large group of people gathered together; but it actually has the feel of a mob. It has many voices. Everyone seems to shout over each other; they are all saying different things. I am assuming that they are two opposing groups. A certain opposition.

Again, there is movement; they are almost running towards each other. There is aggression in the air. Some are angry about sharing their space with other.

It is chaotic and disorderly. Despite the randomness, I sense an inescapable individuality. Every pattern is unique and non-repeating.

It is a valley surrounded by two rocky-mountains opposite one another. A comfortable space; a clearing protected from the harshness of the environment. The mountains trap the wind and hold the snow. On the ground level, the weather is mild, and the air is fresh. It is perhaps a first human settlement by a river. The middle of the image is calm and peaceful.

It is an image of a railway carriage in London tube. The commuters are sitting opposite of one another. The approaching stop is visible outside the window on the left. The person on the right is reading a newspaper, spread wide.

Q: What can we say the second image is about?

A: It is a rough depiction of a habitat. A city for example. It is about sharing a space with others, existing within this space regardless of oppositions and chaos.

Q: Did analysing the first image alter the knowledge you can create out of the second image in any way?

A: The first image has indeed planted the image of a city into my mind. Departing from this picture, I have unconsciously constructed my ideas about the second image.

Q: What makes these two images work well together? Why were they put together in the first place?

A: The two images are almost like the two sides of a whole. They work like a full cycle of breath: the first image expands and the second one contracts. While the first image pushes outward, the second contains within. They both indicate a type of movement which complement each other.


Q: What are we observing in the first image?

A: Eleven brushes stuck inside a desk or a desk stuck around eleven brushes.

Q: What might this image mean?

A: Social seriality, a uniform attitude. It almost has a military feel to it. Particularly, the desk is so bland and official, however, it is a tool to create an obstacle. A stoppage. The brushes convey a sense of things coming to a halt. Their momentum was somehow stopped by the desk. Like a military operation prevented by diplomacy.

Someone is stuck behind bars, like in a prison cell. Loneliness is the most prevalent emotion. The yearning for escape is unbearable. It is making me feel uneasy.

Something is concealed. What is beneath the surface? The desk is an unfocused mind. A mind whic produces fuzzy and unclear ideas. Beneath the seemingly orderly links it creates, lie old and dusty stereotypes.

The brushes are at the same time invasive. They completely undermine the desk’s integrity. A smooth, flat surface is no more an option. Invading the desk like a parasite, relying on it for support. This image is about a potential never fully realised.

A cursed co-existence does seem to suffocate both.

Q: Is the image making you uneasy because neither of the objects are free to realise their potential?

A: Yes, but there is also an element of bringing together two objects in an inhabitable environment, in a non-cooperative and almost hostile fashion.

Q: What do you make of the second image?

A: Loneliness and being separated from your natural environment. There is an inherent sadness to this picture. It perhaps symbolises the inner world of a recluse, a loner who found himself in an undesirable situation with no one to seek guidance from.

It is a walking stick which always dreamt of the heights, always desired to know what it feels like to fly, tired of forever feeling the floor underneath. It is an object which tries to escape from the very same stereotypes in the first image.

It is, again, about that non-realised potential. An unfulfilled purpose. A diminished power to act and react. A problem.

It is what is overlooked in a situation, something that is missed out on, or an unconventional way of thinking and imagining.

Q: What is the connection between these images? Why were they put together in the publication despite being made years apart?

A: Although visually opposing to each other, I think both these works try to evoke a similar emotional response, to convey a sense of entrapment and loneliness. There is also a heavy sense of direction through which both images balance each other out. While the first image tries to reach upwards, the second image creates a desire to look downwards. It is almost as if they are both trying to point at something else which is just outside of our vision, cropped out of the surface of the paper.


Q: What are we looking at in the first image?

A: Upon first inspection, the image looks like an album of black and white family portrait photographs.

Q: What are some of the most significant things about these small photographs?

A: Well dressed people, trying to find the most complementing pose, with eyes open of course. Fancy hats keep on repeating. I cannot tell if people are wearing the same clothes in multiple photos, in an effort to imitate one another, or they simply are the same people. A curious play perhaps. Spot the difference.

It is unclear if these people know each other. I wonder what brought them together. Could it simply be a photo booth at a fair? These people, then, all live in the same city. This is how they connect to one another.

A sense of timelessness. When did these people live? Confusing fashion cues with a mixture of both vintage and modern items.

At the same time, the whole collection is eerie and ghostly as if these are the photos of missing people. Someone made a catalogue out of their photos showing exactly what they were wearing when they vanished.

It is a grid of grief. All lives reduced to a catalogue of faces resembling one another. An arbitrary catalogue. The documentation of what once was.

An obsessive thought about death, and a compulsive urge to match similar looking people in the same grid. Some people only appear in certain grids, bypassing the others completely. Could it be that they maybe interacted with each other at one point in their lives? This interaction hence places them in the same category.

A loss of individuality. What remains of every face is merely a black and white surface.

A segmented ego. Many faces of one individual, playing parts and fulfilling duties. Deleuze says that we are segmented from every direction and that humans are fragmented animals. This fragmentation is inherent to the social and biological structures which consume us – in every sense of the word. He says “We are segmented in a binary fashion, following the great major dualist oppositions: social classes, but also men-women, adults children, and so on (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988).” All of these segments are represented in the grids of this image.

Q: When you have a look at the image as a whole, what do you make of the word “Studio” attached to it?

A: Someone is studying them. Studio brings to mind a certain practice.

Q: What could be this person’s practice?

A: It is probably a photographer. This image is either an advertisement for an old photography studio, or a photographer’s personal portfolio of work, showcasing a specialism in portraiture. This knowledge suddenly shifts the image from a false narrative into a plausible reality.

Q: What does the second image mean?

A: It is a wreckage, a scene of an excavation. A meticulous act of documentation.

The objects are old, run down, broken and torn apart. It is perhaps someone’s rubbish, remnants of a house clearing. A playful comment on abandonment and value.

Numbers are signifiers of order and cataloguing. Every object gets more than one number, on all different sides. It makes me think that these items are somehow valued. It is unclear what determines their value.

This image is perhaps even more chilling than the first one. The wooden box in the front of the picture resembles a coffin.

It is a recently unearthed tomb of a pharaoh who belonged in an era long gone. These are his possessions, numbered for archiving or studying further.

Q: Can we say that someone will either be using these objects or analysing them?

A: Yes, we can. The numbers point out to a human presence imposing upon a purpose or a value of use.

Q: What is the link between the two images then?

A: They both represent a personal system of cataloguing and documenting. For example, in the first image, we are never sure why people were placed in a certain grid. It was perhaps because of their order in the photographic film. There are of course other possibilities, such as each grid might symbolise a family. Similarly, in the second image, we observe the same system of randomly linking numbers to objects. The only consecutive numbers are placed on the different parts of the same object. It alludes to Wentworth’s statement in the exhibition catalogue; “how we give meaning to things, how we share value, how thoughts and ideas become realities (Saunders, 2005).”


Q: What is in the first image?

A: It is a red book in German language, various pages bookmarked with different objects.

Q: What is the significance of this book?

A: The book seems to be a German to English translation book.

It refers to how some knowledge in one language corresponds to an understanding of a different nature in a foreign language. Language is a social consensus of value systems. Once everything is named and spoken out loud; it becomes easier to impose a value upon.

Language is a connector; it binds communities together while helping to create a shared system of understanding. Speaking a foreign language or translating words from one language to another, signify this value exchange. The meaning is acknowledged in all cultures but expressed in different ways. This book, again, alludes to Wentworth’s inquiry on how we make connections and how we create value out of these links.

The objects used as bookmarks might directly reference the nouns translated into English.

Objects, arbitrarily fulfilling positions outside of their expected roles. One standing in for another. In this example, words do not correspond the objects’ use value.

It is a metaphor for a mind which associates and connects, which extracts and adds upon, which creates and values, which uses and recycles.

Q: What do you see in the second image?

A: It is a timeline of the development of human understanding of nature. The tree symbolises the long and slow growth of species, whereas the light bulbs are a momentary spark of human existence.

A play on words, light-bulb juxtaposed with a thick, impenetrable body of an oak tree. It is the conflict between solid and airy.

It is a beanie hat, dotted with pearlescent beads.

A transformation and exchange of resources and values. What was once a manual process of setting wood on fire for light is now a manufactured process. In this case, while the signifiers remain the same (both objects can be used to provide light after all) the use value of these objects has gone through a tremendous shift, making one of them almost obsolete.

Slow versus quick.

An epiphany is always illustrated with a light bulb. The bulbs relate to ideas. This image is the source from which ideas sprout.

Q: How does the last image relate to the previous?

A: Both images symbolise an exchange of values either via verbal or written translations or shifting the purpose of one object to another. Again, it is about how we create value by solidifying our associations into concrete facts.

Q: How shall we interpret all the data we analysed?

A: Although Wentworth’s selection process implies a seemingly random structure, his juxtapositions illustrate an artistic integrity through which he can explore the ways we create knowledge out of personal associations. Most of the time, the ideas expressed in the selected images in both catalogues, published years apart, corresponded to each other and his connections were always clearly visible. His artistic interests, in this sense, seem to have merged into his curatorial practice. Both practices became an expanded stream of web-like connections, recreate, transpose and shift ideas about the world.

Q: Given all the facts, what is the best possible conclusion?

A: This enquiry has no beginning or an end. This dialogue is continuously in a state of a multiplicity.

In this article, I have analysed several pictures from two books, published independently from one another. In most of the images I have looked at, the notion of value stood out as a reoccurring theme. Whether utilitarian or linguistic in nature, whether words or objects, Wentworth seemed to be engrossed with the idea of re-negotiating the accepted value systems and exchanging them with personal aesthetic and epistemological values. The act of substituting a set of common values with a web of individualised connections constitutes the very basis of Wentworth’s artistic integrity. Such attitude first becomes apparent in his earlier sculptural works in which he brings together unrelated everyday objects; it later expands into his curatorial practice. His methodology, on the surface, seems to operate on a system of rather arbitrary connections. It would be, however, inaccurate to assert that knowledge created through this methodology is based on a random selection. Where do all these ideas come from? Throughout my investigation, Wentworth both as an artist and as a curator consistently presented concepts of a similar nature all of which were concerned with how we create meaning in a world populated with images and things. Perhaps, all that we know and want to know already exist. Hence creating new knowledge is just a case of connecting the dots. In this respect, Wentworth demonstrates a sense of flexibility while preserving an artistic integrity full of intellectual curiosity akin to that of Socrates.

Sheyda A. Khaymaz

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