Ian Wilson

(b. 1940, Durban, lives and works in Edinburgh)

“O: Why did you leave sculpture for pure reflection? I mean thoughts, language and speech.
W: The last sculpture I made was a white chalk circle drawn on the floor. It was more interesting to talk about it than
draw it.
O: Why?
W: Because what was interesting about it was that it was a circle and you can speak about a circle as well.”
Excerpt from an interview with Achille Bonito Oliva conducted in 1972

Ian Wilson is interested in spoken language as an art form. He has described his own work as “oral communication,” and later on as “discussion.” His last physical objects, Circle on the Floor and Circle on the Wall were created in early 1968. Almost completely stripped of any material substance, these two installations are circles consisting only of outlines drawn in chalk and pencil, respectively. Using Wilson’s meticulous instructions, the circles can be reproduced for presentation in any exhibition.

Initially inspired by written words randomly exposed on streets and ad-hoc exhibitions, he shifted his focus to “oral communication as art form.” This was in contrast with the notion of performance art that involved an audience in active participation. Wilson summarized the core of these discussions in a book series entitled Section. In the 60s Wilson realized that a concept can be introduced without the production and hence creation of a material object. In the widespread movement of dematerialization of arts in Europe, Wilson turned to language as a mean of achieving this. He explained his approach in the text entitled Conceptual Art (1984): “Language is the most formless means of expression. Its capacity to describe concepts without physical or visual references carries us into an advanced state of abstraction.”

At Wilson’s own request, his work is never recorded on film or audio in order to preserve the transient nature of the spoken word. Hence, Wilson’s work is very hard to track down, even in terms of documentation. It functions almost like archaeological or geological evidence: consisting of objects that we examine in order to deduce, from scanty clues, what must have taken place.