Activity Group 3: Context and Translation

In this series of activities, we invite you to think more about how Weiner works in relation to particular contexts.

Lawrence Weiner’s work with language is often likened to an aphorism, a short phrase that makes a general truth or sharp observation about life. (Ex “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.") These phrases help us better understand aspects of ourselves and the world. However, Weiner’s work is also sensitive to the fact that these observations about life are culturally, historically, and linguistically specific. As his artwork is commissioned and installed around the world, he presents his works differently in response to each different context. We could think of the way that Weiner works within different contexts as an act of translation: he typically translates the actual words of his works into languages spoken in the area that it is installed. Using a broader idea of translation, we could say that he also “translates” his artworks into the context of their presentation. This context includes location (whether the work is inside a gallery, on the face of a building, etc.), format (whether the work is painted on the wall, printed on a poster or inside a book), and cultural norms. Through this act of translation, Weiner aims to enable all people, regardless of the languages they speak and places they live in, to access his artworks and understand them in their own terms.

The book format is ideal for enabling this act of translation, and Weiner is known for using books as a primary site for the presentation of his artwork. (His work has been highly influential for the development of artist’s books more broadly: see a definition and history of artist’s books and publishing here.) For Weiner, artist’s books are a means of democratically producing and distributing works: they provide a context for the presentation of a work, as well as an accessible, relatively affordable, and reproducible means of sharing it with broad audiences.

This section focuses on two examples of Weiner’s use of translation: his artist book, "Henry the Navigator" and the artwork, "SMASHED TO PIECES (IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT)," which is installed in Vienna, Austria.

We would also love to hear how you have used Reading Resources. Please share feedback and student work here.

Exercise One (Teens & Adults)

This activity invites learners to think about how Weiner uses translation to present his work in different contexts, focusing on “SMASHED TO PIECES (IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT)”. Many think this artwork recalls the history of Kristallnacht (or the “Night of Broken Glass,” referring to the evening of Nov. 9, 1938, when Germans under Nazi leadership attacked Jewish people and destroyed their property).

However, Weiner has insisted that referencing this history is not what he intended. In an interview, he comments, “That piece had nothing to do with Kristallnacht. It was to do with the fact that listening to smashing bottles in a major city such as Vienna takes on a very different tone in the middle of the night” ("Lawrence Weiner," anotherMag, Nov. 28 2012). He goes on to say that people bring their own associations and ideas to an artwork: “They can take what you’ve made and use it in their life to understand their place in the real world.”

You will be the artist now and you will create a sculpture using language, as Weiner does, and use translation to respond to a specific context. You will choose a location and create a short phrase which speaks back to that location and to a viewer creating a dialog between them.

  1. Choose a particular location (outside or inside) that is important to you in someway. Justify your choice in one four–five sentence paragraph.

  2. Next, given this location and your particular interest in it, draft some possible short phrases or aphorisms that you could install on it. These short phrases can be poetic, inventive, and play with language. Consider various possibilities of presentation, font, size, color, etc. Reflect on how these various possibilities change or alter the presentation of your sculpture and formulate why your final choice best communicates your intention. Finalize the location, your short phrase, and how you would install it on the location. You can describe in writing your final choices and/or create a visual mockup or draw/sketch it out as you see it.

  3. In writing or discussion with someone else, describe why your final choice best communicates your intention. What does it mean to consider your sentence, as you have decided to present it, as a sculpture? Think back to Weiner’s claim that his work is about the “relationship between human beings and objects.” What does your work demonstrate about the relationship between people and objects in its specific presentation? Does it ask us to understand these relationships differently, or to change them in some way?

  4. Once you’ve drawn out or designed your artwork, show it to someone else. Ask them what they see and understand about this artwork. How do they interpret your work or what your work is trying to do? They can respond in writing or verbally.

  5. If more than one person is working on this activity, you can exchange artworks with each other and follow the prompt in step #3.
Exercise Three (Teens & Adults)

Take one of the Weiner works that this resource has looked at and choose a new context for it that requires you to translate it in some fashion. This new location can be either within the U.S. or in another country. First think about who the audience will be given this new location. Then decide on how you will need to translate Weiner’s work. Will you translate it into another language like Arabic or Spanish? Will you translate it into a particular vernacular or slang?

  1. Brainstorm some possible locations that would require you to translate Weiner’s work.
  2. Choose the Weiner work that you want to work with and finalize your choice of location.
  3. Spend a moment justifying your choices in writing: Why did you choose this location? What interests you about it and its potential audiences? Why did you choose the Weiner work to go with this location? How does the Weiner artwork you chose vibe with this location?
  4. Now translate the Weiner artwork into its new language (or languages if you choose). You can write or draw out the location with the artwork installed in translation.
Exercise Four (Adults)

Given the quote below, in which Weiner states that he accepts the political structure as physical material, what role does language play in this equation? Is language as material a political structure itself or does it help make visible other political structures?

"I accept the political structure as physical material as much as anything else."

  1. First, let’s break down the concept of “political structure.”
  2. Look up the word, “structure” in a dictionary. Next, brainstorm a few examples of structures. You can list them or draw them out. What kinds of structures are surrounding you right now? What do structures do? What is their role?
  3. Now define or look up the word “political.” Same as with “structure,” brainstorm a few examples of things (nouns) which are political. Who or what is political in your mind?
  4. Putting your work with these two words together, what is a political structure? Paraphrase or put this into your own words. What examples do you think of? Are there structures which are not political? Name a few. Are there structures which are definitely political? Spend a few moments responding in writing. There are no wrong answers here—just write out your thoughts.
  5. Choose an institution (school, prison, library, etc.) and describe or draw out how this institution relates to your response above. How does the political structure of the U.S. relate to this particular institution? What role does it play in it?

Given the Weiner artworks which we have focused on throughout the three activity groups, how might art help us understand or learn to see political structures?

Summative Individual or Group Exhibition Activity (Kids, Teens, Adults)

In this summative individual or group exhibition activity, we invite you to create an artist’s book, or create an exhibition of your writing and artwork.

Select a number of responses to the various activities and develop them into a book (these can be written or visual responses) or hang them up in the library or classroom space in which you are working.

— Suggestions for Creating a Book

  1. Have everyone reproduce their contribution on an 8/12 by 11 inch piece of paper.
  2. Given the contributions, what order will they go in?
  3. Create, or have someone create, a title page and a table of contents.
  4. Add page numbers once the order is finished.
  5. Once you are finished with designing the layout and order of the book, use a photocopier to make copies of your book.

— Suggestions for Creating a Group or Individual Exhibition

  1. Similar to creating a book, choose the writing or the artwork that you want to use in your exhibition. There are many ways you can organize the writing/artwork on the walls. However, it is important to first consider who the audience is for this exhibition. Write down some of your thoughts to the following questions:

Who is your potential audience?
What kind of experiences and knowledge do they bring?
If you know any of them personally, what do they like? What will grab their attention?

  1. Next, pull together all the contributions to your exhibition to begin to figure out how you will organize everything visually.

You can group things by theme (even using the themes of this activity guide). Layout all the contributions and begin brainstorming possible themes or connections that you see develop between them. You can then decide on the most important themes and organize the contributions accordingly.

Where in the space of the room(s) will you hang the contributions to your exhibition? You can think about organizing writing and artwork on bulletin boards if they are available or you can use poster board on which to put the writings/artworks you want to show together.

  1. Now, promote your exhibition:

Choose a date and time for the opening of your exhibition.

Create a title for your exhibition that hints at the theme(s) which you’ve put together.

Create a poster/flyer which announces the exhibition’s title, the opening date/time and includes how long the exhibition will be on view.

Get the word out: post your flyers where you think people will most see them and create social media awareness through instagram, facebook, and the like.

  1. Installation:

Ask for volunteers to help you put up the exhibition.

Put up wall labels (you can use notecards or cut out small pieces of paper) which include the title of each writing/artwork and the author/artist.


Reading Resources: Lawrence Weiner was produced by Art Resources Transfer (A.R.T.) in collaboration with Wendy Tronrud (A.R.T. Education Consultant) in summer/fall 2017.

A.R.T. acknowledges the invaluable generosity, assistance, and enthusiasm of all who contributed to Reading Resources production:

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.

We also thank:
María Sprowls Cervantes and MaryJo Marks at Lawrence Weiner Studio
A.R.T. Board of Directors
National Endowment for the Arts
H.W. Wilson Foundation
and most specially, Lawrence Weiner.

Web programming by Jeff Khonsary.
Copyright © Art Resources Transfer, Inc 2017.

All images are protected under copyright by the original rights holders.

A.R.T. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

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