Richard Wentworth – Critique of a Contemporary Practitioner

  • Introduction
  • Photography and Sculpture
  • Choice and Readymade
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography


I am interested in the cooperation of photography and sculpture in contemporary art. My art practice invariably presents mutual interdevelopment, which includes photography, video, performance and experimental pieces. When I talk about the performance in my practice, I understand performance as a sort of live sculpture and my body as an object. In my photography, the image is the support of memories, left behind as a miniature not only of my intimate life, but also that of Chinese youth. However, my work, chronologically, started from photography, then to explore performance and the use of found object. The issues of the interdisciplinary goes through my art practice when I investigate the significance of my domestic photography encircling the materialize the abstract idea and self-expression.

Richard Wentworth subverts the traditional definition of sculpture as well as photography. By transforming and manipulating the objects in human’s day-to-day experience, Wentworth disrupts their usual function and understanding of them. The sculptural assemblage engages with the notion of readymade and juxtaposition. Simultaneously, Wentworth in his photography documents the odd fragments and discrepancies in modern landscape; he chronicles the everyday, observing objects, occasional and involuntary geometries, and often overlooks anomalies, in which way to seek for readymade in the urban.  How do photography and sculpture cooperate and what is the relationship between them? It is through these two question that I analyse Wentworth’s work. This critical research is in three sections: Photography and sculpture, Readymade and Choice, and Conclusions.

Photography and Sculpture

I firstly discuss the relevant development of photography and sculpture — the alteration of photography and sculpture over time — which also represents in Wentworth’s work represents. The fluidity and heterogeneity of photography are dissolving the boundary between what is and what is not a photograph. The nature of photography is not merely considered as a technology or a medium of communication. ‘How far it could be considered to be art. Given the contemporary ubiquity of photography, to ask such a categorical question now seems quite odd.’ The photographic image is now a malleable cultural and aesthetic form of representation, granted as media of artistic expression.  The practice of sculpture is ever-expanding and includes object-making, public art and social practices, site and space, even performance as a form of live sculpture. Rather than only considering the particular manifestations of sculpture with carving, modelling, casting and constructing. After twentieth century, assembling a new way of making sculpture emerged such as still life subjects made from found materials glued together. Constructed sculpture is used as various forms in contemporary art, including in movements such as constructivism or techniques of assemblage, as Wentworth has since often applied readymade more generally to his artworks. 

Choice and Readymade

The conversation between photography and sculpture in Wentworth’s work is answering what is the relationship of photography and sculpture by approaches of readymade and photographic choice. The essential choice inherently connects sculpture to photography. Readymade is the choice of object, cancelling the useful function of an object and forming art. Photographing is an act of choosing, the point of which demonstrates photography is considered to be art. But, unlike now, choosing as a significant action for inner similarity of photography and sculpture, the making and producing then granted as main methods in art before 1960s such as painting. Wentworth brings this relation to his both practice.

Duchamp’s readymades also asserted the principle that what is art is defined by the artist. Choosing the object is itself a creative act, cancelling out the useful function of the object makes it art, and its presentation in the gallery gives it a new meaning. This move from artist-as-maker to artist-as-chooser is often seen as the beginning of the movement to conceptual art, as the status of the artist and the object are called into question. At the time, the readymade was seen as an assault on the conventional understanding not only of the status of art but its very nature.

Art Term of Tate, 2019

The subversion of conventional classification system with the methods of readymade and juxtaposition is a core of Wentworth’s methodology in his sculpture practice. He alters the original function of manufactured objects, and the assembling and naming give them a new understanding. In Tract (1993), from the outside the dictionary looks as if it were spike with bookmarks.(pic. 1) It is a Portuguese Student dictionary blown up to almost double its normal size by a host of found on the street and wedged between its pages. In its formal execution Passeio de Madrugada (dawn stroll in English) is as simple as its contents are complex. And thus we are led right to the centre of Richard Wentworth’s artistic world. As is always the case with this artist, what we see is what there is. Yet, at the same time, it is only just a fraction of its meaning. Like his other work, this one results from Wentworth’s direct contact with his materials and form his penetrating perception of and inquiry into its functional purpose. Although the dictionary had been made redundant, it is nevertheless desperate, as it were, to serve a purpose. Hence it turns to the only form of existence still inherently available to it: that of being solely a work of art. Lying there, blown-up and out of proportion, the dictionary transforms itself from a usable object to self-contained sculpture signifying. On the one hand, that behind each paper-thin word stands physical object; on the other hand, continuing to insist on its original identity by means of display its still visible title ‘Dictionary’.

The methods of translating from the  language to the object and back — as well as the “translation” the objects themselves — are at the focal point of this artist’s view. Instead of satisfying the criteria of conventional systems of order or simply breaking them up into systems of disorder, he establishes a shimmering mid-empire filled with preciously subtle paradoxes in which — as one of his sons pointed out — a saw can simply serve to do nothing than produce a huge pile of sawdust.

Gregor Muir, 1997

The methodology that Wentworth practices in his sculpture work construct his language, interacting with his ongoing photography series Making Do and Getting By. This seeking-for-odd-objects language disrupts the definition of photography beyond a sense of traditional aesthetics. The photographs of Wentworth are perception of the hidden when viewers actually watch at them, mystifying significative shifts of material and concreteness in the small, modest and unnoticed improvisations of everyday life. Wentworth did not have a particular concept of this part of his work when he started capturing and collecting his perceptions at the end of the course of time, a parallel to his sculptural work developed within the scope of his artistic grappling with the language of objects and their reality. The motive for his photos is his critical eye for seeing oddity. His view searches and finds the displacement which transfers the familiar perceptual pattern into a different, peculiar connection that is easily recognisable, yet mysterious. In this short-distance photographs, one detail is detached and becomes the centre of the picture being an own significative space. 

For instance, two pictures — taken in France in the mid eighties and in Berlin in 1994 — each show a chair leaned or laid into a door frame like a barrier between outside and inside A chair can have very many shapes. (pic.2 and 3)There is an archetypal basic structure, but each of the specific shapes expresses something about the person who is meant to sit on the chair, how he may take a seat, in which place and in which social context and action, where the sitting on this chair has its function and signification. The way they are placed and viewed in the pictures of Wentworth, the language of these things is recognisable, yet suspended, withdrawn from the common sense, from the familiarity of dealing with the function and symbolism of objects. In an alien way, these chairs serve to keep an entrance open and closed at the same time. Their shapes take on an anthropomorphic quality , like human bodies; lying unwieldy or in graceful balance, they fulfill the intention of their placement. The object loses the statics of its abstractly defined function and gains the speaking character of a subject in a meaningful action embodying force and dynamism, that is, a meaning and identity of quite a different kind. Even the materiality and shape of the chairs take on a very own plasticity in this connection although it has not been altered as such.


Working through issues of the cooperation of photography and sculpture in contemporary art using the work Richard Wenworth has taken me on the both a personal and academic journey. Critiquing the Wentworth’s work has helped me to understander myself better as interdisciplinary art practitioner and critically engage with both photography and sculpture in my practical experimentation.The question of a relation between the photographic and the sculptural work of Richard Wentworth poses itself. The plastic view in the photographs emphasising the materiality and the three-dimensional movement of the objects as well as their situated connection reveals the eye of the sculptor . Parallel to the creation of his sculptures, Richard Wentworth permanently discovers in the everyday situations he photographs this mixture of authentic being and being different, but never does he use something seen and photographed as a model for a sculpture. 

Wentworth’s sculpture bring to light own inventions, and their titles allude to their metaphorical signification. The artist consciously produces a tension between closeness and distance in his Object Emulsions, inspired by the detachment of the objects from their context and the possibility of forming different, unforeseeable combinations and interpenetrations. The photographs show coincidences, accidents, improvisations and little catastrophes of everyday life, whether they are unintentional or created out of necessity due to a lack of adequate and functional things . They form a foil of his pictorial thinking, but they exclude a repetition in the artistic space of imagination, of a studio or an exhibition. There they would loose their tension between function and nonsensical character which only works in urban reality. In general, photography and sculpture as practice in contemporary interactively shape their development in term of approaches related choice. In the meantime, it seems that they integrate in other way as well; the grand the grand accumulation of images forms a certain new sculpture in the era of flooded social media images.


Art Term, ‘Readymade’, in Art Term of Tate <> [accessed 5 Feb 2020] 

Art Term, ‘Sculpture’, in Art Term of Tate <; [accessed 5 Feb 2020]

Liz Wells, Photography: A Critical Introduction, 4th edn (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 301

Marina Warner, Richard Wentworth (London: Thames and Hudson: Serpentine Gallery, 1993)

Michael Bracewell, Richard Wentworth (London: Tate, 2005)

Muir, Gregor, Richard Wentworth: London, Freiburg, Goppingen, Bonn, 1th edn (Nurnberg: Verlag fur moderne Kunst, 1997.)

Richard Wentworth, Richard Wentworth: making do and getting by (London: Koenig Books; Lisson Gallery; New York: Peter Freeman, Inc., 2015)

Overview of Sculpture Programme, ‘Object-making, public art and social practices’, in RCA site <> [accessed 8 Feb 2020]

Richard Wentworth, Richard Wentworth: sculpture: 18th March to 12th April 1987: Riverside Studios London (London: Riverside Studios, 1987)

Susan Sontag, On Photography, 8th edn (London: Penguin Books, 2008)

Richard Wentworth, Richard Wentworth’s thinking aloud (London: Hayward Gallery Publishing, 1998)

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