Richard Wentworth is an intensely curious man with an infectious appetite and enthusiasm for the world around him. For him, beauty and expression are most readily found in the everyday, and often unnoticed, details of our lives. A plastic cup squeezed into a gap in the railings, a window held ajar by a coffee mug, or a car repaired with a door mat – this is what Wentworth sees, the oddities overlooked by most of us are for him a tale of resilience and a common human language. While primarily a sculptor, ‘Making Do And Getting By’ is a photographic series which Wentworth began in the early 70‘s and continues to the present day. Now, the series has been extended by photographs taken at Azzedine Alaïa’s studio over the past three years and are exhibited at Maison Alaïa, the legendary House that showed during couture week in July, following a six year absence from the couture schedule. They are photographs that shed insight into every aspect of the House, from the industry of the ateliers, to the preparation of shows, and the daily ebb and flow of life and community at the House. Together with the exhibition, ‘Richard Wentworth At Maison Alaïa’, a book of the same name featuring many of the photographs and an essay by friend of Ten, Alexander Fury, has also been published.
Wentworth first met Alaïa over lunch at his residence-cum-atelier in the Rue de Moussy via a mutual friend, in Wentworth’s words, “I suppose there was a bit of eye contact, but not a love affair or anything, and then maybe there was a second time and a third time…in a way I think that’s what’s really interesting about it, like all good things it was incremental”. There has always been a strong connection between the worlds of art and fashion, and although Wentworth admits to never having had a particularly strong interest in the latter, the connection he developed with Azzedine meant that was irrelevant. Wentworth has, as he describes, “a mutual comprehension” with Azzedine, who studied sculpture himself at École des Beaux-Arts after lying about his age. “I don’t want to suggest it’s an erotic friendship, but in the proper sense of the word I think it is. For the erotic to be any good, the other person has to be reasonably different, because if they’re too much the same you’re wanking really”. Asked what he thinks Azzedine sees in his works, he replies, “Well I suppose if the word architecture has a little tiny ‘a’, which is when it’s most interesting, so that point where building and architecture cross, I think he sees his own architecture…and I suppose I see – again, a nice French word which isn’t very good in English – his milieu, which I perhaps have sort of mapped in the photographs”.Wentworth is obsessed with language. When I meet him for breakfast on the Caledonian Road, language, both physical and oral, architectural and sculptural, are never far from the focus of our conversation. So too are its limitations, “we just don’t have the right bloody words for it in English”, he tells me several times. His fascination is perhaps unsurprising, given the universal human language that is such an integral part of his ‘Making Do And Getting By’ series. Alongside Alaïa’s hallowed works of couture, each the result of countless hours of craftsmanship, the language of the photo series is much more improvised and sees objects stripped of their original function – but it is this juxtaposition that not only drew Wentworth and Alaïa together, but also makes the exhibition such an exciting one.
Sitting opposite each other over toast and weak tea, his fascination with the material world, what he calls, “the made world” is immediately apparent. He excitedly points to the obligatory red and brown bottles on our table saying,”because I do what I do, which is usually when people are not looking, I might easily photograph the fact that these [pointing to the bottles] are colour-coded, I mean I suppose I photograph language, roughly”. Like Azzedine, he thinks of himself as an artisan who “sees the world as a set of assembled components”. He’s interested in social and cultural history, in the vernacular, and in the individual construction and making of things, a kind of language he believes to be in danger of extinction. “The word ‘craft’, or ‘making’ in England is a ruin. But the world is made, and the world is crafted, and in French that seems much easier, you have people who say ‘je suis artisan’ or ‘mon métier’ – it’s much more in the language…I care very much about whether young people know what things are, and maybe they aren’t given the space to interrogate what they are. The vote for Brexit means that not many people, but some people, will have voted for Brexit and not have a clue where their wheat comes from”.It is the same language that he immediately identified during his time at Maison Alaïa, “watching Azzedine pick things up and just do stuff with them – I would have that same feeling with a wheelwright – you recognise it at once, you know that somebody has a feeling, an instinctive understanding of material, and a lot of that language is very interesting, in couture as, say, in joinery.” Speaking to him about his time at the Maison is a bit like hearing a child reminisce about an afternoon in a sweet shop. “There’s a whole room of Turkish men, speaking Turkish, punching leather all day long, and there are some photographs I took of two men working on the same garment, which is just fantastic, these four hands and needles, and they’re hurrying, but the quality of communication between them…” he raises both hands and puffs his cheeks in admiration.
That sense of awe he felt during his time at the Maison seems as much to do with what he saw as his experience of the man himself. “I have a very strong sense of Azzedine’s self-esteem”, he tells me, “Amour propre, which we say in English as nearly always meaning ‘you arrogant shit’, in French can mean anything from self-esteem to arrogant, depending on how you say it. So I gained a very good sense of his ‘amour propre’, I mean, there’s no evident ego – he never comes on at the end of the show”. Standing backstage during Alaia’s much acclaimed return to couture earlier this year, Wentworth was struck by Azzedine’s self-effacing modesty, he saw the boy from Tunis who secretly devoured copies of Vogue and pretended to be a seamstress with his twin sister. “There’s this little man watching something on a screen, and it’s an incredibly moving thing when you see him making these judgements, there’s just something about it that reminds you of him as a little boy”.