Richard Wentworth

Tract (from Boost to Wham)


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Not on display

Richard Wentworth born 1947
Book and confectionery wrappers
Object: 70 × 100 × 220 mm
Presented by the artist and Lisson Gallery, London in honour of Sir Nicholas Serota 2018


Tract (from Boost to Wham) 1993 is a small sculpture that comprises an Oxford pocket dictionary, resting on its back cover, interleaved with seventeen empty wrappers from various biscuits, chocolate bars and sweets, from the brand ‘Boost’ to the brand ‘Wham’, arranged in alphabetic order. The wrappers are disposed throughout the pages of the dictionary, close to the spine, each at a different page corresponding to the first letter of the wrapper’s brand, thereby creating successive layers that leave the dictionary partially opened. ‘I spend quite a lot of time in etymological dictionaries,’ Wentworth commented in an interview in which he recalled the making of Tract (from Boost to Wham):

There is something about the act of nomination – sometimes I really love it, like launching a ship … I remember almost making that [work] with my children. I remember explaining to them on long car journeys that the name of the particular confectionery couldn’t have any sense of rhyming nomination. I wasn’t interested in Aero. But the proposal in something like Boost or whatever was appropriate. It was a process that took place over a year or so, which began with me finding a book with a Kit Kat wrapper used as a bookmark. And I thought that it set up a really interesting space between the oral and the aural, and the word.
(In Eastham 2011, accessed 5 January 2018.)

Tract (from Boost to Wham) explores the evocative power of words, the various meanings and cultural references they hold. The Latin etymology of ‘tract’ (to pull, to drag, to stretch out) can be found in its various definitions as a short religious or political pamphlet intended to influence other people’s opinions; a large area of land; or a system of connected tubes and organs in the body. If ‘Boost’ and ‘Wham’ refer to the first and the last chocolate bars inserted, in alphabetical order, in the Oxford dictionary, they are also mainly used by Wentworth for their suggestive power. Both words hold a sense of energy, evoking – in the case of the former – the improvement or increase of something and – in the case of the latter – the sound of a sudden and forcible impact, as used by American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997) in his iconic painting Whaam! 1963 (Tate T00897), or by the 1980s English pop duo Wham!

The taxonomic ordering of layers of wrappers introduces a glimpse into the history of industrial confectionery since the 1920s, when Milky Way was created, through the 1930s with Mars, the 1950s with Bounty, the 1960s with Cadbury’s Buttons, to the 1970s with Lion Bar and Skittles, and the 1980s with Boost and Wham. Wentworth focuses attention on the relationship between the empty wrappers, devoid of their content, detritus after the act of oral consumption, and the dictionary, repository of knowledge designed to make sense of and decipher the world. Wentworth has described words as tools for learning how to inhabit the world (ibid.); the empty wrappers become a metaphor for language itself, its physicality, both graphic and spoken. Like signifiers without their signified, the empty wrappers illustrate the contingent nature of the meaning of words.

At the core of Wentworth’s practice is the repositioning of everyday objects’ primary function and identity, and a number of his works from the 1990s have included books and specifically dictionaries. With Tract (from Boost to Wham) Wentworth reframed and magnified a familiar gesture, the bookmarking of a page with the first available pocket object, such as an empty confectionary wrapper. A new physical, bodily dimension is given to the dictionary – and the act of knowing – playfully transforming the object into one that not only produces meaning but also houses objects meant for consumption and digestion. In 1986 art historian Ian Jeffrey described Wentworth’s sculptures in relation to language: ‘what they assert, at a time when language is often thought of as a prison-house, is the experience of language, oscillating between things and consciousness, simultaneously dependent and resistant, constantly elicited by new moments and their things. An art of things, then, and an art of words.’ (Lisson Gallery 1986, p.13).

Tract (from Boost to Wham) was included in Richard Wentworth’s solo exhibition at Tate Liverpool in 2005 and remained in the artist’s possession until it was acquired by Tate.

Further reading
Ian Jeffrey, Richard Wentworth, Sculptures, exhibition catalogue, Lisson Gallery, London 1986.
Richard Wentworth, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 2005.
Ben Eastham, ‘Interview with Richard Wentworth’, The White Review, June 2011,, accessed 5 January 2018.

Elsa Coustou
January 2018

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