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Laurence A. Rickels
talks with Gean Moreno


You Couldn't Describe the Gaps as Windows.
Liam Gillick Visits Chicago.

text / Anthony E. Elms


"We live in a time in which the language of creative thought has been appropriated by the most dynamic corporations, so it is often hard to identify the points at which artists become clear markers in society." 1

Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) was the final stop for Liam Gillick's mid-career survey Three perspectives and a short scenario. Reading the scant three local reviews, the exhibition invited two responses: snide observations of Gillick's personal charm and smart attire—as if to be gentlemanly dressed makes the artist suspect, and more to the point, as if this mattered—or remarks on the difficulty of understanding Gillick's works without reading his writings—followed by dismissals sans reading.


Liam Gillick, installation views of Liam Gillick: Three perspectives and a short scenario at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, October 10, 2009—January 10, 2010 (courtesy of the artist; © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; photo: Nathan Keay)

It does not matter that the reviews were negative or equivocating at best. Nor was the point that ignoring Gillick's charming ways and doing homework leads one inevitably to praise hin. Rather, what mattered was that this major project by Gillick could provide a chance to deal with the work of an artist whose impact is being increasingly felt in contemporary discourse. Chicago was the only U.S. venue for Three perspectives and a short scenario. In U.S. institutions, his presence has been relatively discreet: outside commercial gallery exhibitions and event presentations, there have been only three solo museum projects. Here was a crucial moment to consider how the work, familiar perhaps in European institutions, translates stateside, where we are more familiar with him as a writer. Here was time to engage a space. A moment to linger. And Chicago's critical community abnegated this responsibility.




Liam Gillick, installation views of Liam Gillick: Three perspectives and a short scenario at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, October 10, 2009—January 10, 2010 (courtesy of the artist; © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; photo: Nathan Keay)

Exasperating in their rashness, the critical responses share a discomfort with the balance of Gillick's combined efforts. Take, for example, his refusal to craft his sculptures to clearly illustrate the narratives and critiques of the writing. Or the fact that the texts set the stage for an awareness of social spaces and the evolving relation between the future and the past, without defining a clear role for the sculptures. This critical discomfort displays two dispiriting assumptions: that art cannot have any job but to mean or represent something, and writing's only job is to explain. What Gillick does not provide is a critique of institutions. Maybe, sometimes, art and writing do, and what Gillick does offer is critical space.

"If you try and use art as a fragmented mirror of the complexity of contemporary society you might try and develop a system of art production that is equally multi-faceted and misleading and that functions as a series of parallels rather than reflections of the dominant culture." 2


Liam Gillick, installation views of Liam Gillick: Three perspectives and a short scenario at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, October 10, 2009—January 10, 2010 (courtesy of the artist; © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; photo: Nathan Keay)

At each of the tour's venues there have been constants: six-foot-tall slatted screens, described as black but appearing dark gray, set up as a series of spaces and passageways; two inkjet prints; expanses of gray office carpeting; a film/slideshow with stilted drum-loop soundtrack; and a vitrine holding some fifty-seven examples of books, LPs, calendars, posters, and various types of editions designed by Gillick. None of his past sculptures were crated up and shipped on tour. At each venue, he asked the local curator to choose an element to accompany his givens.


Liam Gillick, installation views of Liam Gillick: Three perspectives and a short scenario at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, October 10, 2009—January 10, 2010 (courtesy of the artist; © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; photo: Nathan Keay)


For Chicago, Dominic Molon chose an enlarged variation of Applied Resignation Platform, created in 1999 for the Frankfurter Kunstverein; at MCA it became an installation of 576 multicolored panels of Plexiglas that replaced the normal white ceiling panels.


Liam Gillick, installation views of Liam Gillick: Three perspectives and a short scenario at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, October 10, 2009—January 10, 2010 (courtesy of the artist; © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; photo: Nathan Keay)

Outside the materials in the vitrine, there were no wall labels, and if there was a title for any individual element, the exhibition handout provided none. This would seem to have offered a lot to take in—and it did—but still, it initially invoked a sterile, on-the-cheap, post-punk office worker corral.

"For those who would prefer art to speak for itself, the desire to avoid mediating structures can only be achieved through the abrogation of responsibility for expressing what cannot exist within the work itself and the takeover of that role by others. The notion of ceding control is central to much artistic practice, but the expression of that abandonment will find itself expressed at some point, assuming that the work of the artist is at any moment exhibited, discussed, collected, viewed, or displayed in any form or location." 3

The MCA was the only collecting institution to host Three perspectives and a short scenario. Previous venues were the Kunsthalle Zürich and Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. In turn, the titular short scenario was the performance of Gillick's play A "Volvo" Bar at the Kunstverein München, which did not present the exhibition's traveling elements. In Chicago, Three perspectives was augmented with The one hundred and sixty-third floor, an exhibition curated by Liam Gillick from the MCA's collection, as well as Artist-in-Depth: Liam Gillick, Jenny Holzer, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt curated by Molon. Gillick has always been interested in context, and while Three perspectives is not site-specific—whatever that threadbare term might mean in 2010—none of the local reviews even considered how this expanded context in Chicago might inflect the behavior of Gillick's Three perspectives.


Liam Gillick, installation views of Liam Gillick: Three perspectives and a short scenario at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, October 10, 2009—January 10, 2010 (courtesy of the artist; © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; photo: Nathan Keay)

Stepping into Three perspectives provided a self-consciously heightened eeriness. No sculptures? The polychromatic lighting, the spectral gray porous screens allowing you to scan the four walls and catch sight of a washed-out video projection, the flat side of the vitrine, the introductory exhibition wall credits, the modestly-sized prints in an implied hallway to nowhere, and that drum beat all telescoped an emptying confusion. Which nothing should I step to first? Of the four venues, I imagine the Chicago presentation provided the most problematic engagement. Solo survey exhibitions in collecting museums, at their very first level, communicate the value—in every sense of the term—of past objects made by an artist. If the artist is still alive, a requisite secondary narrative will introduce us to the artist by illustrating how the newest works are a product of the growth and vibrant development that sets all the work along a path of—assured current and future—mastery. These conventions need to be set against those for solo exhibitions at kunsthalles—such as the other venues for Three perspectives—where we expect a certain risk, a focus on an artist's process now, though potentially based on his as-yet-undefined historical production. In a kunsthalle, the role of the objects as markers of established value is negligible. The kunsthalle seeks to set up a discursive dialogue with new terms or forms by which the exhibited work(s) may be found in the future to have claimed a critical stake. In crude shorthand: collecting museums exhibit the presence of the past, kunsthalles exhibit the prescience of the future. It is worth noting that Gillick's inclusion of the curator's intervention into his project is the opposite of the usual power dynamic for a survey exhibition in a collecting museum and even many kunsthalle projects. A solo survey exhibition in a collecting museum that includes none of the artist's signature "major" pieces, that is constructed more in keeping with the discursive model of an exhibition anticipated in a kunsthalle, will always be an ill fit.


Liam Gillick, installation views of Liam Gillick: Three perspectives and a short scenario at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, October 10, 2009—January 10, 2010 (courtesy of the artist; © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; photo: Nathan Keay)

As happenstance would have it, after visiting Three Perspectives I read the catalog for U.S. artist Martin Beck's film About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe. In his essay, Beck quotes Klaus Frank from a 1961 book on exhibition techniques:

To exhibit means to choose, to display, to present a sample or an example. The imparting of information is the aim of every exhibition, and such information may be of a didactic, commercial, or representational nature. Aimed at man as a consumer of products and ideas, an exhibit is meant to teach, to advertise, and to represent—to influence a person. An exhibit differs from all other media of communications because it alone can simultaneously transmit information visually, acoustically, and by touch. 4

There is not the space here to discuss the larger trajectory of Frank's statement. Best to simply note that Frank was not speaking exclusively of museums. Still, the convoluted litany of terms—choose, display, present, impart, didactic, commercial, representational, products, ideas, teach, advertise, represent, influence, visually, acoustically, touch—seems pitched to Gillick's direction, providing almost the perfect combination of terms to balance in considering Three perspectives at the MCA.

"The role of the artist is to be as vigilant about the way exhibitions are put together, mediated, and understood." 5

Why might a European artist actively involved both artistically and critically in short-circuiting the normal flow of functional definitions in formal and theoretical models choose to display a new structure advertised as a mid-career survey in a Midwestern U.S. museum filled with historically framed objects?


Liam Gillick, installation views of Liam Gillick: Three perspectives and a short scenario at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, October 10, 2009—January 10, 2010 (courtesy of the artist; © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; photo: Nathan Keay)

That answer writes itself. And if, by chance, the answer does not commence writing, Gillick has been publishing about these relationships for roughly twenty years. Pushing out of this survey, the polychromatic aluminum structures with which he is commonly identified in gallery displays made space for materials considered to be of secondary importance for someone of Gillick's stature and success as an object maker: books, graphic design, editions, disposable ephemera. The vitrine not only made space for these materials, but it gave them a place of primary importance, bestowing the value of the development in Gillick's practice on materials generally thought valueless or of less consequence to collecting museums—and the collectors who largely sustain them. Of course, the materials were presented beyond reach and preserved under glass. But most of these books are readily available at modest prices, and his writing is easily accessible online. If the darkly humorous texts and pithy proclamations that could in fact be read on the posters, prints, tote bags and book covers were not satisfying enough, there, in the same gallery space as the vitrine, was a film that unfolds as a photograph slideshow of works spanning Gillick's career, which an oblique narrative slowly fills, sentence by sentence, until the images are ultimately obscured by words.

Liam Gillick, installation views of Liam Gillick: Three perspectives and a short scenario at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, October 10, 2009—January 10, 2010 (courtesy of the artist; © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; photo: Nathan Keay)

This story presents three nameless individuals as they reform the factory where they work, alternately changing the structure of their labor, their diets, their groupings, and their capability for productivity. It is compelling, not difficult; it explains neither the photographs in the film nor Three perspectives. Certainly the writing may be elusive and promiscuous in affect at times. Gillick's writing style in this film approximates that of J.G. Ballard, the late British author of speculative fiction, if Ballard had been interested in the social space of production rather than technology's psychological role in modernist sociology and, in particular, the normalization of pathologies. Reading Gillick's narrative gave reason to choose to spend time with a place seemingly emptied.


Liam Gillick, installation views of Liam Gillick: Three perspectives and a short scenario at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, October 10, 2009—January 10, 2010 (courtesy of the artist; © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; photo: Nathan Keay)

Gillick's exhibition set-up was undeniably aggressive, in a manner one generally identifies with his writing and polemical presentations rather than his sculptures, to the benefit of Three perspectives. The insistent mechanical drumbeat, the lack of seating for the film, the vibrant portion of visual incident laid flat under glass in a vitrine, the corralled dead ends, the palpable grayness—it cannot be stressed enough—all created smokescreens to be navigated. In recent memory, only one other exhibition at the MCA has dared to take such a forceful and totalizing position toward the visitor on both critical and formal levels: Jenny Holzer's masterful Protect Protect, 2009. This makes it even sadder that the MCA all but ignored Gillick's Three perspectives in spite of two accompanying exhibitions mounted by the museum. Looking for publicity information for the three exhibitions was a test in futility. Ads, banners, invitations or posters were missing or miniscule at every turn. Once you found Three perspectives, the scant photocopied handout—which on three visits had a copying defect rendering a section the entire length of the paper smudged, distorted, and in places nearly illegible—hardly imparted a feeling that, beyond the curatorial choice, this institution was in full support of the exhibition or displayed any trust in its viewers.

"Sometimes I think that I am making work that operates best in relation to other structures and other art rather than standing alone. Maybe the work even functions best if you stand with your back to it and think about something else." 6

The inclusion of four Gillick sculptures from the MCA's collection in the ancillary Artist-in-Depth presentation sadly diluted the pressurized rupture generated by the lack of sculpture in the survey exhibition. Sited across the atrium from Three perspectives, it issued a hedging of bets, as it were. Most tellingly, the placement of Gillick's sculptures close to Donald Judd's reminded me that, though Gillick's works are often compared to Judd's, Gillick's approach has more in common with Judd as furniture maker, interior architect, and exhibition designer than Judd the sculptor—not to its detriment. Then, why is Gillick's work always discussed in relationship to minimalism? Why is it so rarely—if ever—seen in relation to the British arts and crafts movement, the Bauhaus, or any theory/practice workshop that conceptualized social relations while dismissing functional forms of the past in order to invent aesthetic forms with which to influence a redefinition of the future?

A little over a month into the run of Three perspectives, a brilliant addition opened in two adjacent galleries: The one hundred and sixty-third floor, a selection of forty-three works organized by Gillick. This was the most surprising and eclectic display of the permanent collection in many years. It rested largely on works not regularly seen in the MCA's collection exhibitions, and works by artists not often exhibited together at MCA. This grouping combined artworks which Gillick selected because he identifies with the artists or sees them as significant, and pieces that, in his view, reveal something distinct about the MCA's collection and its formation. With a few exceptions, the works were hung alphabetically by the artist's last name. Instead of the usual interpretive didactics, the wall labels for each work were written by Gillick: pithy, hilarious, and terse statements crafted by editing descriptions culled from an MCA curatorial department internal binder that tracks the museum's activities and exhibitions by year. These rewritten texts were linked with the works by simply synching up the chronology to the alphabetized artist list. For instance, Acconci, the first name in the exhibition, is coupled with 1967, the first year of the MCA's history, and so on. This tactic both highlighted the museum's factual exhibition history and the subjective nature of any historical narrative drawn from the display of a subset of objects selected from any collection. As such, I am tempted to assign tactical importance to the fact that the only label for which the year corresponded to the year of the object's making was for U.S. collective Group Material, and the only artist represented by more than one work was the Belgian Marcel Broodthaers. Both were unwavering in their attempts to submit institutional spaces to critical discomfort through devilishly playful display techniques and political maneuvers.

"The work is not an installation and it is not site-specific but thinking has been applied to a specific place or set of concepts and vice-versa." 7

The title, The one hundred and sixty-third floor, alludes to the height required to return Chicago's bragging rights as home to the world's tallest building. Looking to the skyline, Chicago was undoubtedly an important U.S. center for the development of mid-twentieth-century international-style modernism, and as such should hold obvious attraction for Gillick, given his interest in utopian structures and the struggle between planning and speculation in the development of modernist ideals and aesthetics. Gillick's projects have never been advertised: Interactivity! Functionality! Social work! More accurately, he combines a broad cross-section of activities, theories, and structures that clearly display a relation to problem solving and a search to find productive, critical voicings. The point isn't to use Gillick's structures; it is to consider the type of problem—or solution—that their construction implies. He uses applied theory, applied systems, applied design, and applied display without stated representational goals or functional benchmarks. You might say that Gillick is a vertically integrated producer given the evidence of Three perspectives. It may be difficult to consider the combined actions, theories, and structures of social relations that Gillick references in relation to his built projects if you consider them solely in terms of the specificity of minimalist sculpture. But it isn't when you consider the physical effect of an asymmetrical bus shelter and a steel and glass airport corridor, and the results of commercialized lifestyle marketing on public space and speculative financing on production sites. Additive conjunctions are Gillick's stock and trade.


Liam Gillick, installation views of Liam Gillick: Three perspectives and a short scenario at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, October 10, 2009—January 10, 2010 (courtesy of the artist; © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; photo: Nathan Keay)

To think Gillick's three exhibitions at the MCA in relation to Frank's assertion that "an exhibit is meant to teach, to advertise, and to represent," it helps to consider what this can mean for an artist who rankles against illustrating ideas, representing past solutions, and mirroring functional spaces in his applied practices. The answer would be that, taken together, these exhibitions taught the use of parallel—never entwined—constructions for critical exceptions that destabilize definitions, advertised that material reality is not made solely from materials, and represented the importance of producing a use for the uselessness in the past to generative effect. Three perspectives took the risk to put these concerns forward in an actively misleading frame, asserting that this was more sensible than constructing a narrative that would anchor the reasonableness of these concerns in a navigable row of more or less successful markers made through the years. In rethinking his history by displaying the applied designs—books, posters, and so on—of his practice, he asked us to question what behaviors our built environment both asks of us and insinuates into us. For example, what are we to make of a museum survey exhibition using applied designs to set us in a direction, causing us to arrive in delay, applied thought in hand, faced with designs, their functionality just passed, and the sculptural hidden in plain sight? As Gillick's film puts it: This documentary is the last chapter of a book. In turning his back on this narrative, Gillick offered a different story, a ventriloquist's act with the MCA's own institutional voice. Ultimately, the overcast feeling orchestrated amidst the Three perspectives screens, followed by the release in The one hundred and sixty-third floor, was not so different from the disorientation any number of us have encountered as we try to find our way in a nondescript convention center or state university en route to a presentation. The difference is that Gillick wants you to acknowledge some responsibility for the implications in your disorientation, to think what purposes are hidden in functional demarcations. What he has always refused to do is to remind you why you came to be here in the first place.

"I am interested in a populated environment, but not overly defining the relationships we are expected to play in relation to those environments." 8

Gillick represented himself as expected, in keeping with what anyone with a passing familiarity with his writing and exhibitions might anticipate, beyond his approach to the execution of the exhibitions. He may have come off as gruff a time or two, but he did set the terms for his own survey, curate a group exhibition, write wall labels, speak to classes, give a lecture, take part in a public discussion, record an audio tour, make himself available to the press—including interviews with bloggers and for a podcast—and bring the tallest building in the world back to Chicago. In response, some who expected the privilege to engage with Gillick on his visit to Chicago clearly responded in the manner they thought these actions deserved. Let's paraphrase the question Gillick asked with his 2009 Venice Biennale German pavilion exhibition: How are we going to behave? It seems without consideration.



NOTES
1. Liam Gillick, "The Semiotics of the Built World," The Wood Way, London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2002, 81.
2. Liam Gillick, "Berlin Statement," How are you going to behave? A kitchen cat speaks. Deutscher Pavillon La Biennale di Venezia 2009, Rotterdam: Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, 2009, 99.
3. Liam Gillick, "The Binary Stadium: Anton Vidokle, Intermediary or Locus," Anton Vidokle: Produce, Distribute, Discuss, Repeat, Berlin and New York: Sternberg Press, 2009, 50.
4. Klaus Frank, Exhibitions/Ausstellungen (New York/Stuttgart: Praeger/Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1961) quoted in Martin Beck, "Sovereignty and Control," About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe, London and Utrecht: Four Corners Books and Casco - Office for Art, Design and Theory, 2007, 55.
5. Liam Gillick, "The Semiotics of the Built World," 82.
6. Ibid, 81.
7. Ibid, 86.
8. Liam Gillick, "Berlin Statement," 102.




Anthony Elms is an artist, the editor of publications for WhiteWalls, and assistant director at Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Most recently, he participated in Cosey Complex organized by Maria Fusco for the ICA London.

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