Being Liam Gillick

By Stewart Martin, 11 November 2009

Stewart Martin reviews Meaning Liam Gillick, the catalogue that isn't a catalogue, inspired by its namesake's oeuvre, whose interest in the convergence of post-Fordist production and relational aesthetics isn't political

Meaning Liam Gillick is not proposed as a catalogue but a ‘critical reader'. Indeed, the editors evidently wish it to be read as the displacement of a catalogue and its bad associations. So Meaning is intended not to be a glossy, journalistic or intellectually superficial hagiography. It succeeds in large part, but more obviously when measured against the standard of other catalogues – not that many critical readers are beyond reproach. Nonetheless, the book is plainly part of a broadly affirmative curatorial project seeking to consolidate Gillick's reputation as a major contemporary artist, and is produced in conjunction with a series of exhibitions marking and surveying his career to date, currently being organised by the Munich Kunstverein, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, the Zurich Kunsthalle, and the Rotterdam Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art.

Image: Installation view of Liam Gillick's The State Itself Becomes a Super Whatnot at the Casey Kaplan Gallery, 2008

The familiar sleight of hand to watch for here – using a critical reader as a dissimulative device for celebration - is articulated well in Sven Lütticken's contribution to Meaning. But his consequent endorsement of Boris Groys' claim that the only the effective form of judgement has become the decision whether to write on an artist or not, concedes too much, effectively giving up on anything but affirmative writing. It is worth noting that a few contributors to Meaning effectively contrive a peculiar response to Groys' advice, writing essays that are directly about Gillick but without mentioning his name, perhaps as if this silence would, of itself, grant their text critical autonomy. These are actually among the more interesting texts included – such as Maria Lind's ‘Kitchens' and John Kelsey's ‘Escape from Discussion Island' – but not because of their critical achievements. Nonetheless, while some essays in Meaning provide scarcely more than lightly intellectualised endorsements and elaborations, there is considerable scrutiny in others, and Gillick does not avoid pointed objections.

The desire for a critical reader responds to other key features of Gillick's practice. One is to acknowledge the theoretical ambition of his art criticism and writing, while also elaborating and correcting its often elliptical and flimsy character by underpinning it within a genre of academic discourse. Another is the extent to which Gillick's theoretical interests and writings offer ways of assembling and even unifying the dispersed nature of his artistic practices. This is easily exaggerated, but it is evident that Gillick uses writing and texts in order to assemble exhibitions, projects and series of works. But perhaps the overriding desire here for a critical reader is to confront the common objection that Gillick's work simply lacks the critical force and rigor it aspires to; that it remains too pliable and ornamental to the issues it addresses.

Besides its conjunction with this series of mid-career exhibitions, Meaning conjoins a number of other current or recent events in Gillick's oeuvre. Lind's ‘Kitchens' is – without saying so – dedicated to providing a framework for Gillick's exhibition at the German pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. Meaning may also be read as a companion to some recent substantial compilations of writings by Gillick, such as the collection of his art criticism, Proxemics: Selected Writings 1988-2006 (2006), and the bringing together of a number of his more extensive ‘artistic' texts in All Books (2009) (The latter includes ‘McNamara', ‘Erasmus is Late', ‘Ibuka!', ‘The Winter School', ‘Discussion Island/Big Conference Centre' and ‘Literally No Place'.) Verhagen's review of Proxemics is reprinted in Meaning, but regrettably there are little more than a few passing allusions to Gillick's other writing.

Other correlations may be invoked by Chantal Mouffe's essay, ‘Politics and Artistic Practices in Post-Utopian Times', which should be read in the context of Gillick's recent spat in OCTOBER with Claire Bishop over the interpretation of relational aesthetics. Mouffe's essay is broadly sympathetic to Gillick, which may appear something of a coup given her centrality to Bishop's criticisms of the lack of antagonism (or should that be agonism?) in Gillick's practice. But Mouffe has her criticisms too, which appear to contradict Bishop's; namely, that Gillick exaggerates the agonistic dimension of (her conception of) democracy at the expense of the counterbalancing dimension of equivalence, which is demanded when forging effective political positions. So Mouffe's objections turn out to be not so different to Bishop's after all. Indeed, similar objections are made by a number of Gillick's critics.

Image: Gillick's 'Kitchen' in the main room of the German Pavillion at the Venice Art Biennale, 2009

Maurizio Lazzarato looks like an important inclusion within Meaning, given his theorisation of immaterial labour and its relevance to the elaboration of relational aesthetics, which Gillick in particular has articulated, significantly extending Bourriaud's accounts. But Lazzarato's essay, ‘On the Crisis: Finance (or property Rights) Versus Social Rights', interesting though it is at points on finance capitalism, says nothing about art or Gillick, and seems to be included solely because of the connotations of the author's name rather than its content.

If one is to try to take stock of Meaning and the reception of Gillick's practice more broadly, particularly with a view to assessing its critical significance, I think one consideration is fundamental: namely, Gillick's configuration of the relation of contemporary art to capitalism; moreover, his configuration of art as a critique, or critical arena, of contemporary capitalism. This may seem a somewhat reductive or even banal emphasis, but it remains decisive. And it is certainly emphasised by Gillick and by a number of contributors to Meaning, albeit as something that is mostly noted in passing, typically as a rather vague contextual observation, rather than an explicit and substantively explored issue.

The contemporary relation of art to capitalism is as complex as it is extensive, but there are a number of correspondences and affinities that might be discerned between their more novel formations, and that resonate in Gillick's practice. One such affinity is between the pervasive shift of art away from more autonomously object-based practices towards more direct engagements with the social and institutional determination of artistic activities, and, correspondingly, the commodification of more and more dimensions of society over and above object-like products, extending from the development of service industries, to commodified life styles and the environment more broadly. A closely related affinity is that between the explicitly conceptual activities integral to much art practice, certainly since the 1960s if not earlier, together with its transformation of the traditional skills and competences of artists, and the increased significance of intellectual wage labour within developed capitalist societies. Flexibility and indeterminacy of labour attend both of these developments as a direct consequence of the withdrawal from dedicated manual skills in art and industry. More broadly, it is possible to discern complex affinities between the indeterminacy of contemporary art and life, and the indeterminacy of work and life in developed capitalist societies. This is a dystopian itemisation insofar as it inverts the anti-capitalist impulse that attends each of these developments, but such is the course of recent history for many on the globe. It is also, of course, a highly abbreviated list, but it indicates some of the basic terms in which Gillick's work can be seen to function and derive its critical value.

Image: Gillick's screen facade for the Terry Farrell designed Home Office, London

In sum we might say that it is the artistic problems and possibilities generated by the corresponding developments of post-industrial capitalism and post-Minimalist art that determine Gillick's practice fundamentally. The re-functioning of industrial products and processes in the 1960s in order to produce a critical art of late capitalist social relations, established conditions for cultural production that have not exhausted their historical and critical significance to date. It produced an unprecedented exposure of art to commodification, transforming the very notion of art in the process. The legacy of this transformation is conspicuous and even commonplace. But its consequences remain to be grasped in important respects. Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics sketches a generational extension of these consequences, while also concealing what is at stake for the idea of art and its relation to capitalism. It is not the least of Gillick's achievements to have exposed something of these stakes. (For my own efforts see my ‘Critique of Relational Aesthetics', Third Text 87.) Gillick is not the only ‘relational artist' to have achieved this, but he has certainly been one of the most explicit and sophisticated in exploring the interface between post-industrial forms and art forms.

An obvious instance of this is Gillick's deployment of the motif of the abandoned factory, such as in his 2005 exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, A short text on the possibility of creating an economy of equivalence, which invoked the scenario of a group of (former) workers, re-functionalising their defunct factory. (The use of a text as a motif for organising this exhibition is also evident in his evolving text from around 2005 Construcción de uno [Construction of one] derived from Brazilian research into Scandinavian car production, which composes an apparently ongoing series of works.) However, Gillick's preoccupation with screens is perhaps more instructive. Screens provide an interface or point of indifference between the seemingly contradictory forms of monochromatic paintings and/or minimal objects, and conversely, quasi-pictorial backdrops for projections or partitions for the organi sation of open-plan spaces, such as the modernist office or art gallery. The cover image of Meaning is an interesting case in point. It is a photograph of Mirrored Image: A "Volvo" Bar Structure for Reading/EIN KURZE SZENARIO: A "VOLVO" BAR 8. AUGUST 1993 (2008). It shows a number of people reading texts within a space divided by screens of different colours and sizes. The screens invoke monochromatic paintings, but rather than the classically modernist primary colours of red, blue or yellow, or black or white, they are coloured yellow but also in the somewhat muted secondary hues of green and orange. Their distribution throughout the space emphasises their sculptural qualities, and yet they are as much a background as a primary object of consideration, whether for leaning on or against, or partitioning the space for the readers, as in the division of office workstations. Thus they generate a quite carefully crafted point of indifference between abstract art forms and forms of post-industrial work. The notion of a ‘Volvo bar' also invokes an after-work space that is nonetheless provided within an expanded space of work. And the studious audience depicted equally draw attention to how the leisurely modes of attention of artistic viewing have been fused with something more clerical. The difference between art forms and post-industrial forms is brought into contact with their indifference. The condition of post-autonomous art – that the production of autonomous art must be achieved through the strictest mimesis of functional non-art – is realised through a configuration in which the tension between the emancipation from wage labour and its novel formations is no less fraught.

And yet this tension is not dramatic. The contradictions at stake here are finessed, muted, if not suppressed. It is as if they are obscured by a semi-translucent film or membrane, like the casings of Apple computers until recently. Gillick produces less a dialectical image than an image of indifference. This limits the critical force of his work, as many have observed. But this observation needs to be made within the recognition of what he has achieved in configuring the forms of art and capitalism, which is rarely the case among his critics. It does not amount to absolution to maintain that the limits of Gillick's work are exposed by issues that his work also does much to establish.

Stewart Martin <S.C.Martin AT> is a member of the editorial collective of the journal Radical Philosophy, and Senior Lecturer in Modern European Philosophy, Aesthetics and Art Theory at Middlesex University


Meaning Liam Gillick, edited Monika Szewczyk et al., Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: MIT Press, 2009.