For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it’ll be on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the fifth installment of this 10-part journey.
IV. On a Dark Day in a Dark Building
At key moments in his 30-year career, Liam Gillick, an artist who is rarely talked about in relation to biography, has turned to his own identity as a person with Irish roots growing up in England during the 1970s to help explain his particular abstract approach to language and art-making. Intimately invested in the legacy of modernism, Gillick makes sculptures, text-based works, and publications that owe much to the programmatic failure of its Utopian promise to design a more egalitarian society. One of the preeminent representatives of a discursive turn in art, Gillick is often grouped with a number of artists associated with what has become known as Relational Aesthetics of the 1990s. In a famous defense of this moment in art, Gillick situated his mercurial approach and that of his immediate peers (Rirkrit Tiravanija, Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Philippe Parreno) as being influenced by hybrid cultural backgrounds (Irish, Thai, Columbian, Algerian) that refused to take a didactic position in relation to society, adding, “This is a group whose complex and divided family histories have taught them to become skeptical shape-shifters in relation to the dominant culture in order to retain, rather than merely represent, the notion of a critical position.” 1
Gillick’s career has been situated along lines that privilege a determined opacity against a universalizing transparency, a philosophy that takes place on the level of language, form, and content, and represents an ethics of practice that is deeply articulated across his many texts, projects, exhibitions, collaborations, and public lectures. It should be said at the outset that for Gillick the idea that form and content would unite into a cohesive unity of intentions (what he refers to as the “singularity problem”) is deeply suspect, and one of the features that marks his art-making is a determination that these strands should exist as parallel tracks, informing each other, certainly, but never meant to cohere in a single work.2 His practice is complex, and for many frustrating, in its refusal to decide upon a definitive site in which the “art” exists; rather, he insists on multiple points of engagement.
A graduate of Goldsmiths College London in the late 1980s, Gillick was grouped for a time with the artists who became synonymous with the Young British Artists (YBAs) of the 1990s, and indeed was featured in the Walker Art Center’s celebrated 1995 exhibition Brilliant! New Art from London, which was the first international presentation of that now canonical group.3 Yet from the beginning, Gillick felt uncomfortable with both the rhetoric of the “movement” and the conceptual premise of much of the art that arose from it. For this, he partially blamed the pedagogical structure of Goldsmiths, which encouraged an individualism that for Gillick was anathema to his way of working.
This disdain for what Gillick has related as a near-Thatcherite individualism among the YBAs was born from the artist having been deeply influenced by the labor movements of the 1970s, and the fact that he came of age in the 1980s under the systematic destruction of labor by the Thatcher government. For the artist, this failure and ideological defeat played itself out most tragically in the built world with the political determination that a planned society was no longer sustainable or practical—that all that was left was speculation: a neoliberal embrace of the forces of the market and privatization rather than an ambition to work communally toward a more equal society. For those familiar with Gillick’s sculptural objects, design aesthetic, and graphic sensibility this may be hard to fathom, in part because of the obvious sleekness of production, high design values, and structural abstraction, all characteristics that many have come to associate with a corporate design culture. But Gillick stresses the roots of his aesthetic in an applied modernism that actually sought to give everyone access to this level of infrastructure: where architects, engineers, city planners, and politicians believed in an egalitarian public sphere.4 He has often stated that he is more interested in the work of Anni Albers than Joseph Albers; in other words, he is more invested in the applications of modernism in the lived world as a compromised applied negotiation of contexts than in any notion of purity in relation to the creation of form.
In 2008 it was announced that Gillick had been selected to represent Germany at the 53rd Venice Biennale to take place the following year. Nominated by German curator Nicolaus Schafhausen, then director of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, the selection was met with some surprise and controversy, particularly from conservative elements in the German national media.5 His selection also received a positive reception and was seen as an example of Germany’s mature and receptive cosmopolitanism. Gillick had exhibited regularly in that country since the 1990s, and had a strong reception and context there, at least among an influential cadre of critics, collectors, and institutions. Meanwhile, Berlin had developed into a celebrated international art center, home to a range of contemporary artists who flocked there for low rents and an international and diverse milieu.
While many see the national pavilion structure of Venice as outmoded in an era of globalization, the tradition has been (un)surprisingly resilient. The core of national representation in Venice is found in the Giardini, inhabited by some 30 national pavilions, most built at a time when Europe’s colonial nations were competing for prestige. The German Pavilion, originally erected in 1909, was “refurbished” in 1938 by German architect Ernst Haiger to better represent Nazi aesthetics, becoming an icon of Fascist architecture with the addition of monumental and austere pillars and the word GERMANIA engraved on its facade. Naturally, in the postwar years artists have felt compelled to contend with this troubled legacy. Perhaps the most famous response was by Germany-born, American-based artist Hans Haacke, who in 1993 simply tore up the marble flooring in the central room of the pavilion, leaving the fragments for viewers to navigate.
This episode in Gillick’s prolific career is a useful point of concentration for this text, because the artist undoubtedly faced a moment of reckoning, what he himself has referred to as “a test,” where the limits of his contextual, shifting, and adaptable practice came up against that resolutely over-determined slab that is National Socialism. 6 In a key interview with critic Saul Ostrow in the lead-up to the biennale, one gets a sense of Gillick’s working method. His is a process of interrogation of context and mediation, a field of expectations that he is both responding to and creating for himself. The essential problem as he sees it is that the context here can’t be ignored; to do so would be too irresponsible. And yet, if he as an artist needs to intercede in the fabric of the building as a historically burdened site, then surely he also needs to interrupt his own comfort zone, to shift his practice in some way as a necessary consequence? Furthermore, is the very choice of Gillick as a non-German national—the first artist to represent a full national pavilion without having a passport from that country—meant as a symbol of Germany’s progress? Is he in a sense the figure who renders symbolically the maturity of German culture in relationship to its history of identitarianism? If he proceeds as normal, does he sanction this reading and become his own form of amnesia? And so he explores a range of possibilities, some of which move toward a “grand gesture” that normally would be anathema to him. For example, on a visit to the site he realizes that Haacke’s famous destruction of the pavilion floor encompassed the center of the building, not the anterior spaces. He debates calling Haacke and inviting him to finish the job. In another idea, he considers “turning off the building” by showing video, literally making the walls disappear into a black box. Still another approach—riffing off a joke Gillick would often tell about there being no toilets in Fascist buildings— was to install some basic amenities in the pavilion.7
The text by Gillick reprinted in this publication is a key component of the artist’s effort to contend with the challenge of the invitation. Asked by Schafhausen in typical contemporary art style to build a discursive armature around the exhibition, his response was to compose what has become perhaps his most concrete statement about his own work. Titled Berlin Statement, it was delivered at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin in March 2009, some months in advance of the biennale. For Gillick, there was obviously a sense of responsibility, a desire to buttress his selection with a certain kind of contextualizing gesture. And yet that gesture also became a way for the artist to protect his process, in a sense to liberate him- self from the burden of the symbolic move, the big idea that the pavilion seemed to call for. A deeply thought-out exposition of artistic principals, it marked an important milestone in Gillick’s distinctive, discursive approach to art practice. One of the more nuanced defenses of the poststructuralist stance of endlessly deferred subjectivity and meaning, the piece brushed the glitter off Gillick’s dandified lapels, and focused retroactively on a practice whose deeply articulated ethics were of- ten suspected, but rarely so carefully confirmed.
Having itemized a fascinating mise en abyme of potential responses to the problem of exhibiting in the German pavilion, Gillick closes his interview with Ostrow (made a few months before the exhibition), relating how the composition of the text allowed him to finally divest himself of the search for the grand gesture; to once again privilege production over consumption, an ethos that he has always placed at the heart of his art-making:
But the question really is how do you find a working method or a working, productive context within which ideas can be produced? And that’s really the key. It doesn’t help you to know whether you’ll arrive and there’ll be no building, or there are great toilets, or a large number of rather mute, corrupted formalist artworks. I became truly free—in fact I’m not stressed at all—when I realized the problem wasn’t what to do, because if I’d asked myself over the years, what should I do, I probably wouldn’t have done half the things I’ve done done a different kind of art.8
Gillick traveled to Venice with a team of fabricators from Berlin, and worked on-site for a number of months. A viewer visiting the pavilion on the opening day of the biennial would have entered through a colorful plastic strip curtain at the entrance into a large, white-walled pavilion structure. Running through the main space and passing into the anterior galleries was a long row of modular kitchen cabinetry, surfaces, shelving, closets, all cut from an unvarnished pine. On top of one of the cabinets sat an anima- tronic cat, a roll of paper in its jaw, who tells a story (with Gillick’s voice) about a talking cat who is visited by two children. The story is told in the future anterior (which will have been the best tense ever, by the way), framed as something that “will have happened,” someday. The children, we learn, are nervous and shy, the cat “will have been mildly depressed, suffering from ennui and even bored by its role as the only talking cat in the whole world.” 9 The mood of the story is not unlike one of Oscar Wilde’s children’s fables, which pack both a romantic punch and a great deal of tragedy, yet Gillick’s recorded story doesn’t resolve itself, but loops back to begin again:
The cat will know that school starts in five minutes and the children will definitely be late. But today of all days, it won’t care. It won’t mind if the children miss out on their lessons or their playtime. It won’t care if they miss lunch or free time in the library. All it will care about is that someone is here on a dark day in a dark building. It will sniff. The breath of the children will be close. It will have learnt that humans know that cat’s steal their breath. The cat will know that this is nonsense. It is buildings like this that steal people’s breath. Anyway. What’s wrong with borrowing some child’s breath for a while? All cats know that it smells sweet and is full of intelligence and goodness and fun.
It will take a deep surreptitious suck of the children’s breath and as they reel and swoon, glide and dream, it will begin to tell them a true story about the wisdom of a kitchen cat. …10
Titled How are you going to behave? A kitchen cat speaks, the exhibition was covered widely in the press. For many foes of Gillick’s way of working, both old and new, the profile of the event afforded them a perfectly scaled target with which to finally pin that Scarlet Pimpernel. For example, Adrian Searle in The Guardian called it a “strained performance,” saying that Gillick’s work was always, “a heavy-handed mix of the decorative, the intellectually arch and the overdetermined.” 11 Writing in Texte zur Kunst, on the other hand, Tom McDonough celebrated Gillick’s surprise decision to move away from his more “familiar forms and colors” and also to avoid addressing the building through some grandiose move, finding a critical dimension for the project within the critical context of the talking cat.12
Gillick’s kitchen was inspired by the 1926 Frankfurt Kitchen of Austrian designer and anti-Nazi activist Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, a major work of applied modernism that democratized access to a kitchen designed as an efficient and ergonomically aware environment. It also riffed off of Gillick’s own post-studio practice—the artist spent many hours in the run-up to the exhibition sitting in his kitchen in New York smoking, being bothered by his son’s cat. He remembers asking himself, “Who gets to speak? And who has the authority to do so?” Ultimately, of course, it is him in this context, but he can only bring himself to do so through the filter of the cat. In a sense, what Gillick did was bring together the domestic, the subjective, and the social: elements that militate against the building’s grandiose ideological structure. With the kitchen, Gillick enters the mid-space location typical of his work: an interstitial conduit through different moments of the day—at once the most vital part of a home while also being the least formal. Germany in the 1920s saw a battle between two visions of the utility of standardization within design, one (associated with the Marxist-leaning Bauhaus) dedicated to social inclusion and equality through making good design universally accessible, the other dedicated to militarism and a nostalgic re-creation of past tropes of German aesthetics (Fascism). In a sense, Gillick was using German history itself as a model to contend with the legacy of the building, resurfacing a contestatory vision within the culture that had opposed Fascism at the very point of its rise.
Virtually libertarian in its worldview, meanwhile, the cat does not do well with training, and has a scant opinion of anyone who would have it step in line. Less interested in charismatic speeches than some chow and a good nap, the cat has an integrity all its own and is surely less than susceptible to Fascist indoctrination (certainly less so than the dog). In the story the cat steals the children’s breath, but only enough to make them woozy, to make them receptive to his tale and open to the mesmeric task of representation. The building, meanwhile, has the real power: it can rip the oxygen from their lungs. In Gillick’s oeuvre, there is a constant quest to test the limits of a deluded and distracted engagement with the world, using art as a device to skirt the obvious, to privilege the gaps that in themselves are the elusive foundations of all determined structures. It’s a complicated position, and one that continues to resonate in the work of an artist who is surely one of the more influential, and strangely complicit, of our time.13
1Liam Gillick, “Contingent Factors: A Response to Claire Bishop’s ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,’” October 110 (Fall 2004): 106. In an interview with critic Saul Ostrow, referred to a number of times in this text, Gillick further qualified the relationship of biographical background to his working practice, “I don’t think every artist has to deal with their biography, but I come from a background of strong identification with Irish Republican politics, which is full of subterfuge, misleading statements. It’s not imbedded in my way of seeing things, but when I’m told that the correct way to be a politically conscious artist is to have transparency throughout everything you do, I’m not sure that I think that every politically conscious activity is surrounded and best served by transparency. So while I have moments of clear positions, they’re often muddled by this distrust of transparency, distrust that the good artist and the good political artist is always a transparent artist, who will always reveal sources, desires and needs.” “Venice Preview: Liam Gillick Practical Considerations: An Interview by Saul Ostrow,” Art in America (June/July 2009): 130–136.
2LiamGillickconversationnotes, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, New York (March 2009).
3“Brilliant!” New Art from London,a 1995 touring exhibition curated by Richard Flood and organized by the Walker Art Center, featured twenty-two young British artists and was the first major institutional show to cover the emerging tendencies of British art of the time.
4For more on the relation of Gillick’s work to design culture, see Mark Owens, “Liam Gillick on Repeat,” Dot Dot Dot 11 (April 2006): 79–85.
5For an interesting take on the recep- tion and exhibition more generally, see Tom McDonough, “Liam’s (not) Home,” Texte zur Kunst 75 (2009)
6Ostrow, “An Interview by Saul Ostrow,” 130–136.
9Liam Gillick, One Long Walk… Two Short Piers…, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Bonn) (Cologne: Snoeck, 2010), 32.
11 Adrian Searle, “Bodies, babble and blood,” The Guardian, Monday 8 June 2009, last accessed, July 30, 2013:
13 It is interesting, a few years after the fact, to go back and read an interview with Gillick in which he discusses the aftermath of the exhibition: “I wanted to do something new; I wanted to push something that’s quite hard. You suffer a little bit when you do that, even if you know in the back of your mind it’s the right thing to do. I left the pavilion on the day of the opening with the clearheadedness that you get sometimes after a breakup or after something’s gone wrong, or after you’ve just witnessed an accident: It’s not elation or satisfaction, it’s the feeling that you know that this is the only thing you could do, but it’s not going to achieve a certain satisfaction.” Louisa Buck, “There’s a Perversity in My Method,” The Art Newspaper 229 (November 2011): 54