Liam Gillick’s Discursive Topology
Nicolas Bourriaud, 2010
First published in One long walk… Two short piers… Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, Snoeck Verlag.
First of all, the personnel: the ticket clerk at the railway station who still refers to you as a ‘customer’ instead of a ‘passenger’; the employees of a large corporation and then the members of its think-tank; subcontractors; self-governing workers who decide to switch production in the factory; activists, who can’t think of anything better to do than to play the tuba for immigrant workers; the firms Ikea, Volvo, and Sony; materials, such as aluminium or glitter; finally, the cofounder of Sony himself, Masaru Ibuka; Charles Darwin’s libertarian brother, Erasmus; the American politician Robert McNamara; Robert Buttimore, etc. For an oeuvre considered to be ‘conceptual’, austere rigorous, or even sparse, Liam Gillick’s work is certainly densely populated – both by conceptual personages as well as narratives, dialogues, biographies, and landscapes.
Conceptual? Such a hasty judgement can undoubtedly be traced back to the fact that texts play an important role here and underpin the forms on show, rather like the libretto for an opera. And yet isn’t this also the case for Titian or Sandro Botticelli when one tries to understand the work and not just look at it? And isn’t this exactly the same contract, for example, that Marcel Broodthaers’ work proposes to the viewer?
A better way to access Liam Gillick’s multidimensional universe would be to examine his concept of realism within a broad historical spectrum, starting with Gustave Courbet. In order then to derive that very sense of reality he wants to describe: in this case, something essentially real, not far removed from Jacques Lacan’s definition, that is to say, a space that cannot be reduced to mere symbolisation and thereby be apprehended solely via a topology. With the aid of a formal vocabulary predicated upon minimalism and conceptual art, Gillick exposes the problem of the existential conditions for the globalised individual at the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – thereby referring with this project to comparable studies that arose in modern painting almost a century before. Gillick’s oeuvre is by no means limited to the purely ‘conceptual’, but proves to be a narrative reference work scattered with stage directions. However, as in the poems of Stéphane Mallarmé or Blaise Cendrars, and in some of Jean-Luc Godard’s films or Samuel Beckett’s plays, his protagonists congregate on empty stages or in fragmentary frameworks, thereby effecting a permanent toing and froing between the text and his topological structures that serve as supports, stages, or as recipients – a context in which the questions emerge of who determines the organisation of human society and how is this done. “The writing and the retinal work”, as Liam Gillick explains, “all deal with different aspects related to issues of compromise, strategy, negociation and renovation. The work you see in the gallery or in specific applied situations is functioning in parallel, both to itself, other similar works and to the texts I use.”1 Parallel: another keyword. The structures, plans, images, narratives, and labelling which constitute his work are not converging lines, but, on the contrary, lines which play with their very parallelism in order to depict a landscape from which there is always something missing. But what? In view of the consideration that history, structures, and ideology form the three pillars of Gillick’s aesthetic, then one might conclude that the imaginary appears in the form of a residue or spark arising from the clash between the ideological, formal, and historical materials that mark it out. Thus, the subject matter of the work can be found in a precise location, at the invisible centre of his discourse: the end of utopia, the entropy of the imaginary, and the attempt to chart the real.
I. Social Reality in Real Time
In my view, Liam Gillick is a realist artist. By that I mean that his work ultimately represents an exact reproduction of what he actually sees; what he perceives through the immediate environment, which will be at the forefront of his exhibitions, is none other than an ideological infrastructure that conceals objects and behaviours and determines political decisions and the organisation of human social relations in time and space. Realist? This may seem paradoxical when applied to an artist whose thematic scope is readily labelled with such terms as forecast, scenario, or planning. However, these are represented in his work as an integral part of the present; the forecast and its ideological derivatives determine our actuality, in the same way that the clairvoyant propensities displayed by some characters in the novels of Philip K. Dick can also change reality – from the future, but not the other way round.
“The key to everything”, according to Gillick in his first book “Erasmus Is Late”, “is an understanding that a desire to predict the future is central to a development of a particular form of free-marketeering. A focus for progress. But a process that can happen in reverse, become mythologised or even forgotten.”2 The future is encoded in the present: it is no longer a consequence of those intellectual projections that permanently determine the overall ideological framework, those shadows in Plato’s cave, whereby the action is directed by scenarios or plans and no longer by ideas. That is the world Gillick is describing – by processing structures in terms of volume, slightly shaky sketches, and scenarios that he stages with forms deriving from the economic and political ‘feuilletons’ of our time.
The ‘motif’ that Gillick tries to portray in all its various aspects – just as obsessively as Paul Cézanne tried to portray Montagne Sainte-Victoire – is Capital. In the same way that the French painter tried to free the chromatic framework – the basis for the spectacle of the world – from chaos, Gillick likewise wishes to capture, wherever it manifests, the structure of the capital that determines human agency and current imagery. Cézanne perceived Montagne Sainte-Victoire to be a crystallized architecture, and not just a tangle of vegetable and mineral matter, because he fashioned his composition declaredly out of the ‘geological sediment’ of the landscape. By contrast, Gillick proceeds from an ideological sediment, that is to say, from the most fluid and yet the most enduring elements that permeate society. If it is his intention to depict both the world we live in nowadays and the ‘masses’ in our time, then he doesn’t approach it in the way an Andreas Gursky might, duly trans- forming it and them into spectacular images that any ‘media narcissist’ can immediately assimilate. His purpose is not one of ‘revealing’ any old elements that have been suppressed by capital, inasmuch as his work has the contrasting tendency to show that everything is clearly visible for everybody – indeed, not unlike Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter”.
The ‘ideological sediment’ underlying the development of Liam Gillick’s work belongs, in equal measure, to temporality and space: the fundamental anachronism that characterises “Erasmus Is Late” – the story of a London dinner party with guests from different historical epochs – belongs to a kind of conceptual realism that insists upon the continuance or metamor- phosis of particular attitudes, ideologies, or discourses over the course of time. “Should the future help the past?” is the Gillickian ‘question par excellence’?3 The cofounder of Sony and the two libertarian thinkers from the nineteenth century, for instance, actually do have something to say to one another, and Gillick’s work can be viewed as the space of their hypothetical encounter in the shopping malls and corporate lobbies of our time. “The text is about the corrupted legacy of the Enlightenment, as well as the implications raised by the lack of a revolution in Britain in the late eighteenth century”,4 explains Gillick.
Comprising fragmentary speeches, elliptical or sibylline dialogues, and statements bordering on abstraction, “Erasmus Is Late” is a relief derived from the grammar of discourse surrounding planning and decisionmaking; it places the abstract logic of political agency in the foreground, always with the same nagging question: what is the form exactly of the information and theoretical protocol – both substructures of political implementation? This gives rise to the association with both the realism for which Courbet was striving during the middle of the nineteenth century and indeed his “aesthetic founded upon action, engagement, and the capacity for transformation”.5 “I only paint what I see”, asserted the creator of “The Painter’s Studio”, who painted whilst under threat from photography: pictorial realism, as technical reproduction of the visible, announced itself – an adventure that presaged little excitement. Courbet therefore redefined realism as an intellectual and optical confluence of the allegorical narrative and the political project. Nevertheless, he was forced into exile after the uprising of the Paris Commune in which he had attracted attention by his involvement in the destruction of the Vendôme column.
In 1855, the rebel of the art world erected the “Pavilion of Realism” after the Paris Salon had rejected his work. “The Painter’s Studio” was also exhibited there. Courbet describes his painting in a letter to his friend, the critic Champfleury: “It is the moral and physical history of my studio. Part One: these are the people who serve me, who support my ideas, who take part in my actions... On the left: the other world of everyday life, the people, misery, poverty, the wealthy, the exploited, the exploiters, people who earn their living from Death... Then there are some plaster casts leaning against the wall over there, a board and atop it, a small girl, a lamp, pots, then paintings facing the other way, a screen and then just a large, empty wall.”6 Parallel structures: on the one hand, the physical pavilion built by the artist and through which he controls the conditions for the exhibition of his works; on the other, the painted ‘studio’, the full title of which is “The Painter’s Studio. A Real Allegory Summarizing my Seven Years of Life as an Artist”. If it is possible to detect such a proximity to Courbet’s realism in the individual works of Liam Gillick, then it is because they function as an allegory of contemporary modes of production: the fetish materials of corporate architecture (anodized aluminium, Plexiglas, cables, etc.), more and more logos and graphics software, networking, think-tanks, and ‘project groups’. This combination of materials, styles, and processes that characterize Gillick’s universe is a veritable allegory of the contemporary working environment: it contains all the elements, yet they are isolated from one another and reduced, as though desiccated by their very presence in the critical herbarium of the exhibition. One could say that a Liam Gillick exhibition is to the world of labour what a stock cube is to soup: no sooner has one dissolved it in some ideological liquid than one finds oneself in a model office in the management era of a conference room owned by the Apple Corporation.
If the acuity of Courbet’s realism obtained from the menace of photography, Gillick’s realism is shaped more by a vague, but nonetheless acute, danger. On the one hand: transformation of the private sphere into a ‘leisure’ appurtenance of the general system of production, i.e. the extension of the factory assembly line to the private sphere; on the other, the fact that artists nowadays create their work in an atmosphere constantly beset by the threat of a complete dissolution of the public’s attention within this random spectacle, which is itself tantamount to a “Devastation of Meaning”, to quote the title of a text dedicated to Cerith Wyn Evans by Gillick. Hence, there is a tendency never to propose works that might be regarded as conclusive in any way: “I try to encourage people to work in parallel directions”, he explains, “and ultimately to accept that a work exhibited in a gallery isn’t the resolution of an idea.”7 This inchoate, unfinished state contributes – in ways different from those one might imagine – more to the creation of realism than to its contradiction. The Impressionists already preferred the ‘unfinished’ in painting, the visible trace of the hand at work, precisely because they were contemporaries of the Industrial Revolution and Taylorism. Gillick’s works are situated beyond the arena of packaged objects and solutions, prolonging the function of resistance and extending this arena – within a world in which even ideas, like products, have to be neatly bundled. Is it possible – taking up an expression I used at the beginning of the 1990s – to speak of an ‘operative Realism’ here? The author of “Erasmus Is Late” insists that he is fighting against “grappling with real object and idea relationships that affect personal politics; how to negotiate a city; who controls the near future; how can we understand the processes of renovation and so on.”8 Planning and implementation: both are the behavioural modes of the thinking of the assembly line. This has been a salient feature in Gillick’s first works, but particularly in the series of pinboards created by the artist from 1992 onwards. Simple work plans, oscillating between household and professional use – pinboards that present themselves as surfaces upon which information is collected in the form of press cuttings, notes, photographs here and there. The work doesn’t actually produce any information, but it designates the frame of information. Here, too, we are concerned with laying bare the procedural structure of human action – via an unusual approximation of artwork and the form of an office accessory, as well as through the systematic rejection of any conclusive meaning in the permanent state of openness towards the texts and parallel activities.
With reference to his first exhibition in 1989, Gillick explained that instead of producing objects he was at pains “...to develop a kind of parallel mode of action that is bound up with reflection upon the idea of cultural permission. I felt that it was not necessary to be granted permission to function as an architect or archivist.”9 This concept of gaining prior permission naturally alludes to power structures. Who makes the decisions? Who implements them? In the sphere of artistic production, as at every level of professional ‘qualification’, it is a matter of demanding decapitalisation, of dispersing capital as widely as possible in both concrete terms, as well as all its numerous symbolic forms. It is possible to recognise – irrespective of which Liam Gillick exhibition one is viewing – industrial structures, books, television sets, and the signs of art, but to us, these elements seem isolated from the symbolic (ideological) infrastructure which binds the cultural economy. In contrast to Damien Hirst, whose methods consist of accumulating capital within spectacular objects, Gillick exhibits forms that have previously been emptied of their symbolic content: the structures are extracted from a nonexistent text, texts allude to forms exhibited otherwise, or to future processes... Underscored by the parallel structure of the work itself, this absence designates the ‘impossible’ subject of Liam Gillick’s oeuvre: utopia, that is to say, the self-determination of human groups with regard to their future. “In view of the fact that the opposite of the possible is assuredly the real”, according to Lacan, “we must needs define the real as the impossible.”10 No need to hide an object to render it untraceable as Edgar Allan Poe teaches us in his tale of the ‘purloined letter’; for Lacan, the real is that which is absent from its rightful place, like the letter so clearly visible to all. And as it happens, the real is for Gillick the same political concept which has disappeared from the sphere of power and is ‘no longer in its place’ – to such a degree indeed that it has become a simple exhibition piece.
There is nothing then in Gillick’s artistic inventory that isn’t visible and accessible to any viewer from the contemporary world; however, there is nothing that rewards the consumer with meaning. For his work is both dark and light at the same time – or rather both in parallel. Using the yardstick of these clear principles, it is also possible to interpret his critique of the widespread tendency amongst artists toward fashionable ‘revelation’ – something he disqualifies as ‘dog-art’, in short art as a form of technology, with the express aim of exhibiting the very things that society wants to dissimulate. “Society understands something implicit in the images and narratives that are presented to it, and rejects them moment to moment as inconvenient to the continuation of the process of absorbing images and narratives. The artist in this case merely brings back those images, like a dog bringing back a stick and proudly showing it to the owner of the dog who already knows what the stick looks like because he or she was the one throwing it in the first place.”11 Because he is fed up with throwing a stick that in any case never comes back, the dog owner keeps hold of it: that is the current situation and the perfect metaphor for the type of culture that has been divided into ‘high’ and ‘low’ by the dominant orthodoxy.
The master expects the return of the stick on the carpet and that is precisely what happens: thus, the culture industry is duly compensated, inasmuch as its products enjoy a second life and are initially consumed wholesale, and then in detail. Among the binary structures that have entered contemporary ideology via postmodern thinking, the compulsory subdivision of cultural production into ‘high’ and ‘low’ is certainly the worst. In this sense also, Gillick’s work strives for realism: it battles with the visible and the displayed without giving in to this brand of crypto- metaphysics that elevates the ‘concealed’ and yet is only a consumer avatar of conspiracy theory. Ultimately, that would be the meaning of a work such as “Big Conference Centre Limitation Screen” (1998): everything is before our very eyes, with the wall only filtering the light and limiting access to the room so that the work simply suggests the possibility of ‘limiting development and debate’. As Gillick summarises: “Things get truly interesting when art goes beyond a reflection of the rejected choices of the dominant culture and attempts to address the actual processes that shape our contemporary environment.”12
II. A Topology of Capital (Narratives and Scenarios)
What can be found within this formal universe that reflects our contempor- ary environment? Geometric bodies and surfaces, powder, texts. As we have seen, this terse vocabulary permits Liam Gillick to describe a ‘real’ that can be defined in two ways; on the one hand, as a concrete effect of the capitalist system and the sum of human relations produced by it; on the other, as a blind spot corresponding to Lacan’s formula that the real is impossible. In order to portray it, there can only be one possibility, namely that of the psychoanalyst: as the real is the very thing “that defies every form of symbolisation”, the object has to be a topology. Lacan’s doctrine was transmitted from the 1960s onwards mostly in the form of mathemes borrowed from topology. A matheme can be described as an atom of knowledge of which the primary characteristic is its transferability – the torus, the Möbius strip, Klein’s bottle, the cross-cap, and Borromean knots. Lacanian topological objects are indeed astounding and show the degree to which our thinking is dependent upon the figure of the circle that dissects space on both the inside and the outside – in the way the images we have of our own bodies incite us. Thus, Lacan’s mathemes became the preferred instruments for the disruption of the ‘real’ in psychoanalysis. The visual simplicity which Gillick embraces, the occasionally enigmatic nature of his pronouncements, and a recourse to geometry are likewise criteria that allow us to progress, in the same way that each of his works represents the matheme of an item of knowledge. Bereft of an inside and an outside, his work functions like a Möbius strip. Liam Gillick’s work – and that is the best way to sum up its overall coherence – could be defined as a topology of contemporary human relations and social structures described by means of signifying chains. And the line of discursiveness permeating Gillick’s work functions in the same way that signifying chains (that constitute the human subject) develop from their anchor points, knotting together and linking segments at regular intervals. If one places some of Gillick’s works side by side, for example, “Isolation Platform” (1999), “Big Conference Center Legislation Screen” (1998), “Post Conference Platform” (1998), and different versions of the think tanks, it is possible to witness the way a grammar develops, whose semes are codified according to behaviour types: isolating oneself, symbolising, leaving a work area, thinking, and negotiating. This system of codification or notation became particularly evident in the exhibition “A Short Text on the Possibility of Creating an Economy of Equivalence” (2005) at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which referred to a book entitled “Construcción de Uno” that appeared whose writing was in progress. It deals with the adventures of a group of workers who decide to run their car factory themselves after it has been closed down; on returning to their place of work, they decide to produce ideas instead of cars and initially reorganise the layout of the building, before testing out new production models along the lines of an “economy of equivalence”, whereby a unit of output corresponds to a unit of input, an economy therefore in which every human or financial investment is simply replaced without loss or alteration. The focus of the exhibition was mental topography: the mountainous landscape that the workers wanted to look at from their factory windows was created by means of an installation comprising colourful steel flowers, the jagged form of which was reminiscent of the diagram used by Peter Saville on the cover of Joy Division’s first album; the path between the factory canteen and the building was marked out in red glitter. However, once again form extended beyond the area of the representation: Gillick indeed used the “economy of equivalence”, recycling the structures used in Paris, transporting them to Madrid where they became the basis for the fittings of a bar in La Casa Encendida – constituting thus a fully- fledged, formal element.
This topography forms the basic vocabulary of a narrative line that is articulated – more than, say, in the stories – in the multivalent format of the scenario, which crops up in multiple metaphorical and concrete variants in Gillick’s work. This complex and evolutional concept surpasses the technical definition of in the lexicon of cinema, and could be defined as a narrative bundle in which a space, diverse processes, a text or a body of texts, and action or events that may unfold, can all play a part. Thus, in Gillick’s work the term scenario refers above all to a space that leaves subjects pending, a virtuality framed by forms. There is a second meaning however, which sometimes replaces it: in this case, the scenario becomes a protagonist of History, becomes one of those intellectual frameworks deployed in the struggle for control of the future; the scenario then resists planning, programme, and speculation. “You could argue that one of the great battles of the twentieth century was between speculation and planning and you could pretty much say that speculation won.”13 Gillick returns to this area of conflict once more when he describes “Literally No Place” (2002): “a text that sought new ways to go beyond the stifling neoliberalism of the present (the victory of speculation over planning) and to find ethical traces in the built world that surrounds us.”
There is a further analogy to Lacanian topology, namely the ‘subject’ of Gillick’s work which appears as a hole: it is then about the real. However, what the artist indefatigably strives for in his work – this self-governance of the future, of the conditions of work and existence for humans – is ceaselessly mediatised by means of prefabricated spaces (the separation screen, boxes, conference suites, bars, ceilings, etc.) that transform this quest into a linguistic and formal Odyssey. Gillick stages the desire for utopia in keeping with a complex and elastic analytic principle equal to that enacted by James Joyce for June 16, 1904 in “Ulysses”. When Leopold Bloom enters a Dublin pub in order to eat a plate of kidneys, the superimposition of this quotidian occurrence on Homer’s Laestrygonian episode produces an infinite elasticity: by describing banality as though it were an heroic epic, Joyce is disrupting the real by means of language, as though the most minute human gesture, like a molecule in the particle accelerator of literature, might resonate to infinity. A hundred different styles coalesce in Joyce’s novel, from legalese to slang and from the essay to the sermon: Bloom’s day is narrated in a thousand different ways and from a thousand different standpoints, but the real only allows itself to be lightly touched upon, only to withdraw still further.
There is a Joycean compulsion in Gillick’s work, to frame situations with a manic exactitude, situations that seem to turn with an infinitesimal degree of precision. The missing punctuation marks in some wall drawings are reminiscent of the protocol of the interior monologue used by Joyce, applied here to slogans and phrase types. A further parallel: Liam Gillick’s work is the Odyssey of politics, in the age of its dissolution in financializa- tion and the bureaucratic pile of decisionmaking. A project then project to which the artist alludes, and finally summarises, when he states that “the permanent displacement and projection of the critical moment is the political potential of the discursive”.14
III. Respective Positions of Forms and Subjects
One cannot emphasise too strongly the extent of the aesthetic damage perpetrated by Michael Fried’s texts during the 1960s; in particular, the text “Art and Objecthood”, in which he rails against the ‘theatricality’ of Minimal Art, and which today still serves to keep Greenbergian dogma artificially alive, even beyond its field of application. This theory is predicated upon an almost obsessive rejection of the anthropomorphic, of which the ultimate fantasy is the radical exclusion of every human trace outside the ‘creative process’, in favour of an aesthetic which might be described as antisituationial. “What lies between the arts is theatre”, writes Fried, is “literal” – and therefore bad. He mocks the concern regarding temporality, in place of which, in his estimation, a “continual and perpetual present” should emerge as the guarantor of “authentic art”.15 The indictments put forward by the likes of George Baker and Claire Bishop against ‘relational aesthetics’ and, in particular, against the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick would be unintelligible were it not for reference to this narrow conception of form deriving from Fried’s polemic and Clement Greenberg’s take on Modernism. During the 1990s, the Fried legacy has tried in vain to develop a progressive and activist milieu because ultimately it was characterised by true artistic positions and its alleged good intentions were repeatedly refuted by an aesthetically reactionary substrate.
Let us return, however, to the concepts of the debate: “When Bourriaud argues that ‘encounters are more important than the individuals who compose them’”, writes Bishop, “I sense that this question is (for him) unnecessary; all relations that permit ‘dialogue’ are automatically assumed to be democratic and therefore good. But what does ‘democracy’ really mean in this context? If relational art produces human relations, then the next logical question to ask is what types of relations are being produced, for whom, and why?”16 And again: “...the relations set up by relational aesthetics are not intrinsically democratic (...) since they rest too comfortably within an ideal of subjectivity as a whole and of community as immanent togetherness.”17 The accusation in advance: by definition, there is no relationship produced by an artwork without the specific content being visible, whereby the relational aspect is essentially a format, like a painting or a sculpture. The artistic situation delineated in “Relational Aesthetics” is nothing other than the historical moment in which some artists in their artistic practice have applied the principle that Karl Marx formulated in his treatise on Feuerbach, where he states that ‘human nature’ can only be defined as a system of relationships. The human aspect is nothing other than the interpersonal component, that is to say, a complete ensemble of interactions constructed by humans and implemented by institutions, systems of exchange, or production; the social aspect derives from this, just as art is not predicated upon any kind of ‘nature’ and any ‘ex-ante’ definition, but is ultimately a product of immense and ongoing negotiation, of which the productivity and meanderings in particular are embodied in Liam Gillick’s work.
During the 1990s, some critics saw things differently and theoretical opposition was particularly strong in Great Britain, where the spectacular objects produced by the ‘Young British Artists’ threatened to eclipse more sophisticated or simply more discursive practices. Even Claire Bishop – as chief spokesperson for the opposition – seems to belong to that group of observers, who, according to Gillick, are regrettably looking for aesthetic ‘resolution’ within an artwork. Bishop’s critique is based upon a restrictive conception of form, as she clearly articulates in a second text on relational aesthetics in the magazine “Artforum” in February 2006: “Such work seems to derive from a creative misreading of poststructuralist theory: rather than the interpretations of a work of art being open to continual reassessment, the work of art itself is argued to be in perpetual flux. There are many problems with this idea, not least of which is the difficulty of discerning a work whose identity is wilfully unstable.”18 One has to admit that a work with an identity perceived as ‘unstable’ actually resists any labelling and even any form of identification. It is indeed its salient characteristic which, in turn, forms the dividing line between the traditional art conceptions and practices that, in Gillick’s case, are predicated upon negotiation and the refusal of an a priori assignment of statutes and roles, under the aegis of a predictive concept of art. In response to Claire Bishop’s article, published in the same winter edition of the magazine, Gillick underscores the fact that the art criticism in question at no time mentions the texts that specifically accompany the works, and is guilty therefore of consciously mutilating them: “‘(Discussion Island)’ is not a book about open-endedness or compromise; it is a critique of these things, which would be clear if she had once mentioned this book or the other specific writings that occupy a crucial role in my artistic practice... The artwork related to the text Discussion Island formed a backdrop that allowed the book to be developed, hence the ‘Discussion Platforms’ from the late 1990s that projected a specific site for a consideration of the specific ideas involved.”19
We are dealing here with the ongoing presence of a theoretical paradox: the most vehement detractors of Liam Gillick’s art are those very people who come forward in the name of social justice and politically engaged art and they erase who particularly like to exclude visitors from exhibitions on principle – in the name of the holy autonomy of the art object. One might just as well exclude citizens from democracy in the name of the purity of the democratic idea – incidentally, something that has been implemented on several occasions throughout history. Gillick counters by stating that “...my work is like the light in the fridge, it only works when there are people there to open the fridge door. Without people, it’s not art – it’s something else – stuff in a room”.20 Occasionally the artist brings “lots of people” together in this way, who, according to Tiravanija, are all part of his installation and whom he incorporates into the list of materials present in his works. An analysis of the diversity of positions offered to the viewer in the case of Gillick, Tiravanija, Philippe Parreno, or Carsten Höller would have allowed an orientation towards the definition of a genre of the ‘participant’, a concept adopted from the 1950s, which relational aesthetics has just consigned to the past in the same way that pop art historicised Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades. Needless to say, none of the aforementioned artists has anything to do with the vague and obsolete subgenre of ‘participatory art’ to which Bishop reduces relational practices. A differentiation, as undertaken by Bishop, between “social collaboration” on the one hand, and the artists’ “conceptual and sculptural practice” on the other, is patently absurd: there isn’t a hiatus in Liam Gillick’s method – just as there isn’t one in the case of the artists mentioned in “Relational Aesthetics” separating the essence of an ‘ethical’ practice beyond form and pure aesthetics. Such a distinction seems to be predicated primarily upon an empirically untested a priori, inasmuch as even a fleeting analysis of Gillick’s practices amply shows that there is no such separation between political engagement and artistic practice. On the contrary, it is impossible to make this distinction. It seems strange when one reads that these practices, which I have called relational because they select the interpersonal sphere as a theoretical and/or practical point of reference, favour morality as opposed to form, generating a purely ‘social’ art, a seemingly ‘angelic’ ethical model, for the simple reason that they conceal real, existing antagonisms within society. This misunderstanding is all the more striking as the book’s thematic focus is the new status of form (new ‘formations’, in order to emphasise the dynamic character of the elements in question, whose area of definition embraces both bodily dispositions and temporality, to which the forms must cohere). In short, the ethical dimension of works by Rirkrit Tiravanija or Liam Gillick is not the one that counts, but rather their ability, proceeding from the interpersonal sphere, to invent innovative methods for exhibition and reflection. In this way, Gillick defines his entire oeuvre to date as “a space for the negotiation of ideas in which individuals actually control the nature of the world in which they operate.”21 Nevertheless, according to Gillick: “The fact is if you don’t stop changing the rules of the game, then nobody will know his own rules, then you end up with a political phenomenon.”22
A less random view of the complexity inherent in Gillick’s thinking might have shown that the artist situates his work in the context of the major influence exerted by Felix González-Torres, who, from the late 1980s onwards, brilliantly reanimated the vocabulary of combative engagement in art. According to Gillick, González-Torres is “very important because he passed through the classic, didactic discourse that surrounded issues of identity and sexuality and created new forms of beauty that were rooted in deep and serious ideas. I learnt something from the way his work plays with the form and the way that you can loosen up to a certain extent”.23 As in Gillick’s case, the work of the Cuban artist was underestimated at first by the critics; for a long time he was viewed merely as the artist who distributed sweets or put go-go dancing boys on the podium. In the meantime, this type of categorical misunderstanding has become paradigmatic: one deduces, from the formal apparatus to which the artist has recourse (in Gillick’s case a conference room, or a bar, a ballroom, or nightclub in that of González-Torres), a certain ‘apoliticism’ in an artist who works with entertainment or a superficially convivial ‘feel-good’ factor (Bishop). One might just as well contend that the preponderance of fruit in Paul Cézanne’s paintings is tantamount to his engagement on behalf of the cause of gardening, but, in the case of Gillick and González-Torres, the viewer doesn’t have the possibility of putting himself or herself objectively in the position of the ‘consumer of ambience’, which these analogies suggest. On the contrary, the relationship built with the viewer is precisely framed and is never sacrificed to improvisation or an ‘entertainment’ principle. According to Gillick, visitors to the exhibition “are able to go through the central bundle of ideas, through the scenarios or texts but also the visual aspect of the work, the formal links – via these different ways, quickly mount a framework so that something happens.”24 In “A Note on Discussion Island: Item A001”, a work comprising a pile of grey glitter, it is clear that “the work designates a fragmented zone where it might be possible to consider the potential of discussion and compromise”. There is no sign, neither here nor anywhere else, of the allegedly atomised and Pavlovian ‘participant’ as Claire Bishop characterises the integration of the viewer into the dispositive of the exhibition. It greatly disturbs the critical discourse that the political content posited by Liam Gillick’s works radically contradicts other fashionable forms which doubtless would have the advantage of being more explicit: alongside the previously cited ‘dog-art’, other practices are worthy of mention here that – with a variety of scales, but chiefly one to one – are based upon the representation of an economic and political alienation.
By contrast, Gillick’s work doesn’t show any signs of repression, control, or ‘biopouvoir’ and doesn’t allude to either the register of anecdote or actuality, but marks the formal framework and processes that allow this repertory of political repression to function. It is a form of withheld critique – a sort of eidopolitics – which accumulates specific formats and markers of a clearly designated practice and subjugates them systematically to a battery of questions, in relation to the inscription of this practice in a global context. A work – apparently geared towards functionality – as a prototype design for “Conference Room” (exhibited in the Frankfurt Kunstverein in 1999) ultimately represents a study of the way in which the constructed environment changes behaviour, an operational model so to speak. “64th Floor Lobby Diagram” (1999) functions in the same way, but integrates additional artistic coefficients into this model that take up the dialogue between minimal art forms and corporate design.
And yet the misunderstandings surrounding Liam Gillick’s art can be traced back still further, to the first debate which took place within the Cologne art scene at the beginning of the 1990s. Liam Gillick noted subsequently that “...a tension could be perceived between those artists who advocated transparency within art (Andrea Fraser, Clegg and Guttman, and others associated with the Galerie Christian Nagel) and those who believed that a sequence of veils and meanderings might be necessary, to combat the chaotic ebb and flow of capitalism (Philippe Parreno, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and others associated with the Galerie Esther Schipper). It is notable that those who were sceptical about the notion of transparency and a straightforward relationship between intentions and results tended to be from a background where a belief in transparency was historically imposed by the dominant culture.”25
It is possible to discern a fault line here that has repercussions still palpable today: on the one hand, the obligatory transparency required in the kind of historical conceptual art from the 1960s; on the other, the recognition of the need to modify its parameters in order to uphold its critical impact – in a society which is far more complex than that of the 1960s. When he wrote “Art after Philosophy”, Joseph Kosuth wanted to substitute criticism with a paradigm of artistic intervention. From the 1990s onwards, it was this critical philosophy itself that needed to be overcome, via the insight that an external critical position is indeed untenable – nobody can view society from the outside, except perhaps a god... The fantasy of transparency, whose complementariness with the glass architecture of corporate buildings, with a controlled society, and with the dominant ideology in general is underscored by Gillick, is nowadays literally nothing more than an adaptation of the conceptual art of a society governed by personification, in which every product zealously states its identity. The problem of conceptual compromise now arises: are not all artists, irrespective of the way in which they engage, bound to participate in the very discourses they are subjecting to critique? The generation of artists who have chosen the ‘veils and meanderings’ in place of postconceptual transparency reacted with an assumed immersion tactic comparable with the ‘establishment line’ as propagated by Robert Linhardt, the head of the French Maoists, after May 1968. Here too, the personal account of immersion represents a political answer: the activist should work in the factories, prepare the revolution from the in- side, instead of standing at the gates of the system of production brandish- ing leaflets. More transparency, but also secrecy and clandestine behaviour; more frontal assault, yet an organ of negotiation within the system.
Far away from the supposed ‘fringes’, where the artist comments upon and judges the system from the other side, a ‘milieu’ represents, at this juncture, a space where the artist can articulate himself or herself. It is here that individual issues can be developed in successive extensions, by means of investments in different areas, and through collaborations with groups of people from heterogeneous disciplines. Liam Gillick has established himself in this space – at the heart of economic dominance – and duly installed his parallel activities here.
1. Liam Gillick, “The Wood Way”, exh. cat. The Whitechapel Gallery (London, 2002), p. 81.
2. Liam Gillick, “Erasmus Is Late” (London, 1995), p. 39.
3. Liam Gillick, “Five or Six” (New York, 1999), pp. 27–43.
4. Liam Gillick, ‘Contingent Factors: A Response to Claire Bishop’s “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”’, “October” 115 (Winter 2006), p. 102.
5. Catherine Strasser, “Le Temps de la Production”, École des Arts Décoratifs de Strasbourg (1997), p. 26.
6. Ibid., p. 17.
7. Liam Gillick in conversation with Eric Troncy, “Documents sur l’art” 11 (1997–98).
8. Liam Gillick, (cf. note 1), p. 18.
9. Liam Gillick in conversation with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Conversations”, vol. 1 (Paris, 2009), p. 283.
10. Cf. Jacques Lacan, “The Seminar: Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis”, 1964, trans. Alan Sheridan (London, 1977).
11. Liam Gillick, “Proxemics: Selected Writings” (Zurich, 2007), p. 226.
12. Liam Gillick, (cf. note 4), p. 100.
13. Liam Gillick, (cf. note 1), p. 17.
14. Liam Gillick, “Hermes Lecture” (’s-Hertogenbosch, 2008) p. 28.
15. Michael Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood’, “Artforum” 10 (Summer 1967), p. 12–23.
16. Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, “October” 110 (Autumn 2004), p. 65.
17. Ibid., p. 66.
18. Ibid., p. 52.
19. Liam Gillick, (cf. note 11), p. 103.
20. Liam Gillick, “Renovation Filter: Recent Past and Near Future”, exh. cat. Arnolfini (Bristol, 2000), p. 16.
21. Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, (cf. note 8), p. 290.
22. Ibid., p. 288.
23. Liam Gillick, (cf. note 1), p. 18.
24. Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, (cf. note 8), p. 290.
25. Liam Gillick, (cf. note 11), p. 106.