There is a breathtaking scene at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godards anarchist film from 1967, Weekend. The camera tracks a seemingly endless car pile-up. Wrecks are abandoned. Children and adults pass the time in games of catch, others shout in frustration, and as the scene ends the corpses of car-crash victims are laid out on the side of the road without the slightest interest, let alone sympathy and sadness. The film’s heroes are en route to murder one of their parents and take their money, and the film reaches its climax in an orgy of half-farcical cannibalism, which rhymes in Godard’s mind with capitalism. The profligacy and soul-emptying greed of the modern state is worthy of one thing only: flames and ruin.
A little more than 40 years later, no film is more savagely to the point as the juggernaut of global capitalism tumbles in free fall, imploding as it goes. Yet capitalism’s epic meltdown brings new possibilities, and Liam Gillick is one of the most visible artists in the world today whose art is fixed on the subjects of capitalism and other modern forms of social organization, along with social instability and the possibilities that instability offers. He is no less insistent on interrogating political society than Godard, but he moves in the opposite direction: not toward polemical condemnation and closure, but toward polemical open-endedness.
This month Gillick, who is 45, mounts the world stage in a somewhat bewildering, ambiguous, and altogether typical fashion. A Englishman of Celtic lineage living in New York, he is representing Germany in its Fascist-era pavilion designed by Albert Speer on the grounds of the 53rd Venice Biennale — though he isn’t German nor has he ever lived for any length of time in Germany. Nicholas Schaffhausen, the curator of the pavilion and a previous collaborator with Gillick, chose him. And in doing so he embraces a philosophical and political position utterly in keeping with Gillick’s mind and practice: subversive, dead serious, and entirely playful in the ambition to liquefy the rigid matter of social and political structures. Here is one of the artist’s core beliefs: Authority of all kinds and social bureaucracies in particular, whether of the state, the community, or the corporation, are meant to be disassembled and reassembled and disassembled over and over again. Gillick is an absolutist of antiabsolutism.
Working primarily with language (critical essays, fictions, wall texts) and minimalist sculptural installations, Gillick has had more than 80 solo exhibitions in Europe and North America since 1989 and has published scores of texts — a broad sampling of which were collected in his Proxemics: Selected Writings 1988-2006. He is long associated with the group of artists gathered by the French curator Nicholas Bourriaud in his 1998 book Relational Aesthetics, which attempts to lasso artists as diverse as Philippe Parreno, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Jorge Pardo, Carsten Höller, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Bourriaud summarizes their practices as essentially an art that draws people into improvisational dynamics that engage them collectively, blurring the lines between an object-based art and a communal expression that is in itself the work of art. You would think that an art of communal expression might foster a sense of transparency — a value largely esteemed in social relationships.
But Gillick’s notion of the communal and of social relations in general goes another way. For him improvisational dynamics are symbolic of a greater sense of instability and oscillation, a certain fuzziness blooming on the boundary. He assumes the role of what the literary theorist Wayne Booth has called the "unreliable narrator," a trickster whose imagination favors unlocking rules and rearranging borders — witness his presence in the halls of Germany. A social theorist in a fabulist’s coat, or perhaps the other way around, he applies this idea of creative unreliability, of destabilization, to speculations on the way that societies behave in relation to economic, social, and political pressures — and the ways they might behave were the rules and the circumstances canted to one angle or another.
His particular fascination is with the invisible middle — the place where most of humanity lives; the realm of largely unexceptional life, with its quiet, small pleasures, burbling below the frequencies of cognitive dissonance, even if its corporate homogeneity has the creeping pallor of beige. The invisible middle has a pathos, too, of the life passed over, of never coming into focus really, though this existential vagueness offers the promise of improvisation as well, of finding ways now and then to slip out of the frame, off the grid, into an emancipatory moment of self-determination and self-organizing collaboration. He speaks frequently of recognizing the key elements of difference and collectivity in contemporary life. Of course, the risk of creating representations of this invisible middle in texts and installations is that the work may seem too much like its subject, too chilly or undefined. The fluent ease with which Gillick shifts between voices in his texts, between levels of rhetoric and tone, and the abstraction of his sculptures, with their invocations of earlier formalist art and the content of postwar American abstraction which is now conventionally implicated in the exercise of imperialist power, only make this art more slippery. That is the challenge of getting what Gillick’s work is about. But his opacity, his strategy of difficulty, is also his point.
Gillick’s prose employs a curious abstractness that lies like a veil over its particulars of commentary and storytelling. At the beginning of one of his most ambitious and crucial texts, the 2000 "Literally No Place," which debuted with a show of the same name at the French exhibition space Air de Paris, he begins in the perfect pitch of picaresque fiction with what is in essence a long speculation on the idea of the commune. "They turned in the ravine and climbed to the top of a bank, just to see the place again." But within paragraphs the language shifts to more critical observations, describing the commune of his characters as a place "where their sense of ethics and conscience can be collectivized, where they can be both pulled together and gently teased apart." And quickly Gillick’s prose shifts again to a staccato stream of something that lies purposefully and uneasily between criticspeak, sociology, national security analysis, and a bland corporatism: "It is a loose connection that permits exposure of shifts in strategy toward appropriation of better conscience-based and ethically driven ideas. Not countercultures but the appropriation of an ethical language with a collective and fractured sense of progress."
The effect is unnerving, and unnerving in the specific tradition of high modernism’s creed of fragmented consciousness that Gillick is heir to. The fragmentation of modernism was a representation of a world shattered by cataclysm and overwhelmed by the advent of technological speed and the unassimilable density of global information. Difficulty and opacity are the hallmarks of a central strain of modernism, particularly literary modernism, from James Joyce to Gertrude Stein to Paul Celan and beyond, and Gillick is not finally a visual artist but a literary one. While he is often described (and describes himself) as an artist, critic, writer, and designer, all his work is in service to its stylized narrative arc. The discursive in both definitions of the word as reasoned argument and wandering digression are crucial to his narrative strategy.
The density of layers in Gillick’s practice is only increased by a third narrative element he often adds: words as sculpture. In the tradition of his friend Lawrence Weiner, he considers words as they’re applied to surfaces — gallery walls or facades — as sculpture in itself. And then there are numerous word pieces, such as Complete Signage and Four Levels of Exchange, both from 2005, that are three-dimensional, to be seen in the round. In both cases, these hybrid, sculptural words fuse the terms of the two other media, resembling things in the world and things in the mind; words as objects that have a physical presence, a relation to their functional use as everyday signage, and the abstract presence of language, streaming and free, an essence of the intellect.
Not surprisingly, Gillick has made the declaration that he has a suspicion of transparency as the only correct way to expose "the machinations of the dominant culture." In its place, he applies a kind of blockage to continuous comprehension. The effect is often a mischievous blandness underneath which lies a rich undecidability touched by moments of tenderness for the foibles of human need. There are many routes to follow in his narratives, which are rife with suggestions of flexibility, negotiation, and invention. He speaks of them as "scenarios," schemes that lay out the what-ifs of social and economic order, of what he calls "functional utopias."
Witness his most recent exhibition in New York at the Casey Kaplan gallery, in 2008, with its amusing but ultimately earnest proclamation for a title, "The State Itself Becomes a Super Whatnot." The title was a variation on a theme inscribed on the gallery’s walls, of which other variants served as titles for earlier shows in London and Milan: "The Commune Itself Becomes a Super State" and "The State Itself Becomes a Super Commune." The sculptures were brightly colored in Gillick’s signature manner. They had the pristine formalism of classic Minimalist works by Donald Judd crossed with Sol LeWitt, perhaps, a pastiche of high modern industrial geometries in a more sophisticated version of the palette of LEGO blocks. Their construction was precise. Their visual message was of rational structure, of material clarity. Yet the willful equivocation of these different scenarios for social order provided a riddling contrast to that clarity. To find as a third category a "whatnot" is to offer that ludic open-endedness again: neither hierarchical state nor the egalitarian ethos of the commune, but a shapeless, unidentifiable social entity.
"A lot of my work is derived from how to get around the singularity problem and instead find multiple sources" as starting points for the work, Gillick has said. "I want to find those moments of flicker where ideologies and forms break down into a multiplicity of potentials." That flicker is Gillick’s door that opens onto alternatives in which society’s mechanisms of production and exchange find routes toward compromise that enliven its people and allow them what the social thinker Jürgen Habermas calls "arenas for individual self-realization and spontaneity."
Consider Gillick’s Reciprocal Passage Work (2003), a subtle intervention in a London passageway lined with shops, between two public streets and with gates at either end to be closed and locked if the commercial tenants wish. Gillick often uses colored Perspex or Plexiglas in his work, and here he covered the passage’s overhead lights with it — the slightest inflection can shift the terms of commerce’s rule toward creative individual agency and emancipation. But so slight was his touch that it was much like penciled notes in the margins of a book. It was a barely visible commentary in relation to the weight of the text, and yet its interpretive gravity is like ripples spreading outward from the smallest stone dropped into a pool: invasive, effective, and (however briefly) transformational. The idea that resonates from the work is once again the possibility of a parallel view, a redistribution of small nuances of private energy that tilt in their own ways against unitary power. This is Gillick’s means to create what he called in that significant text "Literally No Place" "a speculative situation, where speculation alone replaces other collective action. Speculation as collectivism."
The theme is common over Gillick’s career, though Reciprocal Passage Work is exceptional for its missing complement of a text. Since his first exhibitions in Europe, the codependency of meanings projected by his interdisciplinary marriage of texts and objects has been a way for him to elicit that sense of what could be called ambi-valence, a multiplicity of meanings. He intends to leave his reader-viewers with a sense of ambiguity that notes what he calls "soft" ideologies, meaning the pervasive and often ambient ways in which the influence of commercial, corporate, and political agendas slips into our lives.
Gillick swings his texts on the hinge of these flickers and ambiguities, on the softening and blur of hard rules imposed from authorities above, so that his art flashes alternating moments of authenticity and artificiality, analysis and speculative fictions, continually proposing that there is no single determinate factor that guides new social engagement and alignments, but many — just as he claims there is no universal reader of his work (or anyone else’s), only segmentations of readerships that cross over one another. The ambiguities of the work are his fruitfully unstable ground, his terra infirma, that germinates the hermeneutical strategy of unending interpretation, of a certain inexhaustibility of the text dependent on each individual reading that resolves the work or simply leaves it unresolved and open. By Gillick’s lights, this territory of the unrectified proposition is where administrative order and legislative imperatives are thrown into the air.
There’s a nostalgia in all this for the revolutionary élan of May 1968 and the Situationist idea of the dérive of Guy Debords notion of drifting from routine in order to restructure experience. They hang above Gillick’s art like tutelary spirits, hovering over his use of words and objects as the means of slippage, upheaval, of resistance to the singularity problem. Yet for all the bright colors and the briskness of his texts, they also have a melancholy and worry about them of the missed or thwarted chance, as if they were "born under the sign of Saturn," as Walter Benjamin described himself, "the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays."
One night this past winter, Gillick and I sat in a café on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Bearded and quick-witted, he was relaxed but fidgety, with the manner of someone in constant need of nicotine. He was unsure of what he would do in Venice (and weeks before the opening he was still saying his plans were unfixed). Many e-mails between us about his work had brought him to offer a friendly warning that night, a rebuttal to all this talk of ambiguity, which he followed up with another note.
"Don’t get hypnotized by the parallels and layers in the practice. Focus on what’s said and made. There’s very little ambiguity in the work," he argued, and then ran down a list. "McNamara, 1992, predicts the collapse and apology of a former car executive running a war.... Erasmus Is Late, 1995, plays with the notion of time slippages within the context of ‘the day before the mob becomes the workers.’ It’s about the last moment for a certain kind of revolution. Discussion Island, 1997, concerns how planning and speculation can be determined in a neoliberal context. The most recent work looks at the notion of crisis [Construccion de Uno; 2005] in a culture where there is [supposed to be] no crisis. Somehow that seems familiar in the current situation, no?"
It all sounds convincing in a glossing way, but like so much else in Gillick’s art, the intriguing part is that this is merely part of the story. He has an appetite for ideologies, and ideologies have an appetite for generalizations. The invisible middle, or the "critique of the middle ground," as he puts it, is open and shifting enough to be the perfect centrifuge for his ideological concerns — a maze of ideas to snare his viewer-readers. He said it himself: "Certain things work as lures or attractors, while other things hold you away in a web of text." So be careful when you enter Gillick’s zone. There is always the risk, as Dante said at the start of The Divine Comedy, that in the middle way we find ourselves in dark woods. Dante had Virgil to guide him through them. But we have a guide whose every strategy is to query and destabilize, to produce "new relationships rather than clearly definable results," as he once said. In Venice, as we step into the echoing hall of Speer’s bullying architecture, we will be in the clever hands of Liam Gillick, social inquisitor, eraser of borders. Our smiling, unreliable narrator.
"The Singularity Problem" originally appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' Summer 2009 Table of Contents.