By Jason Foumberg
It’s not a mystery why Liam Gillick is so well liked. The British-born artist embodies a freewheeling creative pursuit: at turns he is an installation artist, graphic designer, writer, thinker, filmmaker, collaborator and anything else he feels like doing. Meanwhile, he’s wrapped all these various activities into a professional and successful career. Also, he dresses like a gentleman but isn’t afraid to use a lot of color in his sculptures, both of which can be pretty disarming—who doesn’t appreciate a colorful gentleman?
But it’s also not a mystery why Gillick is so disliked. Visitors to the MCA, where Gillick’s show recently opened, “run the risk of being completely alienated” by the art, writes Monica LaBelle in a recent review. “Prepare to be totally confused,” warns her headline. Such responses exemplify the fear that black magic runs the art world, transforming bullshit into billionaires, with Gillick as its posterboy. Why are his Minimalist-flavored plexiglass cubes better than any others? (And I think they are more CB2 than Ikea.) LaBelle advises visitors to “do their homework” on Gillick before they attend the show, which means watching his lectures on YouTube. But LaBelle never followed her own advice. Her public declaration is final: Gillick is alienating and confusing.
Gillick’s problem isn’t merely his critical reception, but also, and mostly, his presentation. Oddly, viewing a Gillick exhibition doesn’t seem to be the best way to understand the fullness of his artistic position. Since he’s so multifaceted, the exhibition is just one component among many others. In 2004 the MCA presented a show by German artist Kai Althoff who, like Gillick, dips his hands in many creative jars. The show was full of art, objects, ephemera and music, and it dramatized the artist’s life and scene in a way that I was surprised a museum exhibition could. So, what happened here? In Gillick’s exhibition visitors find out he is a writer with many books published, and this is a major part of his practice. These books are arranged, covers closed, beneath glass in a case, and totally inaccessible. They are not digitized and available for viewing nearby. This may explain, in part, a viewer’s frustration with the art.
A handy gallery takeaway page apologizes for calling the show a “mid-career survey” when it is actually a creative collaboration between the artist and the curator. That is fine, I accept the apology. But there are a few other pronouncements that I really wish were clarified. For instance, the installation is supposed to inspire dialogue. This is how: a six-and-a-half-foot slatted wood screen meanders around the gallery like a fence. There’s also an office-grade gray carpet, which is a little familiar, as the museum unfurled an orange one by Rudolf Stingel on two separate occasions in recent memory. As visitors walk on the carpet and around the wood fences, “the gallery space,” continues the handy sheet, “might become a site for active discussion and conversation rather than passive contemplation.” The end. That’s the end of the sheet. No questions are posed for contemplation. The fence and the carpet are supposed to inspire us on their own.
In another gallery, visitors are given a few clues about possible conversation topics. Several of Gillick’s geometric, colored aluminum and plexiglass sculptures “are loosely based,” reads a wall label, “on Brazilian studies that examine the failure of progressive production methods in the Swedish automobile industry.” This is possibly interesting, but no other context is provided.
The question isn’t why Gillick’s art is so confusing, but how it is so confusing. I’ve read a few of Gillick’s writings, “done my homework.” Several short pieces are printed on posters in the exhibit’s bookcase. These read like creative prose, and they’re plainly unprovocative. One essay, titled “Prevision,” was given to me by an educator who hopes to collect live responses to the essay in a gallery happening staged inside one of Gillick’s carpeted corrals. The essay critiques corporate strategies, game theory, war, “neo-science” (not explained), the Darwin brothers, spies, time travel and more. I was personally enthralled by the narrative he was building, but inside the gallery his theories melted away. There was no visual, sculptural or interactive counterpart to help initiate the discussion. The works seem more like intricate cages than think pieces.
Well, there is at least one redeeming quality. For the 2009 Venice Biennale, Gillick represented the German nation (why?) and this was part of his project manifesto: “Sitting for months in his kitchen with his son’s cat he considered the question ‘Who speaks? To whom and with what authority?’ while the cat tried to disrupt his work.” Ah, some semblance of humanity after all.
Liam Gillick shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, through January 10, 2010. “What If,” a happening inspired by Gillick’s show, meets in the gallery November 3, 5pm-7pm.