Liam Gillick
Revenons à nos moutons  
Hamilton: A Film by Liam Gillick 

May 2 – June 28, 2014 
Esther Schipper, Berlin
by Matthew Burbidge

d2 gillick ill1b

Liam Gillick’s artwork is very easy to like. They’re very attractive, these structures which we more correctly call forms[1]; and they are not alone – always associated with his three dimensional work is a featherbedding of discourse which is the very substance of the work, that is: discursive circumlocutions which are constructed in the light of the realization that going from A-B in one move means not that error is hindered, even though that move may be proofed in the diamond walled gyms of deductive logic, but that rather it is this very reduction that leads to error; and that it is important, if one wants to be truthful, to go from A to B via C; and, if possible, via C, D, E, R, T, and Z, as well.

The scenery along the way, the journey itself, is as important as the destination. To too much of the art context, truth has ceased to matter, unless it is a subjectively held absolute claim (and there are very many that make this ridiculous and arrogant claim for themselves). Gillick is one of those fighting this self-indulgent and childish tendency. This has the consequence that in order to demonstrate the truth of something he must use a “sequence of veils and meanderings (…) to combat the chaotic ebb and flow of capitalism.”[2] I am reminded of Corporal Trim’s flourish with his walking stick, a motif directly taken up by some as emblematic of the

[1] So Judd-precise and repeating is the three-dimensional work, that when I look at it I have desert dreams of Marfa, a place I have never been.

[2] October 115, p.116.

correct artistic[1] approach to the truth of a subject.[2] And just because the approach is “meandering” does not mean it is less precise. Does a river seem less precise to you because it meanders?

Revenons à nos moutons shows Gillick once again doing what should be obvious, but which most contemporary art professionals seem blithely unaware of: the necessary requirement that artists go beyond self-criticism, and actually curate their work themselves; the regular challenging of the fundamental bases and superstructures of their belief systems and artistic processes. But the hulls of these ships never get scraped – and they carry on year after year not scraping – and so is born such a load of barnacles that constitutes the very end of art, so stupidly aesthetic has it become: not worthy even of the category illustration. Indeed, to see artworks and exhibitions merit even the function of illustration has become rare; and it has become one of the worthier goals of our toothless art criticism to hunt for these. But Liam Gillick’s forms do not inhabit the semiotic mode utilized by illustration, resting instead much more happily in the interchange between the semi-ineffable modes of art and design. The idealistic modes of art and design.

[1] Meant in the widest sense of the word; i.e.: including literature.

[2] If you don’t already know Corporal Trim, then here is an eloqent Aaron Schuster article about his flourish and the family of meanings it inspires: See also Sterne’s pictorial descriptions of narrative necessity: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Chapter 115.

Indeed, the reply which Gillick framed in 2006 in the pages of October to the absurd article by Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics” (published in October 110, Autumn 2004 issue)[1], is a source not only of great entertainment, but also provokes edifying reflections, so clearly does it map the necessarily always somewhat-indistinct hub of the matter. Since the advent of post-structuralism, it has been necessary to circumlocute like Sterne’s other brilliant creation Slawkenbergius[2] in order to mirror in our structures of thought the complexities of our explanations of practical perceptual truth (thus our philosophically scientific (or scientifically accurate) descriptions of reality). It is possible to isolate truth in a simple set of parameters, but though this practice is beautiful, it has far less applications than an inductive solution, as proposed by writers from David Hume to Gilles Deleuze. And since art is art (about showing a process and cataloguing its results) the art of it is precisely in these tangents, byways and circumambulations. Idealistic philosophy can only exist in this fuzzy way, if it is to have any practical application at all. And Liam Gillick is an idealist.


[1] Here is a link to Gillick’s text from October 115 (Winter 2006)

[2] See the start of volume 2. of Tristram Shandy, “Slawkenbergius’s tale”. Laurence Sterne is part of a heritage of sceptical thinkers that starts with Socrates, and ends (in the twentieth century) with Wittgenstein, Joyce, Beckett, and Faulkner.

This is made clear in Hamilton: a film by Liam Gillick, which initially was made for Richard Hamilton’s first major posthumous exhibition at Tate Modern and the ICA in London. Gillick, like Gropius, is able to imagine design as a changer of our ordered reality. This requires a lot of belief! It is the idealism that art and design can change society for the better. And belief of course needs praxis to sustain it – hence Gillick’s insistence that we swallow his three-dimensional structures together with hefty saltings of discourse. Gillick needs the structures to support the weight of his idealistic tendencies. He shows how it is possible, in the twenty-first century, to be idealistic, if you are careful enough to reconstruct your idols out of nuance (that is: to reconstruct them from fragments).

Gillick’s work is amongst the most highly conscious of all contemporary artists. This is a very anti-conservative attitude, and one that I would like to call experimental. It is a very hard job indeed to make an experimental career, and successfully pursued only by a few. The ultimate archetype of this attitude to artistic inquiry is of course Marcel Duchamp. Thus in the film Hamilton, it is no surprise that as part of the soundtrack we hear Richard Hamilton’s 1959 interview with Duchamp. To be experimental one must regularly question every aspect of one’s practice, including its political trajectories, material substance, formal inclinations, and subliminal effects (to mention just a few aspects). It makes the job of being an artist hard work, not just for the body or the brain, but for the whole being; and unsurprisingly this is extremely unattractive to the majority of art practitioners.

Revenons à nos moutons is a show taking up about half of Esther Schipper’s gallery space, the other half having been shut off with drywall covered with large uniform mirrors to provide a sublime setting for the Richard Hamilton film. The mirrors, as always, encourage self-examination. Here, among them, a flatscreen is sunk into the outward facing wall of the ante-room created by the mirrors. Encased in these, the monitor hangs in infinite ordered space. The confined actual space in the mirrored infinite space encourages a one-on-one engagement with the video. One sees oneself endlessly repeated together with the TV. Since Dan Graham, the use of mirrors in the visual art context is loaded with psychoanalytic cliché. But here they are purely pragmatic. They are familiar, and they are a comfort. They provide a neutral setting for the film, which was conceived for another context, and must be presented anew, that is: recontextualised. Let us mention that part of its soundtrack is occupied by excerpts from the musical soundtrack of Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou. This savagely sedative music is a citation of the lyrical discursiveness of Godard himself, Gillick directly calling the Swiss master to witness, a living vindication of investigative truth games based on the principle of induction.

The rest of the space, which ends in white wall and some windows to Schöneberger Ufer, is occupied by Revenons à nos moutons. This consists of brushed aluminium wall pieces and structures, each form accompanied with a quote stencilled on the wall next to them, so that the pieces actually become conflations between two very different planes, that of script, and that of sculpture. It’s deliberately difficult to swallow. Clockwise around the room from the entrance are texts cropped from 

Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal 1974 film “The Conversation” with Gene Hackman. Those familiar with that film, and the music used in the 1960’s by Jean-Luc Godard, partake in a reassuring feeling of recognition. It is a feeling that comes from the fact that we share the same references, and is exquisitely soothing. This is our collective treasury of preferences.

The conflations don’t really work in a traditional formal sense. They challenge the very context that they create, forcing the spectator to ponder fundamental questions as they observe the forms, and as they read the texts. No doubt many will maintain that they should “work” artistically and thus square the formal circle, but they do not. The whole point is this uneasiness, the not-fitting: the context is challenged, but only enough to make us do the work of recontextualisation. We must ourselves engage with the whole of the exhibition, its various particles, to understand what the show intends, what the point of it is. The exhibition is brilliantly presented, and is contrived to make us believe that this conflation doesn’t need to enter a resolved state, that we should hold it up as it is and at the same time reconnect to the physical reality of the things. As such, walking around a Liam Gillick exhibition is existential in the Camusian sense, in that we really experience the pain of this formal contradiction. [1] The pain is there simply to experience, nothing more. It makes his art very unattractive for collectors, and we should praise this stance for its rarity.

[1] Unless this pain is supposed rather to emphasize the non-linguistic essence of art objects. But that would be difficult to believe in an artist who shares much the same intellectual impetus as David Hume, Wittgenstein and other sceptics, such as Spinoza, or Deleuze.

It is testament to the brilliance of Esther Schipper’s programme that these unattractive qualities are foregrounded instead of airbrushed out. Gillick, for his part, has indentified Esther Schipper as a haven for such materialized thought. The gallery becomes a carrier, the guarantee of continued purity for what are difficult pieces. When we go along to the opening and nevertheless take a close look: we have high standards, and they transcend the proclivities of ownership. So does the Schipper programme: it adds credibility to Gillick’s discursive approach, and thus, in the intersection between the object and the concept, we find our fuzzy nirvana.

It’s a tortuous journey, and for many unnecessarily tortuous, but it means we must take Gillick seriously, take his satire seriously. For these works are also social satire. At stake is the truth of things, and the truth of praxis. All this is not based on the rules of a direct and deductive truth game, but rather the theatrical plot twists within its dramatic shadow. Since the mid 1990s, too many people have ignored the value of dramatic theory for the art context. They ignore it even in historical analyses of Situationism, so why should they not ignore it for Gillick’s sake?

For an experimental artist, it is necessary to continually (or at least regularly) challenge your premises, and even your use of logic. Duchamp understood this, and this understanding was part of the reason that his work went unrecognised for half a century after its production. Duchamp constantly challenged his context, the art context itself even, and showed how art can make itself if you are able to recontextualise it. The real work is in the rebellion, and in the recontextualisation. 

Gillick tries to escape his context while remaining an artist, and this is essentially the same as what Duchamp achieved with his life and work. And that is the best you can do.