December 2009, Liam Gillick @ Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Installation view of Liam Gillick: Three perspectives and a short scenario at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Chicago, 2009
Photography Copyright Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photographer, Nathan Keay


Liam Gillick: Three perspectives and a short scenario
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
220 East Chicago Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60611-2643
October 10, 2009 through January 10, 2009

1. The naming of cats is a difficult matter.
1A // Observe the cataloging system of Manchester's legendary Factory Records: FAC 1 is the very first Peter Saville-designed poster, FAC 36 is the Joy Division US Closer marketing campaign, FAC 61 is a lawsuit, FAC 191 is a cat; the Hacienda cat, in fact.

1Aa // Peter Saville went so far as to include a coded color system on New Order album sleeves. The aggressive trimming of graphic fat transformed Henri Fantin-Latour's A Basket of Roses still-life, a painting as literal as its name, into an enigmatic icon. Call it punk elegance. Likewise, it's the bare bones production of Ian Curtis' steady baritone backed by the repetitive drumbeat and bassline that gives “Atmosphere” the unique breathlessness and universal appeal that earned it song of the millennium as voted by Peel Session listeners.

1B // Liam Gillick represented Germany at the Venice Biennale earlier this year. His contribution was a pine wood re-creation of his kitchen workspace installed in the stark, white space of the German pavilion, complete with talking animatronic cat:

1Ba // The breath of the children will be close.
 It will have learnt that humans know that cats steal their breath.
 The cat will know that this is nonsense.
 It is buildings like this that steal people's breath.

2. A cat must have three different names.

2A // A Googling of Liam Gillick reveals a list of hats: curator, architect, artist, writer, critic, designer, provocateur! He makes plexiglass sculptures and participated in the Annlee project. For commissioned works, he has repeatedly chosen to create and integrate functional spaces over a benign art object.

2Aa // His commission from the London Underground resulted in a series of Peter Saville-esque (see 1A) posters for the unused spaces at the Great Portland Street station.

2Ab // For Brussels' housing projects, Gillick redesigned the lobbies, mailboxes, and lighting, all the while eschewing the label of “artmaking”. An entryway is more useful than an installation.

2B // The aforementioned articles frequently define Gillick's work as being concerned with “the aesthetics of social systems” and “modes of production rather than consumption”. His particular brand of site-specificity creates nodes where function, aesthete and commentary meet in a way that makes the work difficult to be considered as solely abstract. The work wears many hats as well (see 2A). It is self-referential without being smarmy, slick and clean without being inhuman, and often poetic and beautiful without being uselessly vapid.

3. First of all, there's the name that the family use daily.

3A // The MCA in Chicago is one of the four institutions collaborating with Gillick on his mid-career survey. Titled Three perspectives and a short scenario, each participating institution, including the Witte de With in Rotterdam and the Kunsthalle Zurich, hosted an exhibition of Gillick's work specifically tailored to the space. The short scenario took place at the Kunstverein Munchen in June where Munich actors put on a series of performances of Gillick's play “Mirrored Image: A 'Volvo' Bar”.

3Aa // The exhibition is installed in a vast room partitioned off by gray grids. The first few bars of Joy Division's “She's Lost Control” beat from the ceiling. It's a space evocative of office cubicles, Manchester factories, institutional hallways and the daily grind of production. The aesthetic strongly echoes that of Factory Records (see 1Aa), complete with a blinking color plexiglass ceiling.

3Ab // A projected film in the far corner offers an overview of Gillick's work, with text blocks overlaying photographs of past projects. Somewhere near the center it reads, “On these screens, a mass of text and notation and plans” (see 2B).

3Ac // A vitrine on the other side of the room holds designed posters, books and prints from various projects. The elegance of the text runs parallel to the elegance of the design, big nods to Saville. On the adjacent wall are two inkjet prints, one of a large-nosed cartoon, the mascot for the show, and a small reworking of a Herbert Kapitzki poster from 1976 in the same paint-box palette of the ceiling and prints.

3Ad // The show's self-awareness of its participation in the institution permeates every aspect of the exhibition. These pieces are not abstract art objects of transportive beauty or grotesqueness purveying an escapist fantasy; rather, they function solely as artifacts highlighting various points in Gillick's career.


Installation view of Liam Gillick: Three perspectives and a short scenario at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2009
Photography Copyright Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photographer, Nathan Keay

4. But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular.

4A // The living world is built on systems of communication. A production-line running from designer to factory to consumer is a dialogue about a place and its resources, the birth of an idea, peoples' needs, fantasies, wants; the wheel of commerciality moves the great juggernaut of culture.

4B // Ancient Inkan civilization lacked a written language. Instead, they employed a system of knots called khipukamayuk to transcribe. The way the knot was tied, the color, and ply of the fiber all conveyed something specific. This system yields more than 1500 possible information units and it is likely not representative of a spoken language.

4C // Successful communication is simple. The perfection of the Golden Ratio is universal. Advertising is psychological pinball.

5. But above and beyond there's still one name left over, and that is the name that you never will guess.

5A // Gillick's work resists easy articulation. It's not sex / death / identity crisis art. It's a statement in action that has worked its way into the root system of its surroundings (see 2Ab). How do you box in the box? Art is still strongly – happily? contentedly? resignedly? - institutionalized and though artists like Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince break out when they cross into the realm of the commercial, one gets the sense that it's simultaneously a clever marketing move on Louis Vuitton's part to tap into the hip elitism of the art world as well as a natural evolution in the consumption of art.  

5B // Gillick's work worms its way into the comings and goings of everyday life like an institutional antigen. Three Perspectives happily inhabits the museum but talks about projects that live(d) elsewhere, in and out of institutions. I'd like to posit the idea that his working model of cross-disciplinary methods, collaborations and functional considerations is indicative of a truly progressive way of thinking in which we're headed, a sort of new Renaissance. Any project can be examined from an academic, sociological or purely practical point of view, yielding a million voices telling stories in one volume. Rather than feeling alienated from the work and isolated on the assembly line, the worker might experience a true sense of being an integral part of an inclusive, self-aware therefore self-referential cultural system. Globalization means Starbucking the world; loosely applied, it includes international World of Warcraft raids, tech support from India, and shared crises relief. It makes sense that industries would parallel this phenomenon where disparate disciplines find themselves agreeable bedfellows, resulting in refined solutions that have taken into consideration an multitude of perspectives.

5C // Art is its own story. Too often, reading a piece begins with distancing ourselves from the story as the very act of looking compells us to stand back so our brains can scan for clues to the plot. In Liam Gillick's case, he grabs the pen, writes and rearranges all over the page at such a quick pace that by the time we get past the table of contents, we find we're already written into the work.

6. The cat himself knows and will never confess.

Liam Gillick, Three perspectives and a short scenario, 2008. Courtesy/Copyright Liam Gillick

Amy Lin, Chicago

Amy is an artist, writer and creative consultant.


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