The articulate, multi-tasking Liam Gillick is an unavoidable presence in today’s art world. Now in his early forties, the British-born artist studied at Goldsmiths College at the same time as several of the ybas, including Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas. But while they went on to grab headlines with work that ironically replayed old subversions, Gillick developed a more involuted neo-Conceptual idiom. His installations are composed of aluminium and coloured Perspex screens, their clean lines and bright colours recalling high modernist architecture and minimalist sculpture while also pointing to contemporary corporate design and flat-pack furniture. Though best known for these installations, he has worked in video, staged performances, renovated public spaces and composed music.
Gillick is also a prolific writer. He has published several books, short volumes that work as stand-alone texts but were originally intended to resonate with specific artworks or shows. His 2002 exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, for instance, was shadowed by Literally No Place, a fictional text that doubles as a rambling meditation on utopianism. In the book we encounter a group that has set off in search of a lost commune, a ‘semi-autonomous, survivalist place’, but their quest is interrupted by a long succession of stories, jokes and essayistic asides. Gillick’s books tend to conflate historical periods and combine distinct professional codes and concerns; in Erasmus is Late (1995), Charles Darwin’s brother Erasmus, an opium-eating free-thinker, is late for his own dinner party, wandering around contemporary London while his guests, including Robert McNamara, us Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, and Masaru Ubuka, co-founder of Sony, wait for him in Great Marlborough Street. These texts supplement Gillick’s installations, dwelling on unrealized ambitions, on forgotten or aborted experiments, and encouraging viewers, as they walk around his multi-coloured screens, to consider the contingent determinations of the present order and to attend to those sites and activities that are amenable to progressive transformation. That, at least, is the view of Gillick’s defenders.
In addition to the books, Gillick has, for almost twenty years now, written articles for publication in catalogues and magazines, covering a wide range of topics: from contemporary tendencies in art, curating and architecture to the experience of speed-reading, the renaming of businesses and the spread of corporate ‘scenario thinking’. Artist-writers such as Gillick are rare in Britain; ambitious writing by artists is much more common in the us, from the historical-theoretical commentaries of Robert Motherwell to the criticism of Donald Judd, whose art had a formative effect on Gillick, and more recently the rigorous polemical texts of Andrea Fraser. But then Gillick’s trajectory has never been bounded by a specifically British context.
Some of his shorter texts have now been assembled in Proxemics, which covers the period from 1988 to 2006. As Gillick explains in the preface, he settled on the title, which refers to the study of spatial positioning in human interactions, ‘in order to reflect the fact that the choice of texts has been based on relationships rather than any attempt to provide an overview.’ That may be why he has omitted his early articles on the ybas, those relationships presumably proving less productive as his career has unfolded.
The book is divided into three sections, the first, ‘Context’, consisting of texts on signal precursors, figures like Judd and Lawrence Weiner, while the second, ‘Structures’, is made up of essays on topical issues in contemporary art; the third, ‘Proximity’, covers the work of friends and collaborators, artists such as Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, in pieces that often expand on areas of common interest. Of the texts on friends and forerunners, some are essays and reviews, others are transcribed conversations; most are just a few pages long. In the longer pieces, Gillick tends to intersperse comments on contemporary art with passages on the issues and phenomena that have regularly intruded on his own practice—such as past utopian models and the effects of urban redevelopment.
Proxemics is plainly the work of an appealingly restless mind and, like Gillick’s short books, it shows occasional flashes of humour (‘On a recent flight I found . . . that the crossword puzzle I was completing contained the following solutions. Inferno, life, airliner, loss.’) His prose style is less appealing: though he avoids jargon, he manages to combine an academic tone with a frustrating oracular vagueness, often neglecting to illustrate points while regularly using elusive phrases such as ‘a parallel space’ or ‘a different set of concerns’. It is difficult to detect clear lines of development in Gillick’s thinking, though the collection covers an eighteen-year span—the shifts in his work seem to be largely lateral, as he moves constantly from topic to topic. All the same, Proxemics offers intriguing insights into the priorities and inspirations of an artist for whom text is such a crucial component of artistic production.
The collection will doubtless be well received by Gillick’s many admirers, but it will also be read with interest by those who have followed the debate over ‘relational aesthetics’, so called after Nicolas Bourriaud’s 1998 book. A critic and curator based until recently at the Palais de Tokyo, Bourriaud singled out various artists who, emerging in the early nineties, organized meals, games, conferences and other participatory events, initiating encounters that were, Bourriaud maintained, the substance of their work. He argued that artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija conjured ‘micro-utopias’, reaffirming the social bond and so temporarily countering the atomizing effects of modernity and the ever-tightening grip of mass cultural forms. As he saw it, ‘relational’ art revived the emancipatory thrust of modernism while avoiding its teleological parti pris.