Are artists bothered if the viewer doesn’t pay attention to their work at openings?
Traditionally, a plethora of exhibition openings took place during Frieze London and Fiac. On some days, four or five shows opened and people had to choose which ones to attend or whether to attend all of them, albeit briefly. I’m saying nothing new but many visitors hardly paid any attention to the exhibited work. They went straight to the bar instead. They seem to consider these events more as opportunities to socialize, network and to be seen.
Is that a good or bad thing? Are artists and gallery staff, who invested so much time in creating and preparing of the exhibitions, bothered by that? The day after the opening of his show ‘The Thought Style Meets The Thought Collective’ at Maureen Paley, I met with Liam Gillick. We started our conversation about how he perceived the opening of his own show.
Liam Gillick: At the beginning, I was one of those artists who went to many exhibitions and openings. It was a way to find out more about art; an opportunity to see other artists, have a drink with them and talk about ideas. The ecosystem of art in London, in the late 1980s, really did support that. We [artists] had no money, we didn’t have to buy our drinks and the galleries were very open to us being there. When I’m opening a show in London, I always feel I have to do the same in return. I want people to have a good time, that there is enough beer. I want them to be able to hang around so they, especially the younger people, can have the same experience that I did.
Yesterday evening, funnily, the last thing we talked about was the exhibition, it was not the subject of discussion. We were talking about other things, things outside of art. Philippe Parreno used to say, “An exhibition is a holiday away from ideas”. It is the only moment you stop working. It’s when you take a breath; you stand back and join the crowd. At an opening it looks like the artist is the centre of attention, it appears to be their moment. The reality, though, it that is the time when the artist stands with everyone else and starts to look at what he or she has done.
200%: Do you enjoy your openings?
LG: That is not so easy to answer. I’m not that young anonymous person anymore which can put you under pressure a little bit. Generally, once I’m there, I have a couple of drinks and talk with some people it is fine, I enjoy it. I’m not against it [openings] as a form. I think people at an opening are there, in part to engage in a kind of community. They are not necessarily there to look at the work. I like the idea, especially the British model, where openings are a place for artists to be. There were many artists last night. I’m happy with that.
200%: You are not nervous for an opening?
LG: Yes, I always check. I’m looking at the conditions of the situation and verifying what situation is established here. If I have a problem with that I might try and change it.
Generally, my problems are actually the opposite. Private galleries are what they are, however radical they might seem, they are still shops in the end. They are usually very careful to keep the separation between the bar and the work. I don’t mind if the bar ends up in the exhibition. Some of the best dinners and parties I have attended have been in the middle of the exhibition. I don’t find it a problem.
Also, you were allowed to smoke and drink in galleries. Now you are very much standing outside. I’d rather we went back to the old model where you can’t see the work because of all of the cigarette smoke, you don’t know where the work ends and the people begin. [laughs]. It’s a kind of merging of all these things.
200%: Marina Abramovic once told me that she doesn’t like openings as they ask her to do a performance whilst people are watching her with a drink in their hands.
LG: I have a slightly more convivial way of seeing it. Lawrence Weiner has told me that the problem with art now, it that it’s all about having dinner. In the old days, art used to be about drinking and talking or arguing – a flow. Maybe he is being nostalgic but I think he has a point. All the things that poor Marina has to suffer, I don’t. I can just talk to people and it’s okay. It depends on the artist. There is no consistent or concrete universal experience.
200%: This show consists of old works that you made in the 1990s such as ‘When Do We Need More Tractors? Five Plans’ and new work such as the neon piece ‘X Came to Know P’. What made you decide to combine the old and the new?
LG: I have been reading a lot about the writings of the British anthropologist, Mary Douglas, and the socialist thinker, Ludwik Fleck, by whom she was influenced. She looked a lot into the relationship between individuals and groups; how groups emerge, how ideas emerge in a group. At the same time, I have just finished a book (‘From Nineteen Ninety A to Nineteen Ninety D’) about the work I did in the 1990s.
I started to look at some of my earlier works, wondering how I could bring them back but combine them in new structures and new ways. The question was not about time, but how the conditions are different. Most of my earlier works were produced in collective environments because as a young artist, your first exhibitions are usually group shows. Now I’m often alone and that is deliberate. I like to work alone. It means the work is produced under different conditions. I realized I could do an exhibition somewhat referring to Fleck and Douglas, and restore earlier work and combine it with new work. This would create a strange connection.
200%: I like the simplicity and clarity of how you install your shows. Does it take much effort and time to be able to achieve that?
LG: I would say that is not consistent and this is something I even like. There is no method in that sense. I try to step out and then by the end usually come back to something that I am constantly drawn to. I will try lots of different ways. I would be lying if I didn’t say that sometimes I just know exactly what to do. It sounds bad but it’s true. Since 1989, I have had many showings and sometimes, I know exactly what to do. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I go boom boom boom! I might make some mistakes, change a few things, wait a couple of days, look at it again and then it’s done. When it is really clear that is very exciting.
200%: I understand that for the installation of your shows you sometimes don’t physically visit the gallery, but you build extensive models of the gallery space on your computer.
LG: Yes, I look at plans. When I review them I want to know if these plans match the building. Did they really make the building this way? Often I will send someone who is not an engineer, but an art historian and ask them “Could you tell me if this space between here and here is really 43cm?” Then I might receive an email and they tell me “no, it is 23cm”. I start to check the reality against the ideal and this is quite a strong image for my whole work; the relationship between what was planned and what was done. Much of my work is about production and not consumption. It is not about the problem of how people take things in, it’s more about how people put things out. I’m really fascinated by the difference between architectural plans and the finished product. We call them in English “as built plans”. These are always different to the architectural plans and this is where you see the trace of the man or woman who actually built the building.
When you look at old buildings like the German pavilion in Venice you can see that it looks like a rational fascist building; and it is. However, even within that, you see traces of the workers who influenced the structure; they might have decided to use a double brick in places because it was easier than cutting each brick. The distances between the windows might be affected by that. The reason might have to do with time or efficiency; save work, save labour. That’s how I understand spaces. I spent a long time working on Maureen’s gallery, for example, drawing these metal pieces that are holding up the roof even though I have no intention of using them. By drawing them, I understand how the building works. It’s also mediation on production and structure to understand it. When you have completed these drawings, you always see the building differently.
In the second part Liam Gillick will talk about his working relationship with his dealers Maureen Paley in London and Esther Schipper in Berlin (“When they critique me, they are extremely clear about what they think”) and whether people have an open mind towards art (“I see a lot of paranoia around art as if it needs defending, saving or helping. Art is there not to be liked as much it is to be liked.”)
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers
Images from top to bottom:
Liam Gillick: The Thought Style Meets The Thought Collective, exhibition view, ground floor gallery, room 1, Maureen Paley, London, 2015
Liam Gillick: The Thought Style Meets The Thought Collective, exhibition view, first floor gallery, room 2, Maureen Paley, London, 2015
Liam Gillick: The Thought Style Meets The Thought Collective, exhibition view, first floor gallery, room 3, Maureen Paley, London, 2015
© the artist, courtesy Maureen Paley, London