Called into question
The curators of this exhibition at the Arnolfini claim that the choice of Liam Gillick is 'particularly pertinent in the context of the recent changes in the centre and harbourside areas of Bristol'. The artist is more tentative, saying: 'I am working in a nebulous cloud of ideas, which are somewhat partial or parallel rather than didactic.'
Yet Gillick also says his work 'is about the politics of the built environment', and adds: 'I absolutely believe that visual environments change behaviour and the way people act.'Moreover: 'I am interested in moments when people sincerely try to improve things and then go wrong on a grand scale - post-war urban planning at Thamesmead, US defence policy under Robert McNamara.'
His show, spread over three galleries at the Arnolfini, includes works that are (loosely) architectural, wall drawings, short films, graphics and texts. It is one of the architectural pieces, Twinned Retraction Screens, that greets you on the ground floor: the screens, parallel to one another and joined at top and bottom so that there is just a shaft of space between them, are made of anodised aluminium and Plexiglas - red, yellow, blue and orange.These materials recur in two works that are suspended, canopy-like, from the ceiling in one of the upper galleries, while photographs in the catalogue reveal that Gillick also makes large, cubic, aluminium-and-Plexiglas boxes.
To what end, though? The boxes lead one to think of Donald Judd but, using easily-available mass-produced components, Gillick doesn't have his hedonistic approach to materials and colour, nor (it would seem) any great concern with subtleties of perception. In the way that the different-sized horizontal and vertical sheets of Plexiglas are placed in the overall rectangles of the screens, there is an echo of Mondrian; and, as some of the aluminium-framed subdivisions are left empty, there is a play of sorts with transparency/translucency - but not one to detain visitors for long.
Titles are apparently crucial to Gillick's intent.The 'canopies' are called 'platforms'- Discussion Island Moderation Platform, for instance - while the boxes are 'Think Tanks'; these pieces all serve a scenario of meetings, negotiations, conflict and compromise.But does this make them any more eloquent or engaging?
Do we really think more seriously about such social exchanges?
Does the coloured Plexiglas in its suspended frame now do more than simply demarcate the area below? Probably not.
Gillick's reliance on the written word resurfaces in an untitled work on the ground floor.This is one of his 'furniture'pieces; Tom Dixon might be mass-producing it for Habitat even now.
Two eight-deep stacks of MDF shelving are joined at a right angle to one another and divided vertically at various intervals to form a complex set of compartments, left empty but for a few of Gillick's texts. Borges said that all we really need are half a dozen books (though he also described an endless and ramifying 'Library of Babel'). The half dozen we need aren't Gillick's, but their isolation here amid so much potential space for books does give pause for thought.
One is a little 80-page paperback called Erasmus Is Late, which conflates 1810 and 1997 in envisaging a dinner party hosted by Charles Darwin's elder brother Erasmus for some subsequent figures who, like him, are at the edge of history, not its centre - Marshall McLuhan's mother is one.
Gillick introduces it as 'a guide for free-thinkers.An attempt to regain control over a set of ideas that have been appropriated by people with no interest in altering the way things are.'This sentiment seems also to inform his short film, Vicinato 2, showing upstairs at the Arnolfini, which opens with a spectacular cityscape and then features a stilted conversation about social involvement by four of Gillick's (male) artist friends.The artifice is presumably deliberate, calling into question everything that is said, but one protagonist refers to 'new forms of soft capitalism that make people feel good while still maintaining the old relationships'.
In its glancing, oblique way, Gillick's work, in whatever form, asks its audience to look critically at these 'old relationships' and 'the ways things are' - whether in the built environment or in other aspects of their lives.The onus is on the viewer or reader to make something of the disparate parts; Gillick, as he says, prefers 'nebulousness' to a definite proposition.Whether, aesthetically or intellectually, those parts offer enough stimulus for the audience to bother, is another matter.