Use It or Lose It: Liam Gillick’s ’90s Hit Bard’s Hessel Museum

If a relational aesthetics show takes place with no viewers, did it ever happen?

  • It seems odd that chronic collaborator Liam Gillick hasn’t yet worked on a project with novelist Jay McInerney. The 1980s wunderkind novelist who pioneered second-person narration about coke parties and the 1990s artist, beloved of curators, whose work about exhibition viewers features lots of cheap alcohol both address their audiences relentlessly and with a certain easy glamour. Bright Lights, Big City is set against the orgy of debauchery and self-pity that was 1984, and tends to triangulate money market jobs, Midwestern models and Colombian cocaine; Mr. Gillick’s oeuvre emerged in the hangover aftermath of the ’90s recession, amid European Kunsthallen, earnest curatorial students, and bottles of glitter and vodka.

    A good portion of those ’90s Gillicks can currently be seen at Bard College’s Hessel Museum in Annandale-on-Hudson, in a show called “From 199A to 199B” and curated by the museum’s director, Tom Eccles. Much of what is on view premiered in Europe and has never been seen before in New York, yet it’s the kind of work that travels nearly as well by word of mouth as it does by insured art shipping. Everyday Holiday (materials: institutional text, confetti and stickers), consists of a rostrum of made-up celebratory days the artist announces at the start of the show. (In Bard’s case, in late June.) After that, locals who self-identify with the occasion make something, or nothing, happen. In its initial 1996 iteration in Grenoble, the events featured Astronauts and Vegetables Day (June 10) and Reverse Day (June 23). At Bard, chalk drawings on the museum’s entry walkway indicated that the Observer, arriving a month in to the show’s six-month run, had just missed Lawn Sports Day. Focused on nonsensical self-elected communities and the creation of spaces for others to fill, the work exemplifies the recession-era, D.I.Y. fun of Mr. Gillick’s early work.

    British-born, he began showing work in the U.K. and Paris in the mid-1990s, in the context of what curator Nicholas Bourriaud would term relational aesthetics: a clever descendant of conceptual art (to use Sol Lewitt’s definition from 1967, art in which “all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair”) whose function is to call attention to art institutions and the role of the viewer. Mr. Gillick himself has called it “interactive-baroque-conceptualism.”

    His concepts are, almost to a one, social, from origin through to execution. In the 29 works at Bard, he has collaborated with some 34 people, including 14 former students in Bard’s curatorial studies program, 7 current students, 2 former Columbia MFA students and the musician Kim Gordon; frequent past partners include artists Rirkrit Tiravanija and Angela Bulloch. Four pages of text taped to the museum’s glass doors, a work by the former Columbia students (who as a collaborative go by the name “Hans Eisler Nail Salon”), poke fun at the project even as they participate in it: “Gillick’s paintings for this exhibition have created situations in which the outcome of the work was often incomplete without involving the institution and questioning the expanded role of the exhibition viewer. Wowza!” reads one passage. The fictional appraisal knowingly recalls critic Claire Bishop’s 2004 article in the magazine October in which she dismissed Mr. Gillick’s project as feel-good entertainment for museumgoers.

    The show’s leitmotif is the bulletin board; scattered throughout are the 15 hessian-weave boards that constitute Mr. Gillick’s Pinboard Project (1992/2012). He invites what he calls art “users” (collectors, viewers or, in this case, Bard CCS students and grads) to tack up pages of correspondence and bits from art magazines and books. One of them features all the curator’s financial information from his time at Bard’s curatorial studies program; another consists of images of kittens and pages from Huysmans’s À Rebours. A wall of mustard-yellow jute serves as backdrop to curator Fionn Meade’s contributions: pages from a Boeing 747 operating manual and images from a tattoo magazine. Curators made much of the art in Mr. Gillick’s show, so regardless of the content, the artist’s fey relation to authorship allows him to evade whatever judgment we might place on the dutifully quirky and pedantically theoretical results of his instructions.

    A few works stand out. Grand Prix Viewing Palace (1994), a modern camping tent with Fleetwood Mac soundtrack, is a good piece: a little romantic, and a little weird. It is installed inside another work, Odradek Wall, 1998, that consists of pine fencing with bright lights set in it that lines an entire gallery. The pine cladding and the halogen bulbs are, according to the show’s didactic booklet, supposed to be hard to look at and defy contemplation, but the work is actually beautiful, the lights shining like stars on a clear country night or dance floor spotlights in a nightclub.

    Glitter winks at you from every corner of the show, having been carried there by viewers’ feet from two sources: The What If? Scenario (1996), a blue Ping-Pong table with no net covered in copious amounts of silver glitter, where viewers can invent their own game, and Discussion Island Preparation Zone (1998), where you can listen to a gallery assistant reading from Mr. Gillick’s book Readings from All Books (2012) while walking on a floor of gold and silver glitter. The list of materials for the latter work includes the vodka used to adhere the glitter to the floor; long evaporated, this element likely gave the opening festivities the scent of a party.

    A Broadcast From 1887 on the Subject of Time (materials: short-wave radio, post-utopian community, text and instructions), falls flat. A radio broadcast addressed to Christiania, the anarchist community in Copenhagen, written by the American utopianist Edward Bellamy, the work veneers the obscure 19th-century text with low-carat art-school cleverness. Also in this vein is The Significance of this Structure (1993), a wall piece that reads, “The significance of this structure is still dependent on structures outside art which I am too lazy to challenge.” The work pre-empts any critique of its irrelevance and bad-faith politics; it seems pitched not to audiences, but, defensively, against critics—a depressing notion.

    I spent some time searching for a work entitled 5 More Plans (1999). The list of materials described it as consisting of trash, lemons, blankets, vodka, ribbons and text. It sounded like a mixed drink. The piece was clearly identified with a wall label and featured on the show’s checklist, but I never found it. “I don’t think I’ve seen it,” said a guard. “It’s funny no one asked.” I was informed that relatively few art “users” had attended the exhibition since its New York-celebrity-studded opening. If a relational aesthetics show takes place with no viewers, did it ever happen?

    In Mr. Gillick’s hands, relational aesthetics is not so much akin to institutional critique as it is to institutional collaboration. Why is this bad? His brand of community-building as model for political activity is complacent. In the guise of so much faux-Marxist party planning, his cynical figuration of the viewer as art “user” puts that character forward as a consumer, not an agent of criticality, or change. With Mr. Gillick’s social-conceptual projects of the 1990s, we are reminded that an antonym to resistance is collaboration. As Jay McInerney discovered a decade before, casting your shallow, self-centered narrator as “you” doesn’t make a project any more self-reflective, or any more transformative.

    editorial@observer.com

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