Interview with Liam Gillick: “There’s a perversity in my method”

With a biennial, two shows and a knitwear range on the go, Liam Gillick talks about the lasting effect of his Goldsmiths years


Of the much-vaunted generation that studied at Goldsmiths in south London in the late 1980s, Liam Gillick is undoubtedly one of the most cerebral. A writer as much as a maker of objects, his practice is underpinned by a lot of theory. His longstanding fascination with the way that visual environments affect human behaviour has resulted in him producing a plethora of quasi-functional and architectural structures using a minimal formal language. He has also made direct and sometimes permanent interventions into buildings—most notably at the Home Office in London in 2005, which includes a coloured glass canopy. He also produces texts, books and films. In 2009, Gillick was chosen to occupy the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale and he has recently donated the resulting work, How are you going to behave? A kitchen cat speaks, involving pine wood modules based on his kitchen and a stuffed talking cat, to the collection of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. He is currently participating in the Gothenburg Biennial (until 13 November), has a show at Air de Paris and one at Micheline Szwajcer in Antwerp (both until 3 December) and next month is launching a range of knitwear and accessories with Pringle of Scotland in a pop-up gallery in the Miami Design District.

The Art Newspaper: It can be tricky to get a handle on the multiple Gillick manifestations—from your sound piece at the Göteborg Biennial based on Volvo’s working practices to the painted aluminium version of Guy Debord’s chess-variant, Game of War, recently installed at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. Then there’s the two exhibitions of new films and abstract structures that opened in Paris and Antwerp last month. Can you give us some entry points?

Liam Gillick: There’s a deep binarism in the work that used to concern people, but the division has now become very clear. There’s this constant unresolvable battle between the idea of a commitment to a rigorous abstraction which is also mixed with this other component that’s about the idea of production, how things get produced and how things acquire meaning. This is incredibly important and generates all the longer narratives and examinations of structure.

The term “post-utopian” has been bandied round in connection with your work. Is that helpful?

It’s not as straightforward as just taking an earlier form and reconstructing it, it is more based on the idea of discounting certain possibilities or certainties, of slightly altering or twisting the cultural DNA to end up with these forms. I’ve always had this interest in applied art and applied design, but not the grand narratives, not Mies Van der Rohe but more like the Greater London Council architect who did the local dental centre. I’m not trying to depict those things or even borrow directly from them, but it’s that kind of applied modernism, which is very rooted and grounded, mixed with this sort of unraveling of what you call the “post-utopian”. I’m still interested in the problem of art—for me, the idea of what kind of art could exist and be useful is really fascinating, which is why I do it.

You’ve just designed a new collection of knitwear and accessories for Pringle of Scotland. How does that fit in?

It was the idea of Alistair Carr [the design director at Pringle] that we should actually make objects rather than clothes. So we started designing handbags. The whole thing ballooned and now we are making a whole range of things from little wallets to large bags. I am testing a lot of my theories about work and production and distribution: the intensity of work and production suits my way of thinking and matches my desire to see objects enter circulation with as little delay as possible. It is the opposite of my work with architects, which is productive for exactly the opposite reasons.

In 2009, you were selected to represent Germany at the Venice Biennale. How did you find the experience?

I really tried to continue my normal work—I didn’t view it as a showcase. I wanted to do something new; I wanted to push something and that’s quite hard. You suffer a little bit when you do that, even if you know in the back of your mind it’s the right thing to do. I left the pavilion on the day of the opening with the clearheadedness that you get sometimes after a breakup or after something’s gone wrong, or after you’ve just witnessed an accident: it’s not elation or satisfaction, it’s the feeling that you know that this is the only thing you could do, but it’s not going to achieve a certain satisfaction. It’s my constant dilemma that I’m interested in setting up critical discursive structures and of course when you do that you are going to get a critical and discursive response, yet that’s also quite punishing in a strange way. That’s the perversity of my method.

You graduated from Goldsmiths in 1987 and are part of that very high-profile generation that went on to put British art on the map in the early 1990s. How important was your time at Goldsmiths in shaping you as an artist?

Oh, everything! Because at that point you were coming into contact with people in their early- and mid-40s who disagreed with each other. The usual situation is that there’s a solid core of jobbing tutors and then there are people who float in and out, but Goldsmiths was an incredibly divided school that was run by people with incredibly differing ideas who would argue them out in front of you. Michael Craig-Martin, Richard Wentworth, Jon Thompson were the three key ones. I just thought that this was normal, and it suited my way of thinking perfectly.

This runs counter to the now legendary status of 1980s Goldsmiths as some kind of training ground for cool, sassy artistic wunderkinds…

The problem with Goldsmiths is that over time the stories have got too simple and too clear, whereas the whole point of Goldsmiths was that it was incredibly unclear and incredibly questioning about how things are valued. People assume there was a coherence to it, but there was absolutely no coherence—and that’s obviously why it was so successful. It was one of the few educational environments that mirrored the peculiarities of the idea of contemporary art, which is of course always more and more subjective and more and more dispersed and capable of absorbing almost anything. It’s a perpetual paradox: the more you try and find the edge of it and step outside of it, the edge just moves further away, or you are absorbed. This is why Goldsmiths was an incredible contemporary art place, whereas a lot of other places were still looking at the legacy of modernism and not dealing with their time.

Although you’ve been shortlisted for the Turner Prize [in 2002] and have had many shows in the UK, your affiliations both personal and professional seem resolutely international: you live in New York, teach in American universities and show more widely throughout Europe.

I was interested in conceptual art as a student which—even though in the 1980s it was only ten years ago—was viewed as the past and felt like another country. What was fascinating for me was not so much the work itself or trying to reproduce the work, but the realisation that these people were still around and they were still working.

You’ve had a long association with Lawrence Weiner.

When I met Lawrence Weiner in 1987, or 1988, it was extraordinary because he treated me like another artist and not like an indulged student (of course I realised later he does this for everyone and it was not that I was particularly special). This was the start of a hardcore, ongoing discussion that was not based on emulation, but that maybe we had similar working methods. It fitted my combination of delusion and distraction that I needed to find a context where people were less sceptical, or at least more curious, about the fact that my practice didn’t seem to be resolved. Then, by the early 1990s, I was working a lot with a group of international “homeless” artists such as Philippe Parreno, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Jorge Pardo—we were this stateless, mongrel band and the things I got out of Goldsmiths I found a way to realise as an adult. Not what to do, but how to look for a way to work. My internationalism is for a reason, but it does not exclude the place where I am from. My work was brittle and I needed to find places with a context as complex and fragmented as my own. To do this I had to become permanently displaced. If you look at the contemporary situation, it has turned out that I wasn’t the only one.