Notes on Reflection, Refraction and Doubling in Liam Gillick’s Sculpture and Installation Work
By Marco Antonini
I used to be able to get lunch for a flat $6.25 while working at the Guggenheim. A quick glance at my ID, and the smiling waiter of the café would promptly inform me about the daily soup and sandwich choices. Facing the register, a bountiful fruit, drinks and snacks counter further expanded my choices (did I already mention the free coffee and cookie?) That idyllic lunch break experience, a ritual to which all staff – director and chief curators included – participated, is now gone. Already jokingly nicknamed “The Wrong” by a few staff members, “The Wright”, the new cooler-than-what-you-can-afford cafeteria in the Guggenheim’s historic digs at 1071 5th Avenue, seems oriented to radically different eating experiences. The Liam Gillick -designed interior makes a point of sharply (and beautifully, to be honest) obliterating the original Frank Lloyd Wright corner room. I sat in the space recently, trying to figure out the connection between Gillick’s The Horizon Produced by a Factory Once It Had Stopped Producing Views (2009), a sculpture of colorful horizontal powder-coated aluminum planks, conceived to be expanded or contracted to fit any designated space, and the experience of fine dining in one of the masterpieces of modern architecture. For lack of better words, I will just say that, although charmed by the colorfulness and dynamism of the space, the connection between experience, place and installation felt a little awkward. The awkwardness was not new to me, either. I already noticed several times how the look and feel of Gillick’s installation and environmental designs actively contribute to hinder or even negate their apparent relational potential and usability. Moreover, the scale and overall physical quality of his works seem devised not so much in relation to the size and proportions of the human body but in direct response to the built interior, the architecture.
Works that strive to offer an arena for social exchange often run the risk of becoming a caricature of themselves by mirroring real social contexts and/or transporting their dynamics into the regimented confines of the White Cube. In this regard, Gillick’s installations have been able to keep a certain distance from the outgoing relational approach of other artists of his generation. Although words like “discussion”, “platform”, “scenario”, “conference” and “interaction” recur in both the artist’s writings and in his artwork’s titles, Gillick’s work spaces, offices, meeting rooms and lobbies are not necessarily made for human activity. In the artist’s 2005 Revision Corral, an inhabitable structure that doesn’t really comply to any form of codified human interaction, Gillick’s references to breeding and pre-industrial rural economies clash against the polished, glamorously colorful and decidedly artificial nature of the sculpture’s materials. The corral (as Iwona Blazwick has noted,) reflects the archaeologies of our times, and how the ideologies of the recent past are refracted through and distorted by the present. As we will see, reflection and refraction are recurring elements of Gillick’s installation work.
Both Gillick’s design for the seating of Whitechapel Gallery’s conference room (for his 2002 solo show, The Wood Way) and the aforementioned The Horizon... seem to do little more than acknowledge the existing architecture, floating in a parallel dimension where existing architectural features and – more importantly – the public usage patterns and social significance of the space are thoroughly ignored. These modular designs can be considered as mere indicators, delineating an existing space of pre-determined togetherness and yet aestheticizing it to the point of transforming it into a formalist abstraction. If Revision Corral offered a perfect example of the refraction of “other”, historically acknowledged and culturally significant structures, these designed convivial spaces should then be considered as critical mirrors held in front of the internal dynamics of the same institutions they belong to.
Among his most typical and recognizable works, Gillick’s signature Plexiglas, Perspex and metal screens, signal even more direct and unmediated forms of reflection and refraction. The polished surfaces of these pieces are often facing each other, creating multiple reflections: an ideal mise en abyme of both public and venue. Probably thinking of them, Lilian Haberer has noted how the doubling and the internal reflection of picture, story and text, emerge as key themes in Gillick’s work. In her opinion, the artist establishes parallel levels within his working practice, aiming at continuous conceptual reflections. More than mere fragmentations, these reflections are his way of constructing and articulating personal narratives and inner realities.
It is precisely the complexity of this process that haunts Gillick’s installations and environments. As reflection becomes accumulation in the perception and experience of the works, the artist’s layered discourse becomes a burden, halting the work’s potential as a place for human activity. In this context, as Ina Blom has observed, Gillick’s work operates along an associative axis which only connects to the social sphere through the articulation of zones of ambiguity and contestation.
 Iwona Blazwick, “Introduction”, in Liam Gillick, The Wood Way exh. cat. London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2002, p.4.
 Ibid., p.5.
 Lilian Haberer, “Liam Gillick: Parallel thinking between structure and fiction”, in Lilian Haberer; Liam Gillick, ed., Factoriesinthesnow, Zurich: JRPIRingier, 2007, p.28.