The art world’s Olympics started this weekend in Venice. The journey to the Giardini itself can be a marathon of epic proportions (water hazards and all) but even with some measure of financial restraint, the game is still on. Bruce Nauman is headlining the U.S. pavilion; Elmgreen & Dragset are collaborating on the neighboring stands for Denmark and the Nordic countries; Steve McQueen is going out for England. In terms more diplomatic, the United Arab Emirates participates in the Biennale for the first time this year, as does Montenegro, Monaco, Gabon, and the Union of the Comoros.
For the past few months, announcements were made about who would be presenting what where and for whom, from Estonia to Portugal to Australia. It may be this particular sportsmanlike character which lends the Venice Biennale its traditionalist sense of rivalry, dividing competing schools along strictly nationalist lines. Of course globalization — and its arbitrarily defined cultural and sociopolitical borders — has rendered such tangible categorical models largely passé. Many a curator and artist have admitted to the fact (see Nicolas Bourriaud’s most recent treatise against Eurocentrism, The Radicant), but lone wolf Germany has flipped theory into practice: for the 53rd Venice Biennale, curator Nicolaus Schafhausen commissioned British (by way of Ireland) artist Liam Gillick to try his hand at the German pavilion.
Reaction to the selection, made in the summer of 2008, was relatively mild. In the Süddeutsche Zeitung, critic Holger Liebs was generally optimistic, stressing the out-of-fashion 19th century nationalism while remaining somewhat skeptical of Gillick’s Plexi-glass utopias. In the Guardian, Adrian Searle noted Germany’s choice of Gillick as “inexplicable.” Really only Gesine Borcherdt chastised Schafhausen in the pages of the art magazine Monopol, lambasting the colorful partitions of Gillick’s naively chic “designer art” as inadequate to the pavilion’s own peculiar architecture, a legacy-in-ruins of the 20th century’s most devastating social utopia. Of course such arguments have been made before, and in countless German cultural contexts — the country is guilt-ridden by an inescapably heavy history, drawing any and every expression of national pride into self-critical light, be it incessant flag-waving at art fairs or pan-European football contests.
Liam Gillick is certainly not the first non-German artist to tackle the Nazi-retrofitted pavilion: Nam June Paik took home a Golden Lion together with Hans Haacke in 1993, though the Korean artist was teaching in Düsseldorf at the time. But the non-YBA, young British artist’s connections to Germany are more negligible. Gillick lived in the country for only a very short while, in Berlin; he has exhibited at Kunstvereine in Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Munich, and the title of his first major solo show in London riffed on the German concept of Holzweg (“The Wood Way,” Whitechapel Gallery, 2002). Perhaps more importantly, Gillick is a close friend of Schafhausen (who is German, though he directs Witte de With in Rotterdam). In February, the pair spoke at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof in a triple-header lecture obliquely intended to clarify the curatorial choice. To a crowded hall of art professionals and art history students, Schafhausen cited Gillick’s investigation of the construction of history and the grimmer realities of social utopias. Then, gesticulating emphatically, Gillick delivered his signature pseudo-academic artistic agenda, while alluding only loosely to his participation in the Venice Biennale: “…[Art] is nurtured and encouraged via cultural permission to be the space for what cannot be tolerated, but can be accommodated under the conditions of neo-liberal globalization. This is its strength and its weakness.”
So the Achilles heel of conceptual art here — specifically, that which falls under the category of ‘relational aesthetics’ — naturally hinges on Gillick’s concrete contribution in Venice, a topic until now kept largely under wraps. By letting the proverbial cat out of the bag, the significance (or insignificance) of the matter of his nationality can perhaps be properly resolved. As an artist, Liam Gillick generates as much heavily-theorized rhetoric as he does work, frequently referencing architecture and architecture’s ill-fated pursuit of a teleological totality. His prolific writing practice follows logically from this — the work Erasmus is Late (1995) and the unfinished Robert McNamara are actually stories. A companion to Gillick’s Venice presentation is the catalogue-cum-user’s guide How are you going to behave?: A kitchen cat speaks (Sternberg Press, 2009), which serves as both a well-styled document and a component of the show itself.
Gillick’s installation purportedly probes the functionality of the German pavilion, a triumphantly oppressive building containing neither kitchen nor bathroom. Past the brightly colored plastic curtain over the entryway stands an extensive expanse of newly-built, modular kitchen cabinetry. Its unfinished surface blends more or less blandly into the pale stone of the pavilion, and is arranged across the floor in a progression inspired by Viennese architect Margarate Schütte-Lihotzky’s 1926 Frankfurt Kitchen, which was designed to optimize household workflow. In addition to the catalogue’s installation views, the text of Gillick’s Berlin statement and Schafhausen’s foreword is the repetitious monologue spoken by the animatronic Cheshire cat perched atop Gillick’s cabinets. Altogether it seems a bit wacky, though Gillick himself cautions that his focus “is on production, not consumption.” Furthermore, he claims, “I am not trying to synchronise with a building or site, but attempting to overlay a set of concepts on top of the structure that functions as a structural alternative.” (It has been much remarked that Gillick does little to integrate the perspective of viewers, preoccupied as he is by often visually inaccessible secondary histories.)
Following on the heels of a tri-partite mid-career retrospective launched at Witte de With, and publication of the critical reader Meaning Liam Gillick, the performative banality of Gillick’s effort in Venice can be properly situated within the artist’s oeuvre. Gillick claims neither to adequately represent the country of Germany with his contribution, nor to have any interest in exhibiting under the jurisdiction of the Brits. His ever-enigmatic, parallel world therefore constitutes a completely un-heroic “corrective task” in relation to Germany’s own uneasiness towards its pavilion and its history. That the catalogue itself functions as a ‘pocket pavilion’ of sorts deemphasizes the monumentality still further. Gillick’s prose at times approaches the arcane, which ultimately obfuscates the point: Schafhausen’s commission is by no means provocative. With this conceptual experiment, Gillick and Germany adapt an outward semblance of subversion. Without articulating a definitively polemical view, however, they only temporarily ignore the rules of the game.
[Images: Installation view: Wie würden Sie sich verhalten? Eine Küchenkatze spricht. How are you going to behave? A kitchen cat speaks; La Biennale di Venezia 2009; Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte German Pavilion. Courtesy Liam Gillick]