Industry and Intelligence: Contemporary Art Since 1820 Liam Gillick 192 pp, Columbia University Press, 2016
From the first page of the book, Liam Gillick’s Industry and Intelligence: Contemporary Art Since 1820 runs rings around the reader. Compiled from a series of Columbia University lectures, Gillick structures the book around his ‘soft revolutions’: events in 1820, 1948, 1963 and 1974 (xi). These chapters seek to explain how ‘contemporary’ art is influenced by ‘soft revolutions’ in systems of production and thought. From the European nationalisation of industry in 1948 to the invention of twenty-four hour news stations in 1974, Gillick proposes that art history should look at smaller shifts in technological development, rather than conventional historical landmarks such as world wars. Scattered amidst these genealogical chapters, Gillick muses about the ‘abstract’, ‘projection’, curating and the idea of work. Conceptually, Gillick sets out a creative, new lineage, which supposedly promises to add rich historical context to contemporary art. However, irresponsibly superfluous language and ideas dizzy the reader beyond comprehension.
The book begins with a deconstruction of the term ‘contemporary’, which Gillick argues de-politicises all art, as ‘[m]oving against a stream is a problem, for the stream goes in every direction’ (11). He states that ‘contemporary’ as a term flattens art, a process particularly perpetuated by ‘auction houses, galleries and art history departments’, institutions to which he positions himself in opposition to (3). However, whilst it is important to avoid flattening any historical moment, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, Modernism are just historical descriptions, and it would be the fault of the interpreter to homogenise those involved. It is wilfully naïve and reductive to state that the ‘contemporary’ is automatically depoliticised.
Furthermore, the book appears as a rant against art historians. Gillick has a history of run-ins with the academy. In 2004, art historian Claire Bishop’s article ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’ criticised curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s utopian thinking behind the exhibition of Relational Aesthetics, a ‘participatory’ art movement of the early 2000s. Bishop argued that a challenging ethos of artistic practice is fundamental to democracy. She criticised Gillick’s own artwork: ‘[f]or Gillick the task is not to rail against such institutions, but to negotiate ways of improving them’.1 Gillick famously responded to this article, likening her writing to that found ‘in a right-wing tabloid newspaper’.2
In this context, this book reads like a weak response to a fourteen-year feud. Repeatedly stating the importance of the artist and undermining the works of art historians, Gillick seems to be on the defensive. But in this effort, Gillick over-complicates, convolutes, and darts from one thought to another. Placing his own work, a still from Hamilton (2014), on the cover of the book, and padding out the centre with fifty images of other works, on first appearance Gillick seems to place art at the forefront of his book. However, he fails to actually write about any art. Whilst shunting the reader from one disparate year to another, Gillick fails to contextualise these specific ‘soft revolutions’ within actual contemporary art. Perhaps the reader is supposed to guide themselves to the centre of the book to look for examples. Indeed, Gillick once claimed that his ‘[art]work is like the light in the fridge; it only works when there are people there to open the fridge door’.3 But here, the logic is impossible to follow. Between the lack of examples, dizzying array of images, and unintelligible paragraphs, the reader cannot even find the light switch.
Industry and Intelligence is at its best when Gillick succinctly brings together his ‘soft revolutions’ with the contemporary moment. For example, chapter eight states that ‘[t]he year 1963 set up a sequence of bounding ideas that point toward our time’ (62). Gillick discusses how the ‘presented self ’ began to ‘push back … against [the] dominant fiction’ (62). However, the specificity of the years, 1820, 1948, 1963 and 1974, here becomes clearly a gimmick. The idea of the self-conscious artist was developed long before 1963. Furthermore, despite focussing on the particular year, Gillick later slips, saying ‘this period’. In his very effort to de-homogenise contemporary art, looking at specific years for historical context, Gillick trips himself up by oversimplifying the genealogy of art. He often loses all specificity and continually makes totalising statements, such as ‘contemporary art can be understood psychologically as a form of collective bargaining’ (45).
The book lies somewhere between Marxist theory, art criticism and a stream of consciousness. It comes across as an act of academic posturing, past the point of substantial comprehension. Gillick closes the book with a quote from Nani Moretti’s film Caro Diario (1993), which states ‘I believe in people, but I just don’t believe in the majority of people’ (238). This exclusory statement seems to capture the crux of the book. Industry and Intelligence fails to make any productive contribution to the field because of Gillick’s wilful exclusion of a wider readership. He seems determined to prove himself at the cost of the reader.