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From Quebec 1907 to Stockholm 2000
What If We Attempted to Address That Which Seems So Apparent? 2000 
Liam Gillick

Catalogue text for exhibition What If. Art at the verge of architecture and design, Moderna Museet, Stockholm

The exhibition What If. Art at the verge of architecture and design was curated by Maria Lind at the Moderna Museet in 2000. The exhibition structure was the result of a close collaboration between Maria Lind and myself. This text was one of the final catalogue texts. The catalogue was designed by Pae White and consisted of loose texts in a box.

‘I’m on the ground, looking at the back of the van, which is now pulled off the road and tilted to one side. This image is clear and sharp, more like a snapshot than a memory. There is dust around the van’s taillights. The license plates and the back window are dirty. I register these thoughts with no thought of myself or my condition … I look down and see something that I don’t like: my lap appears to be on sideways, as if my whole lower body had been wrenched half a turn to the right.’ (1)

Details are always registered, whatever the conditions: even in more comfortable environments than the side of a road in Maine, with the bones in your left leg feeling like marbles in a sock. Summer in Stockholm and a group of people are sitting in a room. (2) There is a feeling that they might be about to be run over by just one of the characteristics of their work. Is the final irony the fact that a group of people who resorted to an expanded frame of references without remembering to keep their distance will find that they are brought back down through a limiting perception of that territory as the first and the last defining character of their work? Does this mean that architecture and design value is stronger than the perception of art value? Do any of the people in this exhibition really think about these things more than they think about power, environment, politics, ideology or pleasure?

Back to the room. The furniture is straightforward and designed in favour of the mutable function of the small semi-glazed room. High windows looking out over the water on one side, and full height glazing dividing the space from the rest of the building’s interior. Maybe there was one big table but it might have been many small tables pushed together. Some of the people are known to each other while there are two or three who know some but not everyone. You can’t smoke in this room, which is fine for a while, and for those who don’t, but it means that the discussion that is going to take place here will be interrupted intermittently by the need to leave and take a break. But of course this is Stockholm in summer so any excuse to leave the room is rewarded by some sun or at least the vision of people appreciating the potential of a fine day.

There is a conceit to discuss – a need to address something that appears to be a base or an endpoint for the activities of some of the people here. Yet the centre of the focus is an aspect of the work that is normally passed by in favour of a search for what might be going on beyond, behind and before. The apparent concern for architecture and design is just a framework for a lot of other concerns, not least concerns about art and its histories. It is arguable however, and this is maybe the real starting point, that there has been a complete merger of a sense of architecture and design with everything: chains of American-derived food and drink outlets, the most banal banking experience and the collapse of generic clothing retailers in favour of specialisation and phantom-design. We are forced to accept architecture and design, or at least a display of an ironic awareness of the two in order to mitigate our distrust of certain structures at every moment that we are invited to consume, interface or register. So art on the verge of architecture and design might be extrapolated out towards artists as equally aware of the awareness of architecture and design within a post-industrial environment as everybody else.

Sub-titles will appear later, but for now there is just the requirement to sit and think about the implications of the interface between all three, and by association the connection between the three and the thousands of other micro-disciplines that shape our understanding of the built world. This is not a question of collaborative sensibilities across disciplines, but replacement strategies. There is no appropriation or picturing here, but a desire to occupy the same loaded spaces that would otherwise be left to the mediation of others; of consultants, focus groups and the architects of the refurbished corporate image. Yet there is a problem, and one that is hard to overcome. There is a feeling in this small room that there is no intentional focus upon such a meeting of activities at the heart of the work being made by these people. Some may have built a house, others may have lit one, yet all the points being made in every case have as much to do with a challenge to design and architecture as they have to do with an embrace for something just alongside art. The phrase ‘scepticism and enthusiasm’ comes up much later on, but it would be a good way to describe the mood in this room. Most of the people here are concerned with all the aspects of the built world; the decision-making processes that kick-start such constructions and an analysis of the debris and traces that are left behind. So maybe we should be addressing ‘art against architecture and design’, (3) maybe the exhibition should be rooted in negotiation of the three but never mention this fact in the title of the show. Ideologies need to be reassessed here; after all, most of the artists are involved in a negotiation of ideologies rather than a reassessment of the best way of making a place to hang out in. But hanging out might carry an accentuated significance in the context of a museum, so it is worth thinking about. An adult exhibition. That might be good. Not just a place for passing the time in, but a collection of negotiated objects and activities that reclaim an area that is claimed and claimed again then, and turned over and re-framed and re-claimed once more while constantly mutating and moving out of reach.

Maybe there is a real problem here, akin to mounting an exhibition called ‘Art on the Verge of Paint and Canvas’, maybe the implication of the potential connection is too closely rooted in an image of materiality rather than the potential of exchange and construction. The problem might be that there is a projection of a set of thinking that appears to take architecture and design as a subject for the art under consideration here. And that would be a mistake. So, people in a room by the water, why don’t you go outside once more for another cigarette and think about whether it is useful to look at a series of artistic positions where there seems, at least on the surface, to be an intermingling of formal and functional references and see if there is a way to play with this, making it both the centre of the project and taking pleasure in the fact that it is merely the first and last thing to see. As before, it might be interesting to step to one side, create a thin shell over a destabilised core. The references might take care of themselves. The focus doesn’t have to be on the subject at hand, that might just be a convenient institutional tool and a smokescreen to allow the people in the show to keep playing. Don’t think about styling for the moment, and just consider the differences and the dysfunctional opposites of at least two factors at any given moment. Are there moments when the conceit collapses? Where is there literal collapse at the interface of art, architecture and design? What is unique about the place where these three aspects of our built world meet? Where is the crisis and how can you isolate each activity in order to find some common area by default? What about a new sub-title, ‘Everyone on the verge of architecture and design’?

It is arguable that with the advance of mid-century modernism and the attendant Greenburgian focus upon the thing and the technique rather than what was brought to the art by the viewers intellect, ideology or beliefs, we experienced a continuing projection and creation of the artwork as a source of potential emanating from its very materiality. Such a process was not surprising, for with the secularisation of art in general there had developed an increasing displacement of the viewer’s own ideas across to the viewer’s necessity to absorb the ideas of the artist and the potential of the art itself. In other words, the viewer’s knowledge of theology and sense of belief was brought to art when it was primarily in the service of religion, and the reduction of that gift of the viewer complicated the relationship between the user and the producer from the very moment that such a relationship broke down. Architecture and design working alongside art and feeding in and out of it, suffered a concurrent hollowing out as potential carriers of profundity. Buildings and design were actual, potentially functional and within the art discourse worked mainly as a default factor that could be utilised as a judgement tool against which to define what art might be. It was common to judge the success or failure of a painting in relation to its escape from decoration and design, and a sculpture in terms of its avoidance of theatricality and by disassociation from architectural tendencies. It is arguable that terms like ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ mean something subtly different to an artist and an architect, and nothing at all to some designers. So we are faced by a crisis of analysis as much as by a crisis of form, structure or intention. Architecture and interior design were starved of the application and search for meaning and profundity while art on the other hand suffered from an excess of potential and a perceived lack of significance. This doesn’t mean that the analysis of either area was retarded, just that the understanding of terms and analysis are different and emerged, interacted and diverged at many non-synchronised moments. One thing is for sure, What if is not going to be amorphous. No blobs and only a few curves. It is grid based not body based. Locked and squared off rather than following the conceit that people are rounded so things should be rounded-off too. There could be a weakness here, but it is one that those in the room are aware of.

‘Given the absolute rift that had opened between the sacred and the secular, the modern artist was obviously faced with the necessity to choose between one mode of expression and the other. The curious testimony offered by the grid is that at this juncture he tried for both. In the increasingly de-sacrilized space of the 19th century, art had become the refuge for religious emotion; it became, as it has remained, a secular sort of belief. Although this condition could be discussed openly in the late-19th century, it is something that is inadmissible in the 20th, so that by now we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence … The peculiar power of the grid, its extraordinarily long life in the specialized space of modern art, arises from its potential to preside over this shame: to mask and to reveal it at one and the same time.’ (4)

In our case, the grid, the line and the use of interior fittings, curtains, lighting and the arrangement of objects, is grid-related but not grid-shame related. For artists, along with most other inhabitants of Western industrial countries have even abandoned spirit, that last remaining legacy of religion, so it is no suprise that art and spirit are not mentioned in the same sentence, as spirit and anything else are barely mentioned in the same sentence outside the charlatanism of new-age escapism. At best What If is an acknowledgement of the potential of art as a vector for the rapid passing, circling and returning of the built world and its analysis within the context of an art making that attempts to occupy the small spaces between other more clearly defined set-ups. There is some sentimental attachment here, not to the more strident claims of the heroic architect or focused designer, but towards those who care for, occupy and adjust those spaces that were built in response to necessity and the desire to construct something better, but are now under the constant modification of everybody. There is little ironic acknowledgement of the perceived failures of modernism here, nor an overt reliance on a kind of corrupted psychological theorising that forces you towards a barely acceptable suppression of a responsive way of working in relation to the built world around us. We are faced with some applied art and some art applied to a place. All this will tell us as much about the other art histories in the museum as it will about the sub-title of the show.

So focus on the process of construction, bring things down to the level of need, ambition and reach. Rather than treating the built world as a picture, it could be more useful to decode the basis for its individual fabrications and its attendant tragedies. The implications of a major structure and the reasons for such a thing to exist in the first place might be well understood by some of the people in this room. They might be more interested in the decision making process than the image of the finished production itself. They certainly want to take part, not be involved in a separation willed onto an art that can only define itself by its difference. Stand back for a second and think of a specific example, not one that could come up in the room, but something that shouldn’t be over-looked. Keep in mind the functionality, the hubris and the potential of architecture to be a disaster in a way that art rarely can.

There is a story about an attempt to cross an expanse of water, yet still allow river traffic to pass by unhindered by the structure. By 29th August 1907 the Quebec Bridge was cantilevering out across the St Lawrence River. There is an image of the South arm stretching out high above rocks while the river surface is rendered smooth and seemingly abandoned by the long exposure of the camera. A naked skeleton pitched out and arching away from a modest stone base set into the water. Cranes and scaffolds swung out even further from the cross-braced structure.

‘ … the whistle blew to end the day’s work at 5.30 p.m. According to one report, 92 men were on the cantilever arm at that time, and when “a grinding sound” was heard, they turned to see what was happening. “The bridge is falling,” came the cry, and the workmen rushed shoreward amid the sound of “snapping girders and cables booming like a crash of artillery.” Only a few men reached safety; about 75 were crushed, trapped or drowned in the water, surrounded by twisted steel. The death toll might have also included those on the steamer Glenmont, had it not just cleared the bridge when the first steel fell. Boats were lowered at once from the Glenmont to look for survivors, but there were none to be found in the water … In the dark that evening, the groans of a few men trapped under the shoreward steel could be heard, but little could be done to help them until daylight.’ (5)

What if The title might appear to allude to some other project, but in this case it is a malleable working title, it will do for now, and during the discussions it forms a useful function as it is not readily said, spoken or mentioned. It is an OK phrase, but one that feels odd when articulated. What if a working title. What if the telegram about the bridge had been delivered that day ordering work to cease immediately? What If: Art on the Verge of Architecture and Design, and engineering and the desire to cross an expanse of water and ideology and social structures and everything else. What if without a question mark, so not what if the bridge fell down, but something more neutral. Just what if.

The people in the room decide to stick with the title for now or at least they take the curator’s silence as a signal that the title is staying, happy with something that they feel uncomfortable saying (the title, that is). The title and the sub-title are not specific to this exhibition. They allude to the thing that might be immediately apparent about some of the work on show, the title and the sub-title address something that is certainly there but it is not the reason why any of the work gets made.

A year after the Quebec bridge collapsed, and a new book was published: ‘Nowadays everyone is more or less an artist,’ observed the popular writer Emile Bayard in a guide to good taste published in France in 1908. In Bayard’s view, and that of decorative arts reformers, fashion journalists, and advertisers of the era, the bourgeois home had become the epicenter of a new aesthetic democracy in early-20th century France.’ (6)

So we have something to re-start with, a way to assess the way art began to reconstruct its self image in relation to its lost centre, its split from organised religion, patronage and craft. Yet such a dynamic shift could not survive the gendering of the relation between what became high art and domestic design. The industrialisation and co-option of all creative activity relegated one aspect of our built world to a precisely determined and defined shadow. The emergence of the bourgeois home as a site for possession and display was challenged by the rise of rationalist architecture and design. A home as a machine for living in during a time when extraordinary statements could still be made about the difference between the feminine domestic and the potential of the hard edged neo-industrial.

‘One can see these same business men, bankers and merchants away from their businesses in their own homes, where everything seems to contradict their real existence –rooms too small, a conglomeration of useless and disparate objects, and a sickening spirit reigning over so many shams … and absurd bric-à-brac. Our industrial friends seem sheepish and shrivelled like tigers in a cage … We claim in the name of the steamship, of the airplane, and of the motor-car, the right to health, logic, daring, harmony, perfection.’ (7)

And more from Wyndham Lewis in 1914: ‘the modern city man in his office is probably a fine fellow - very alert, combative, and capable of straight, hard-thinking, but in his villa in the suburbs is reduced to an invalid bag of mediocre nerves, a silly child.’ (8)

And it is beyond doubt that such a division and gendering of activity is thoroughly challenged by all the people in the room and everyone in the exhibition, not in a didactic way but in daily practice. The challenge to the division is not a question of high and low artistic activity but an embrace of the potential of the built world without the need to confine that world to binary judgement systems. Everything is negotiated here.

Leaving the room, there is nearly a year left to go and think about other things, while simultaneously working on exactly the kind of projects that What if assumes as part of its base and its potential. And some things are a little more clear now. An acknowledgement of trauma, collapse and destruction as something to be passed by. A suppression of the quotidian and the everyday without forgetting the challenge of its embrace within an art context. There is some play, in fact a great deal of play. Much scepticism and enthusiasm and some things that will just be collected together to make a point. And no-one is quite sure at this early stage how the whole thing will look. A year later the sense of the show is quite clear but the potential functionality of the place is a little more corrupted than you might imagine. There is little chance for interaction but plenty of potential for pause and reflection. Maybe a structure has been put together that combines a parallel reflection of the potential of art to keep us aware of the way that architecture and design are shifting in terms of how they offer signatures to the banalities of re-branding, renovating, consulting, re-launching and development. The split between the domestic and the professional has been squashed into a mass of references that have all been absorbed and re-tangled by the artists here. The moment of judgement has been mixed into the soup of those multiple judgements that are made by all people at all times about all things, rather than restricted to the worlds of art. What if doesn’t make these things clearer, it merely opens up the gaps between art, architecture and design creating vast new spaces that require new negotiations at every step by all three disciplines.

(1) Stephen King, ‘On Impact, After an Accident, The Author had to Learn to Write Again’, The New Yorker, June 19 & 26, 2000.

(2) In the summer of 1999, Maria Lind invited a group of artists including Rirkrit Tiravanija, Jorge Pardo, Apolonija Sustersic, Jason Dodge, Miriam Bäckström, Liam Gillick and Tobias Rehberger to Stockholm to discuss the idea of an exhibition that would address the link between their work and architecture and design.

(3) An exhibition with this sub-title coincided with What if. It shared some of the same artists, notably Pae White who designed both accompanying publications. There is no formal connection between the two projects although the subtitle ‘Art Against Architecture and Design’ was also suggested by the author for What if.

(4) Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1985.

(5) Henry Petroski, Engineers of Dreams, Vintage Books, New York 1996.

(6) Lisa Tiersten, ‘The Chic Interior and the Feminine Modern: Home Decorating as High Art in Turn-of-the-Century Paris’, in Not At Home, The Suppression of Domesticity in Modern Art and Architecture, Thames and Hudson, London 1996.

(7) Le Corbusier, sourced from Not At Home.

(8) Ibid.