Rolling Boards

Liam Gillick: Construction of One

"In the meanwhile, though it must be confessed that he is both a very learned man, and a person who has obtained a great knowledge of the world, I cannot perfectly agree to everything he has related; however, there are many things in the commonwealth of Utopia that I rather wish, than hope, to see followed in our governments." (1)

Utopian Failure

Thomas More closed his imagined world "Utopia", published in 1516, with a pointer to the fact that it cannot be realised: as long as it is only possible to wish and not to hope, the "no place" (according to the etymological origin of the word) is in the remote distance. For his description of this dream state the author used a narrative form which later became popular: he has a friend describing Utopia in a kind of travelogue.

Liam Gillick refers to utopia in many of his works. He also tells of an attempt to realise such a thing in his text "Construcción de Uno" – and of its failure: (2) a "progressive" factory was shut down and its workers laid off. A short time later the unemployed workers find their way back to their workplace, reorganise their working procedures and make changes to the appearance of the building. They produce cars – a loose allusion to Henry Ford's production line – and at first the hierarchies of workers and management seem to have levelled out, they aim for an "economy of equivalence" (Gillick). However, it gradually becomes clear that the workers are only being used to usher in exploitative forms of work – they fulfil the function of "symbols of what could have been and what will soon be gone." And so the traditional production line procedure is brought back: the utopia of modernised work processes has failed and the system, with all its contradictions for those involved and subject to it, can only be maintained through self-deception:

"In time they [the workers] become incapable of seeing the collapses that surround them as they have found a way to alleviate the contradictions of their condition through a mass of paradoxes and mental games loaded on top of each other."

Blurred Relations

The story "Construcción de Uno" corresponds to pictures that museum in progress is presenting in three media in cooperation with "kunst im öffentlichen raum wien" ("art in public space vienna"): a series of images is running as a clip on infoscreens in underground stations, some of them are being printed in the daily newspaper "Der Standard". Tying in with the previous museum in progress poster exhibitions, rolling boards – which are not yet so common in Austria compared to Britain and the US – are being used at a total of 140 locations. These are mainly on busy through roads and main roads into Vienna and so are not least directed at commuters.

Liam Gillick has used posters from the former German Democratic Republic for his work: on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of its foundation the people were exhorted to swear to the values of the GDR just one last time – change had already been in sight for a long time. Gillick has worked on the posters in such a way that they appear blurred and out of focus, but at the same time dynamic, as if caught in a glimpse from a passing car. They complement one another using the principle of the rolling board which, considering the short attention span of a driver, is permanently in motion except for momentary pauses. (3)

The fragments of text which Gillick has printed on the images do not have an appellative effect like normal advertising messages but seem indecisive. Their aimlessness is emphasised by the three dots which normally refer to something beyond the actual statement – but something that cannot or should not be said so precisely. For instance "workers and farmers." stands over a profile of a person of indeterminate sex due to the lack of focus, and "my state." over a proletarian hero with a helmet who appears to have got into a whirlpool of concentric circles.

In the infoscreen presentation the alienated poster motifs slowly appear one after another – here too Gillick brings to mind a commercial advertising language. The messages are as interchangeable as they are universal: "tomorrow I will do the building.", "a secure future.", "everything for the happiness of the people." – who would want to reject promises like these? Admittedly there are no details of addressee or sender and the slogans, which are directed at everybody and could sell all sorts of things, (4) hang strangely in the air: in their generality they are not specific to any one target group. The GDR posters give nothing away about ways and means of fulfilling the promises but primarily proclaim a utopia. Gillick himself refers to the paradox that this was inherently difficult to refute: "The plea for peace, equality and socialism seems perfectly reasonable." (5)

Longing for the Collective – Collective Longings

One of the many ideals that the concretely existent socialism to a great extent shares with utopias such as Thomas More's original, but also later versions, is collectivism. Work and the distribution of goods take place in the collective, as do certain aspects of bringing up children. This topos also appears in Gillick's story – as a reason for the workers getting together again: "After some time they start to gather each day at the now abandoned production plant, drawn there by some sense of purpose and collectivism." And also after the wall came down or after fleeing the country, former GDR citizens have still positively recalled the experience of community. In Gillick's images some slogans – or groups of words – cross the individual with the collective, an act which represents a value in itself: "I am proud to be a citizen" for instance, or "my state" are phrases suggesting opportunities and the wish for a will to take part in shaping society – which nevertheless could not and was not to be realised either in socialism or the utopian ideals of the past: ultimately in both cases the system only works when everybody submits to it. The worker raised to hero status is replaceable and therefore only a model, a typus. Georg Lukács, later elevated to become a GDR cultural ideologist, put forward for art the "unity of the individual and the typical" which was intended to shape the "individual people" into "exemplary people". Only then could life be reflected in all its totality. (6)

Conversely the posters appeal to collective yearnings – for family, for security – that are typified in just the same way as Lukács' "exemplary people". Gillick's images show that it is exactly these types that are also taken up by the capitalist advertising industry. (7)

Problematic Alliances

The work takes on another component of content through its medium. Art appears disguised as advertising, smuggles itself between posters or advertisements intended to sell something and it only becomes clear at second glance that Gillick's images do not have that intention. Originally socialist/communist and thereby politically connoted subjects have an impact due to what initially appears to be a commercial aesthetic and the use of advertising space in capitalist media and styles – which, as Gillick remarks, mainly recycle the iconography of these campaigns:

"The visual language has been taken up today by corporations who also want to find a clean and pure way to sell products. In the USA specifically there is great use made of the shot of the farmer, the family or the child as a way to sell pharmaceuticals or banking."

"Construcción de Uno" thereby also alludes to the fact that politics and business today are entering ever narrower and more problematic alliances – politicians who present themselves like models are only one symptom of this and collapsing social systems the consequences of a development in which the economy is increasingly in a better position. In the GDR politics and the economy also became a single concept – even if coming from the other side.

With his complex images which are full of allusions and which are mixed together in the advertising media of business concerns, Liam Gillick gives an idea of the not always safe interaction between politics and business. He also points out that certain collective ideas and images in capitalist value systems do not greatly differ from those of socialism.

(1) Thomas More: Utopia, 1516. Quoted from the Project Gutenberg Etext of Utopia (p. 56) from the 1901 Cassell & Co. Edition.
(2) The story is based on what happened at a Volvo factory in Kalmar, Sweden in the 70s.
(3) "For me it is extremely important to be able to make use of completely contemporary forms of display. I think this is one of the most important things that MIP can do." (Liam Gillick, Interview, December 2004)
(4) "People passing by [.] probably thought they were ads for insurance or banking." (Liam Gillick, Interview, December 2004)
(5) Liam Gillick, Interview 12/2004.
(6) Georg Lukács: Art and Objective Truth (Kunst und objektive Wahrheit. Essays zu Literaturtheorie und -geschichte), Reclam Verlag, Leipzig 1977, p. 78 (in German edition).
(7) Liam Gillick, 12/04.