Is Liam Gillick a writer? That is, would it be correct to label him “artist and writer?” He takes a description of Paul Chan as an “artist and activist” to raise a question about the “border or limit” of being an artist today. The difference exists but in an unclear way. Perhaps reflecting this, Gillick’s writing is often unclear in a specific way: unclear about who is speaking and on whose behalf? He repeatedly begins his sentences with the words “There is” but what follows leaves the reader in doubt as to whether Gillick really intends to report on an objective situation. Rather, he appears to be registering a belief or consensus, but who holds this belief, participates in this consensus? Is Gillick among them? Or does the belief belong to “them” out there? Just one example: “There is, in the forefront, the question of how much to produce and when rather than what to produce.” Maybe, but who’s asking? This elision of the writer’s position would have horrified the George Orwell who wrote, “Politics and the English Language,” an essay I love to hate, and therefore it intrigues me. But then I remind myself that Orwell had a point, and that this quasi-bureaucratic impersonality might conceal a scam. Or maybe it’s just sloppy. Or maybe it’s just to be enjoying as a ventriloquist’s act that’s all the more virtuosic for the lack of a dummy. But still, it comes as such relief when Gillick finally comes out and takes something like a distinct stance in the first person — for instance, “We should be more interested in reclaiming the speculative as a critical problem and using displacement as a tool toward taking it apart.” No matter that you might be puzzled as to what he actually wants us to do. Trying to think it through feels good. Gillick’s pointillistic historical narrative of contemporaneity is full of fun facts (did you know the Hell’s Angels started in 1948?) and untenable dicta. Runaway metaphors rebound off heaped generalizations, and yet an attractive humor is in play. Gillick knows that we know that he knows that he’d rather be brilliant than convincing. His critique of what he dubs “the complete curator” applies to himself as well: “The discursive has become formalized within a frame that engulfs and diminishes critique simultaneously,” and “research becomes any reading and could include any work.” There is no abstraction that he can’t take to the second degree: “discourse” becomes “the discursive,” “curating” becomes “the curatorial,” “speculation” becomes “the speculative,” etc. Still, though Gillick’s overview of contemporary art cites hardly any actual artists or artworks, he gives the impression of being shrewdly sensitive — if I can borrow Hyperallergic’s slogan — to art and its discontents, and that’s why, despite everything, I like and have learned from this book. Gillick’s conceit of tracing the contemporary across four key dates — 1820, 1948, 1963, 1974 — should probably be seen as an arbitrary organizing device to sort the more-or-less-now into distinguishable parts. And why not? As he says, “to be an artist is to be convivial with history.”

Liam Gillick’s Industry and Intelligence: Contemporary Art Since 1820 (2016) is published by Columbia University Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...