All the Light is Just as Pale

Helmuts Caune

On the exhibition The Light Is No Brighter at the Centre by Liam Gillick, at the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius


The layout of most cities of today is, if not direct proof of, then at least a good illustration of the complicated relationship between functional architecture and notions of what is beautiful. The fact that city centres are dominated by that which is deemed to be classic, bright, and opulent, while the outskirts are subsumed by that what most call industrial, ascetic, and (often times) dirty, is, of course, partly due to spontaneous bursts of construction over time, but at the same time, it is comforting to that part of the collective consciousness that yearns for a world of mythological figures, ideal forms, and Apollonian order. This consciousness (which I couldn’t speak of had I not been, or were I still not, a subscriber to it) is peaceful enough while the core of urban life continues to run smoothly forward in harmony with said ideals, ensured that everything lying outside of it, even though it is quite repugnant, waits its turn in line for approval. The peace is slightly tipped off balance, however, every time the city’s centre acquires a divergently functional building made of glass and concrete.

To this consciousness, it does not seem to be a chance event that the urban dichotomy of ‘the centre vs. the outskirts’ corresponds to the much more primal dichotomy of light vs. dark, or at least light vs. dusk. This can be easily observed in those ‘light pollution’ maps and satellite images that can be found online; one can clearly see how the ever-shrinking non-urbanised regions are conceding to the hubs of illuminated civilisation. In these maps, the latter – be it Paris, Moscow, Tehran, Delhi, Cairo or Lima – look like electrified nerve cells where, at their most outer branchings, one can still see a clear border between the colours of yellow and dark blue, while at the centres there is just a monolithic swath of light. Although the usual objective of the propagators of these maps is to warn of the dangers that light pollution causes to bird migration or astronomical research, these maps can be (and are) perceived as evidence of the ‘enlightenment’ inherent to city centres.

The English conceptualist Liam Gillick, whose exhibition The Light Is no Brighter at the Centre is currently ongoing in the Main Hall of the Contemporary Art Centre (CAC) in Vilnius through January 14, has pondered this dichotomy. As one enters the almost completely darkened space – the size of a decent hangar – a trick is played upon one’s awareness. In the few seconds needed for your eyes to adapt to the dim light, your awareness perceives only vague objects in the middle of the room. At the moment in which the contours become sharper and the vague objects transform into the silhouettes of buildings, for a split second you are sure that – either from the vantage point of a lookout tower, the edge of a cliff, or the top storey of a building – you are really looking at a rundown neighbourhood on the fringes of a city. Only after a few seconds does the perspective-created illusion dissipate as it becomes clear that you are looking at about half-metre-high models of simple warehouse buildings. In Gillick's installation, the correct perspective, which in classical painting is achieved within the work itself, is achieved by placing the viewer at a correct distance and prohibiting them from coming any closer: a ground cover of sawdust encircles the models in a radius of a couple of dozen metres, which the viewers must orbit much like a racetrack. Constant monitoring by CAC staff ensures that no one dare take a step onto the sawdust, thereby ruining the perspective-reliant illusion. 

Liam Gillick. "The Light is no Brighter at the Centre". Photo: Andrej Vasilenko/CAC

You’ll see a lot by spending just a few minutes in the ‘racetrack’ zone: illuminated by two light bulbs, the industrial park made up of seven models of buildings appears to be enveloped only by quavering light and the sounds of silence – wind, crickets, and the hum of power lines. Suddenly, the visual and audio effects clearly indicate that a train is going through the industrial park. After a few moments, from the largest of the buildings we hear the techno music of a discotheque – apparently the industrial businesses have left the area and the local subcultures have taken over the abandoned buildings and set up night clubs in them.

It is precisely this last aspect that is the most tranquilising: for those who have been lucky enough to experience similar pop-up phenomena on the outskirts of Barcelona, Amsterdam, or Warsaw, the model’s enigmatic underground parties will bring up a pleasant sense of nostalgia; for me, it reminds me of something much more recent – the Zunda dārzs underground music festival that has taken place in Riga for the last two summers.

This ‘forced’ perspective and playing around with scale is very disarming: the instant you realise how you’ve been tricked, your awareness after hearing a good joke. You now have the urge to keep walking around the carpet of sawdust as you try to recall your first impression – one in which the distanced observation of an impersonal complex of functional buildings reminds one of material goods and the manufacturing process’s indifference to the social differences imagined by the people involved in the process.

Liam Gillick. "The Light is no Brighter at the Centre". Photo: Andrej Vasilenko/CAC

But perhaps in relaying this thought I have rushed too far ahead of it: however important the Marxist aspect in Gillick’s works is (and it is), it couldn’t be said to be automatically decipherable in the Vilnius exhibition. The trick with scale, firstly, creates the illusion of distance, and then, if the viewer can afford to spend a few minutes by the installation, it arouses a slew of the most personal associations one has with urban life. Nevertheless, visitors to the exhibition who have no previous knowledge of Gillick and his work may, at some point, ask: Is this it? Of course, it is very clever, and the nighttime noises and the approaching train is realistic enough that one can easily slip into the illusion and everything associated with it, but at the moment in which the illusion dissolves, the unprepared viewer may come to the conclusion that the renown Brit is swindling us in this Vilnius show, having thought to himself: ‘I’ll just throw these Eastern Europeans a bone to play with, and they’ll leave the museum happy and content.’ That’s because not everyone knows that, for more than twenty years now, Gillick’s creative work and study has focussed on the detritus created by capitalistic practices; leftovers expressed by not only an ocean of useless artifacts, but also in these sort of in-between spaces on the outskirts of cities and the way in which their inhabitants spend their waking hours.

To be fair, though, the installation does have elements that should lead one to think of this even without having any prior knowledge. First of all, there’s the absurd volume of sawdust used to co the area around the installation (it’s not easy to think of any other reason or event in the centre of Vilnius that would need a similar amount). It’s hard to identify this substance in the dusk of the exhibition hall; this can only be done if you’ve read the press release for the show...or if you can manage to crouch down and touch it while the staff aren’t looking. Sawdust, of course, is nothing more than a residue of the manufacturing process – the industrial process’s invisible part which often times exceeds the product in terms of about the same ratio as the installation’s surrounding carpet of sawdust eclipses the model buildings in its centre.

Secondly, there is the short film Construction of One, which is being screened as part of the exhibition in the small room adjacent to the museum’s Main Hall. It consists of footage of a German car factory in which a single car is constructed from recycled scrap metal. If the main installation allows one to observe industrial buildings from a distance, then the film takes one inside of them, into a territory where the aesthetic impressions and associations are completely different. Here there is no trace of wind, crickets, illuminated warehouse yards, or distant techno music; the urban romanticism that such a place invokes is no more. Everything that deals with the construction of an automobile is too colourful, sterile and synthetic; in the film, an anonymous computer works with a just-as-anonymous worker as each one completes their strictly protocoled duties in the various stages of making a car. The film is silent; it exclusively affects only one’s visual perception, although, at times, I thought I not only heard the grinding of gears but also smelled a cocktail of paint and motor oil. And to ensure that the viewer’s ‘vestibular apparatus’ doesn’t become bored, Gillick projects the film as two adjacent mirror images of one another.

Scene from the short film "Construction of One" (2016). Photo: Andrej Vasilenko/CAC

Thirdly, there is Gillick’s short story Workplace Aesthetics Might Not Be Enough, which has been printed as a small-format book that one can pick up for free at the entrance to the exhibition. The cover has been wonderfully designed in a late-90s WordArt style that is just as impersonal as a computer assembling a run-of-the-mill BMW. As Neringa Bumblienė, the exhibition’s curator, explained to me, this text is an organic part of the show and it’s worth reading it before you head into the Main Hall. It’s difficult to imagine a modern-day museum visitor who has the patience to sit down and read eight pages of text once they’ve arrived (I read the story myself only later, at home), but I must admit that Bumblienė’s recommendation has a point. The story tells of a dystopian world in which, after an unspecified but implied global catastrophe, a factory’s workforce moves into the factory’s building and begins a collective, apathetic, and thoroughly bureaucratic dismantling of the building and equipment now found under their care. There is something unpleasantly familiar in the lifestyle and actions of the story’s characters, and this impression deters one from observing the distanced edge-of-the-city landscape with a resigned and guarded look typical of one who lives in the city’s centre. The people in the story sleep in the factory at night; in the real world, buildings no longer needed for industry have also found a way to keep on living, e.g. by turning into nightclubs. 

Booklet containing the short story "Workplace Aesthetics Might not be Enough" by Liam Gillick. Photo: Andrej Vasilenko/CAC

The short film and the story create two different sources of vexation: one is aesthetic while the other is socio-economic. And it is specifically these, in my opinion, that create the necessary dichotomy relative to the romantic feelings aroused by the installation. Because, forgive me, but existentialism is romanticism: with the aid of Camu’s literature and Hopper’s paintings, the humans of today have found a way in which to place the ugly, forgotten edges of the city – with all of their scrap metal, used tyres, plastic rubbish, and sawdust – into their romanticised, centric world order. It is all justified away as simply being the honourable endeavors we get in a world without god. Once again, capitalism has found a way in which to support and justify itself by using such expressions of thought that were, originally, opposed to it. The light in the centre is not brighter after all, but even the cold and white light spilling from the lanterns outside the factory hangars doesn’t really illuminate anything: in the best case, it only lulls us into an all-accepting slumber...much like the discotheque in the abandoned warehouse. And Liam Gillick, with all due respect, does not aim to moralise: the various elements of the exhibition only offer up different perspectives on the by-products of capitalism. And the distance between these perspectives seems just as insurmountable as the swath of sawdust that the weary, minimum-wage-receiving staff of the museum receive for guarding it.

Liam Gillick. "The Light is no Brighter at the Centre". Photo: Andrej Vasilenko/CAC

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