I forget that sporadically posting for an awesome blog can be construed as arts journalism, and this pays off in many ways. One of these payoffs I got recently was being able to see a media preview of the MCA‘s two new shows: Liam Gillick: Three perspectives and a short scenario, and Jeremy Deller: It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq. Both Gillick and Deller were there, as well as MCA curator Dominic Molon.

Liam Gillick is completely charming Englishman who wore very nice shoes. The MCA is the last institution to host the exhibition, which was previously in the Witte de With in Rotterdam, Kunsthalle Zurich, and the Kunstverein in Munich in different manifestations.

Gillick began speaking by saying that he was curious as to how one could reinvent the midcareer retrospective. Instead of seeing the evolution of his work as a linear progress to be documented according to its timeline, he noted his own “promiscuity of ideas” and wanted to return to his own 17-year-old, suburban, pre-art aesthetic for this survey. Consumed at that time in his life with the legacy of acrchitecture and design, Gillick and curator Dominic Molon (through “dynamic argument and discussion”) created a space that is half carpeted and half concrete, separated by wooden screens. The normally milk white plexiglass ceiling in the gallery is replaced by multicolor plexiglass tiles. There is a vitrine with various posters, books, small designed objects, and publications, which is stunning to look at. Interestingly, Gillick likened this collection of paraphernalia to the experience of moving your home or apartment, and realizing you have so many things, and then realizing that you don’t want to be the sum of these things. There are only two small images hung on the wall, a hand drawn self portrait, next to a digital cubic image done by a German graphic designer. The portrait, which looks like a dopey school mascot, Gillick jokingly described as representing himself as well as all “verbose, self involved, white guy artists of the past 50 years”. The last piece in the room, which appeared incredibly sparse, especially for a retrospective, was a power point presentation set to a repetitive drum beat. Gillick spoke about how he created the drum beat, and then pulled one image at a time, pairing with each image one line of a story that he made up as he went along.

Jeremy Deller’s artist talk felt very different than Gillick’s. As the herd of us media folk slowly was lead into the room, Deller invited us to sit on the nice ikea furniture in the center of the space. There was a coffee table, there were tea and cookies, and mostly everyone was very uncomfortable being asked to sit down. A few martyrs sacrificed themselves and sat down, and then Deller introduced the project. In the space, there are the rusted remains of a car, exploded by a car bomb on Al-Mutanabbi, a street in Baghdad in 2007. This car was towed behind a truck on a six week trip that the artist, an Iraqi citizen, and a marine (that sounds like a terrible joke…) took across the country before the work was exhibited. The artists explains the trip, which was filmed, as a way to promote discussion about the war in Iraq with everyday people as the troup stopped in cities across the US. Also displayed is a huge flag by artist Ed Hall that says “It is what it is” in English, and an equivalent saying in Arabic below it. Painted on two walls are Iraq and the United States, on which the artist has proposed sister cities or twin cities, mimicking what France and Britain did after the second world war to foster community and dialogue between cities that had been in conflict.

The “main part of the show”, as Deller put it, was the lounge area, which will have various service veterans, Iraqi citizens, and academics available daily to engage in discussion with the public. The morning I was there, Iraqi translator and artist Esam Pasha was there, as well as economist and retired marine veteran Wesley Gray. Deller was very adamant that this was “not art”, but an exhibition, and wanted the conversations had to “be the art”. These conversations are not going to be recorded or documented in any way, which I think is kind of a bummer.

The questions from the media to the Wesley Gray and Esam Pasha were uncomfortable at times. When one person asked Gray (who is fluent in Arabic) how he learned the language (through a virtual reality video game), he spoke breifly about customs and signs of respect to the Iraqi people that he had to learn before shipping out. When another journalist followed up with Pasha asking how the people of Iraq were prepared for the American culture (rock music, hats, sunglasses), Pasha replied that they only learned to smile, raise their hands, and do what they were told. He said that the people with the guns are the ones in control. I think a huge success of this project is the civility of the “professionals” during the dialogue that was started. Esam Pasha, another marine veteran and Jeremy Deller were together nonstop for six weeks and could still sit down for a discussion on that day.

I genuinely respect Deller’s desire to create a space for an informed discussion to take place between strangers. We are taught in America that politics is one thing that you shouldn’t bring up at a dinner party, let alone with a stranger. What I think is bullshit, however, is Deller’s assertion that this project is “not art”. He stated this many times during his talk, raising examples like if it was an exhibit in a natural history museum we wouldn’t be calling it art. It kind of miffed me because it seemed as if he was saying that because it wasn’t art, it was somehow more than art, or more significant than art. He seemed to be implying that admitting it was art (hello, you have chosen to exhibit it in a contemporary art museum in a white walled room) would detract from the project, which I think is insulting.

Art or not art, decide for yourself. The calendar of daily talk schedules and speaker biographies for Deller’s project can be found here.

Three perspectives and a short scenario will be up until January 10th, and It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq
will be on view until November 15th.

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