• Artworklying on top of a building the clouds looked no nearer than when I was lying on the street
  • ArtistLiam Gillick
  • Completion2009

Liam Gillick

lying on top of a building the clouds looked no nearer than when I was lying on the street

This passage, in the artist’s signature choice of Helvetica bold, occupies floor five through 22, provides a demarcation between the hotel and the additional 25 floors of luxury residential suites above. The two-foot high letters stand proud on the building’s exterior along narrow concrete fins that sharply turn to accentuate the building’s most public corner.

When viewed from the street, the letters reflect the surrounding buildings and shifting colours of the changing Vancouver sky. Directly adjacent to the Shaw Tower, The Fairmont Pacific Rim sits beside Vancouver’s newly minted convention centre and adjacent to the site of the Olympic flame, part of a civic epicentre that took hold, albeit temporarily, in the early winter of 2010.

Significantly, the site is a mere eight blocks – approximately one kilometre – west of the Woodward’s Building. Over this relatively short distance a seismic demographic, economic and social shift occurs, more pronounced and dramatic perhaps than any other urban area of North America. The move from the block east of the Woodward’s Building towards the Fairmont Pacific Rim brings a precipitous swing from an area with concentrated and graphic social problems to one where the most prestigious and expensive condominium addresses in North America sit comfortably within an area of high-end restaurants, office towers and five-star hotels.

The Fairmont Pacific Rim is a hop and jump from Woodward’s, but a world apart. The choice of British artist Liam Gillick to create a public artwork for the Fairmont Pacific Rim site was predicated on his unique mixture of talents. Gillick is most well know for his “platform” sculptures – architectural structures made of aluminum and coloured plexiglass that, in a variety of geometric forms and installed idiosyncratically – in a room’s corners, jutting from walls, or hanging from ceilings – hover at a curious intersection of minimalist sculpture, sophisticated interior design and – at the opposite end of the spectrum – prosaic office cubicle or armature for a store display.

Gillick has an unguarded fascination with the rough intersections of high art and utilitarian urban and interior planning, and his work forms an interplay between elegant sculptural forms and integrated graphic design, offset with dense (and sometimes turgid) explanatory texts and elaborate historical back stories. Gillick emerged in the early 1990’s as part of a re-energized British art scene, a member of a generation of artists that emerged out of Goldsmiths College in London alongside such notable names as Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread. We now identify many of these artists under the rubric of the YBAs (Young British Artists), but Gillick avoided being corralled into this group, many of whose reputations were based on provocative and therefore newsworthy works like Hirst’s infamous preserved shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), or Emin’s notorious My Bed, (1998). It wasn’t until the mid-1990’s, after the YBAs had been popularized, that Gillick’s reputation began to establish with works that were more subtle and much more difficult to quantify.

Gillick’s art is, rather, often associated with an art movement defined by the term “Relational Aesthetics”, where in the 90s artists expanded on an idea circulating across the twentieth century that sought a more active role for art, not only as an object of contemplation, but as an ingredient, even an instigator of social situations and “relationships”. For such artists, the context of where art is shown (such as a gallery) is as vital an ingredient in shaping our perception as the art within it. Gillick’s chameleon-like platform sculptures exemplify this intersection. They inhabit a nuanced grey area where their roles as architectural room dividers, in distinction to their status as artworks, allows them to be imaginatively (if not usefully) absorbed into the daily mechanics of a building’s function. Similarly, Gillick’s large body of text-based artwork also inhabits a strange interstitial zone between art and advertising. Here the artist has written short phrases that read like aphorisms, much like we might see on billboards or ad copy, but through strategies of doubling, inversion, flipping, and the omission of spaces between individual words the phrases are rendered as architectonic and sculptural, pleasurable to look at while simultaneously dense, complicated and difficult to read without active decipherment.

When asked to propose a public art commission for the Fairmont Pacific Rim, Gillick suggested the use of such a text-based work, having recently completed a major commission for the Lufthansa Headquarters in Frankfurt, where he had mounted four large, circular text/sculptures on poles outside the airline’s corporate office complex. One representative text read:

“oneunitofenergyoneunitofoutput” (one unit of energy one unit of output), which, in mimicking corporate business-speak or a scientific maxim, otherwise offers no clue to what the “output” is nor what kind of “energy” is being used. Gillick’s commission for the Fairmont Pacific Rim is his largest public artwork, and may also be the largest artwork in Canada for sheer scale. Installed at the exterior base of each of the building’s first twenty-two floors, Gillick utilized laser cut text to create a vast set of (repeating) phrases across the building’s south and east sides. Viewable only by pedestrians, the text on the south side reads:

“lying on top of the building...lying on top of the building…lying on top of the building”. Rounding the corner we see the run-on phrase “thecloudslookednonearerthanwheniwaslyingonthestreet” (the clouds looked no nearer than when I was lying on the street). Here again is vagueness about whom the text is authored by or who might be its intended addressee, but unlike his work for Lufthansa, there is much clearer transparency about what is being articulated. The implication is that the view from the top of the building is from no greater or more privileged a position than from the street, a suggestive proposition to have on the face of a building whose business plan surely rests in creating just such a selling point for its prospective tenants.