Portrait of an Exhibition, part 1

Liam Gillick on art, acting and freedom.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Joanna Hogg's H in Exhibition, Liam Gillick, with Anne-Katrin Titze at Dolce & Gabbana: "Before the film happened, I've been thinking a lot about the problem of cinema. That's when the phone rang."
Joanna Hogg's H in Exhibition, Liam Gillick, with Anne-Katrin Titze at Dolce & Gabbana: "Before the film happened, I've been thinking a lot about the problem of cinema. That's when the phone rang."

I met up for coffee with the man who plays H in Joanna Hogg's Exhibition, to talk about his work as a first time actor, Cary Grant improvising for Leo McCarey with Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, Alain Delon with Maurice Ronet interpreting Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley in Purple Noon, and his newfound appreciation for the Grudge Match antics between Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone. Liam Gillick talked parallel lives, what cinema means to contemporary artists, and how it felt to become material. Robert Bresson and Hermann Hesse were assigned as homework by Hogg to prepare him for his role opposite Viv Albertine's D in Exhibition.

Liam had just arrived back in New York from Europe.

H - Liam Gillick - and D - Viv Albertine: "I think it doesn't matter because over a long relationship people start to not know each other."
H - Liam Gillick - and D - Viv Albertine: "I think it doesn't matter because over a long relationship people start to not know each other."

Anne-Katrin Titze: Joanna Hogg told me that she had planned for the couple in Exhibition to spend a long time together before filming would start. So that they really could get to know each other well. That didn't happen. You and Viv Albertine met only days before?

Liam Gillick: Exactly. But it's interesting, I think it's logical that she would have thought this. You would imagine you got two people playing husband and wife of 20 years, you'd need the actors, or non-actors, to spend time together to become a couple. I think it doesn't matter because over a long relationship people start to not know each other. They stop looking at each other. They become very parallel. Not always, but quite often. So the distance between us, as we didn't know each other before, was quite an effective way of showing this kind of distance that emerges in a real relationship.

I've known people who've been married for 20 years, 30 years, and you wonder how they ever met. In a way, there's a kind of dignity to that. I'm not sure it's always a bad thing. So by accident, Joanna got something good out of that, because if we had spent time together, we'd have tried to charm each other. There would have been a kind of chemistry. And I think for those people, there shouldn't be chemistry.

AKT: How did you get cast?

LG: To be honest, I have no idea.

AKT: Did you know Joanna?

Liam Gillick as H greets estate agent Tom Hiddleston: "It was such a great place to film."
Liam Gillick as H greets estate agent Tom Hiddleston: "It was such a great place to film."

LG: No. I didn't know anyone of the cast or crew. I've never had any interest in acting before. I'd never done it before. I'm much more interested in pre-production and post-production. Artists, contemporary artists, I think, they have to deal with cinema. It has so many things that art doesn't have - it has kind of a potential and a reach. The trouble is that for many contemporary artists who want to do cinema, they want to be a director.

They think because they direct paint, or their own art works, to direct, would be the thing to do. Before the film happened, I've been thinking a lot about the problem of cinema. That's when the phone rang. And I thought, bingo, the thing to do is to become material. Not to order people around but to be ordered around.

AKT: The words were scripted? Did you invent some of the dialogue?

LG: Sometimes. Joanna is so extraordinary. Right from the beginning she treated me exactly like the professionals that were around her. There was a great level of trust. The very first scene, she said, 'okay, go over to the kitchen and do something. Go!"

AKT: Cary Grant was given this kind of freedom, if you want to call it that, by Leo McCarey in The Awful Truth with Irene Dunne. "Open the door, greet the dog, say something" were his directions. Grant supposedly hated that freedom.

LG: It suits me. As an artist, like an art-artist, I spend my whole time questioning my freedom.

AKT: You said you see acting differently now. Any acting that caught your attention since you have been acting?

H (Gillick) reading to D (Albertine): "The Steppenwolf character in the book is both of us in real life."
H (Gillick) reading to D (Albertine): "The Steppenwolf character in the book is both of us in real life."

LG: There's a ridiculous film that was made, maybe this year or last year, which has Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone playing ex-boxers [Grudge Match] who decide to have one final fight. I realised they were having such fun playing with the props of their own craft, that I was laughing hysterically on the plane watching it. One film that was transporting completely was, I think it was called Purple Noon (Plein Soleil). The first Talented Mr. Ripley, the French one from 1959 with Alain Delon. Of course, you can't stop looking at him. But it's the other guy, I can't remember his name.

AKT: His name is Maurice Ronet. I agree, he is great.

LG: Watching that film [directed by René Clément, based on the Patricia Highsmith novel] with two young men playing games with each other on a boat, it still has the mannerisms of 1950s cinema but it also has the lingering camera, the nonchalance of the new cinema that's starting to appear.

AKT: The book you are reading to D in bed is Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. How did that come about?

LG: Joanna suggested that I read two things. One was Bresson's Notes On The Cinematographer, which I read on the Sunday before we started filming, and the other was Steppenwolf, which I read during the film. The idea that we live in that very bourgeois area of London and our desire to define ourselves as different to that. The Steppenwolf character in the book is both of us in real life. She is both the light that attracts and also she is the character attracted to the light. And he is the one who wants to escape through alcohol and debauchery but he can't.

Liam Gillick having a Breakfast at Tiffany's moment
Liam Gillick having a Breakfast at Tiffany's moment Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: And the house you live in is so cosily nestled in the neighborhood. You lived there during filming, right?

LG: I lived there as much as I could. I actually liked it. I mean, you would have done it too. It had a great library. It had a little swimming pool. It was such a great place to film. When they said at the beginning that it's possible to stay in the house, that was the biggest acting I had to do. I pretended to be not interested.

AKT: You say the line "we can do whatever we want." It's difficult, if you can do whatever you want and everything is possible, you have to make a lot of choices.

LG: That line came from me. The revelation for me was by being material, I could then use all the things I know as an artist. Strangely enough, I would become one of my own artworks.

AKT: Are you now interested in being material again?

LG: I think it's like the Cary Grant problem. I don't have any illusion - it's a very particular kind of filmmaking. It's a really fantastic piece of work, but part of this brilliance is Joanna and her tolerance and her degree of focus.

A few days earlier, at the after party for Woody Allen's Magic In the Moonlight premiere at Harlow, I chatted with Dolce & Gabbana president Federica Marchionni. She had sent me an invitation for a reception happening later that morning.

AKT: Would you like to join me at Dolce & Gabbana for a reception to meet the AC Milan Football Club?

AC Milan Football Club in Dolce & Gabbana
AC Milan Football Club in Dolce & Gabbana Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

LG: I was actually going to paint the inside of my cupboard doors.

AKT: Well, you could do that after leaving the soccer team.

LG: I wouldn't feel like it. I would think, why the hell am I doing this?

On our ride uptown to Dolce & Gabbana's Fifth Avenue store for the AC Milan reception, Liam told me that Truman Capote once lived in his building in New York, so we stopped in front of Tiffany's for an Audrey Hepburn moment.

In part 2, we look at the power of the feet, a crisis in representation, the influence of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, how Valie Export and early Marina Abramovic informed Viv Albertine's portrait of the artist, Ed Rutherford's cinematography and Liam's future in acting.

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