PRINT Summer 1992

News from Nowhere: Bond and Gillick

The very concept of beauty is tied to a sense of ethical urgency: Andres Serrano, for example, deals with it as an element of salvation, something that might redeem us from the ugliness of reality. And Jan Vercruysse speaks explicitly about the cathartic function that beauty recovers when it is tied to the sense of tragedy. Yet it must be admitted that, worked out in this way, the criteria of the beautiful and the ugly refer to traditional categories in which a harmony is sought that we know how to recognize and that governs the work. Discordant effects that manifest negativity will not fit into this schema.

The question of the ethical as it relates to much art today is less concerned with notions of beauty than with a possible relationship with the social and with an accompanying awareness that every element of this relationship must be integrally redefined. We begin not with knowledge but, precisely, in a state of ignorance: today we are addressing a community we no longer know anything about. And the tools we use to convince ourselves of its very existence speak to us, in reality, of its disappearance. The social becomes an abstract concept, only certain traces of which we can make concrete because the models of self-expression that it depends upon and makes use of reflect its alienation. A community is traceable but only as a rival subjectivity and as a conveyer of a specific need, and it bears with it an overriding awareness of division—into sexes, into ethnic groups, etc.—not the possibility of any unifying discourse.

The heroic actions of Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer, which spectacularize negativity, speak of this division; so do the antiheroic actions of Felix Gonzalez-Torres or Cary S. Leibowitz/Candyass, both of whom courageously assume a position of autobiographical melancholy and an unshakable stance before the spectacle. The third world of Alfredo Jaar, the “blackness” of Lorna Simpson, become the contents of an artistic practice that gives voice to the repressed; for both of these artists, decontextualization functions as a contradictory element between what is shown and the expressive tools employed. The formal issues that all these artists confront have no redeeming function, but are nevertheless revealed as ideologically conditioned and not necessarily consistent with the subject matter.

This is one way of debating the art system and its functioning; it is the least mystifying way of opening up that system to today’s social urgencies. Two English artists, Henry Bond and Liam Gillick, work in analogous fashion, by attempting to revive a relationship with the social from within the art world itself. Their activity is articulated in terms of both artistic and critical production and theoretical organization and elaboration. Although each has worked independently, they collaborated on the ongoing series “Documents,” begun in 1990—framed photographs with accompanying texts that question the truth of the artifacts of the information system.

In his own work Bond does not take photographs himself. Instead, he exhibits photographs rejected by clients of photo labs. Obviously, they are everyday images, documenting the most banal life-styles. These are appropriated to track esthetic values that common sense has rejected—the image is overexposed, say—or doesn’t pay attention to. What matters to Bond is the glimpse of a social dynamic “behind” the images that he chooses and then presents. His referent is an anonymous collectivity, whose expressive stereotypes he analyzes, in a manner similar to that of Gerhard Richter in his “photographic” paintings of the 1970s. The redefinition of the role of the artist that Richter undertook was based, to paraphrase Benjamin Buchloh, on the attempt to maintain a dialectical relationship within a given segment of a historical reality, criticizing a collective way of perception and expression with a formal, individual gesture.1 The work of Bond and Gillick is based on the awareness of the difficulty of confronting a similar dialectic today, in the era of the end of opposing ideologies.

The method adopted by Bond and Gillick in the “Documents” series has been developed with care. It involves the collaborators themselves, who are not sure whether to define themselves as artists or perhaps as something else; the object of their analysis, the segment of historical “reality” that is being reproduced; and even the method, which is determined by the object of investigation and shows the effects of the latter’s inability to be defined. Specifically, the two take on the roles of reporter and photojournalist—Gillick records the event in question, Bond photographs it. In this work of “mimesis,” the goal is simple (and pure) documentation of some media event. Most often, this is a press conference, which, offering prepackaged, official data about political, cultural, or ritual events, is a significant tool used by the state to control the dissemination of information. But Bond and Gillick have also documented an art auction, or the results of a trial, when the outcomes could not be predicted and therefore eluded official control.

What separates their work from “real” journalistic reporting is the presentation of the material thus recorded. The two artists reconstruct the event in question by randomly choosing a single image to represent it, and they accompany this with a fragment of taped discourse. There is, of course, no one interpretation that can be inferred from this data, which, at times, will show a particularly significant phase of the action and, at other times, the most inconsequential. Through their practice, the very concept of the “newsworthy” is brought into question—just as it is being articulated according to the dictates of the news profession.

If the actions of the affichistes of Nouveau Réalisme became emblematic of a collective desire for liberation, this occurred as a consequence of a concept of the social understood as a positive and reconciling principle—Baudelaire’s city “throng,” or the opposing class of the Marxist intellectual.2 Bond and Gillick’s referent is, instead, the information system, and in particular its mode of self-representation. They analyze a discursive structure that, by its nature, interprets and manipulates reality, and together they observe the prepackaged nature of the reality that is adapted for the most part to that structure. What is thematized in the “Documents” is the impossibility of establishing a concept of the social that does not pass through predetermined structures of self-presentation, that is, through alienating constraints. If the post-Modern “mass” begins as an entity that cannot immediately be known, it is necessary to elaborate strategies that will confront the mediations at work, beginning with the agencies through which the social begins to break into discourse. Bond and Gillick’s acts of pure registration are a cataloguing of effects that first of all refer to the modalities of their organization into a discourse on order. The reduction of this material to an absolute of banality, or inessentiality, takes on a transgressive value, or, to put it better, and as the artists themselves say: “The established power structures of the news media and its concentration on ‘sympathetic’ or ‘unsympathetic’ coverage is completely disrupted by the ‘Documents’ series and is brought into question in the work.”

Looking at the image-text pieces of Bond and Gillick we are witness to a sort of politics of our time, one that lends credence to attempts to speak of the social as it is revealed within the art system. Beyond the heroism of negativity, the whole notion of “the artistic” is put into question. The point of departure then becomes "the nonartistic (just as Theodor Adorno wanted) and the unknowing (the goal of Georges Bataille), a not insignificant gesture. For the fact that, today, the social infiltrates the artistic operation in the form of unknowing is the condition for its possible reappearance as historical subject.

Giorgio Verzotti is a writer who lives in Milan.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.



I. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regressions: Notes on the Return of Representation in Painting,” in Art After Modernism, ed. Brian Wallis, New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984, pp. 120–40.

2. Ibid., pp. 107–20.

All photos and accompanying texts are from Henry Bond and Liam Gillick’s “Documents.”


Auction of the contents of Robert Maxwell’s London home. Sotheby’s.

“I apologise for the extreme crush that you’ve got which of course is not of our making. Purchases can be cleared during the sale, that’s if you can get them out again. Facilities will be made to clear large items immediately after the sale. We’ve got a great deal to do this afternoon and I would remind you that the entire sale is without reserve, without reserve.”

Polish President Lech Walesa on state visit and meets Mrs. Thatcher and Neil Kinnock; speaks at young politicians’ conference; news conference at Polish Embassy.

“I don’t want to talk about history, but forgive me a small reference to history. We fought for a different Poland, we never wanted that system. in return for our struggle, that system was given to us. I prefer to put honour closer to the community. Because we were so honourable in struggle, we did not have any strength left for the country. When I engaged myself in the struggle against communism, western banks lended to the communists and much of their resource invested into things like bugging or security services that were used to harass us, were financed by that money. I don’t complain about that. That is business, but now Poland is free, Europe is free, and we can make it into something that will politically, militarily and economically benefit us all. And let me say it again, the taxpayers and the politicians, British and otherwise, have invested a lot into fighting communism. I want to make it possible to recover that. Poland and Eastern Europe have such possibilities, and I encourage that you recover those losses. You have mentioned the fifty percent reduction, it is the old debt that I mentioned. The way I see it, is like repairing the Polish car, those fifty percent. Anything about it like, five, ten percent like adding a wheel to the car, we have repaired the Polish car well together, but let’s make sure that it has wheels. The US has given a few percent more over the fifty percent, thereby giving us one wheel, France gave ten percent, it’s another wheel. The Germans may also give something and there is a problem with the British. We don’t have that fourth wheel.”