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Liam Gillick: the one-time Turner Prize nominee is making his acting debut in a new British film

A YBA makes an exhibition of himself

The artist and 2002 Turner Prize nominee Liam Gillick was in Spain when he received an email from a casting agent. His first thought was that someone wanted to use his artworks in a film. “I wanted to set them straight,” he recalls. “I was going to give them a lecture about how it was fake, that it’s not a commodity or something. So I called and this very nice lady asked if I could come to London, explaining about Joanna Hogg and whatnot. Oddly enough, I’d seen her films. And I don’t normally watch anything.”

The British director of Archipelago and  Unrelated, wanted the artist, a former YBA, now 50 and famed for his colour-coded Plexiglas and aluminium sculptures, to star in her third film. Intrigued, Gillick hopped on a plane to London on what he thought was going to be a weekend stop-off on his way back to his home in New York, where he now lives and works.

 “Joanna arrived and said, ‘Let’s get into a taxi.’ We went to Camden and there was Viv Albertine,” says the artist. “She said, ‘This is going to be your wife in the film and we start on Monday. So you have to decide whether you are going to do it or not.’ This was on Friday.”

The Slits guitarist Albertine was Hogg’s trump card. In the early Nineties, Gillick was in the band Soho and once opened for Gang of Four. “I thought this is too good to miss, but of course there is a time commitment and I’d never acted before, not even in school. All I’ve done is the acting you do in daily life, if you know what I mean. I’m aware of myself as a person in the world. I actually said to them, ‘We’ll see how it goes in the first few days and if it’s really shit, just tell me. Don’t try and change me into an actor.’”

Although he is an amateur, Gillick did spend four years between 1990 and 1994 posing as  a journalist and going to events marked up in the Press Association’s gazette with Henry Bond who posed as his photographer, for his Documents Series.

Hogg says that she hit upon the idea of casting Gillick when she saw that he was due to do a talk at ICA. She checked out videos of his previous lectures online and felt that he had a tremendous screen presence. “I think they were trying to cast someone in the role and they had been showing people YouTube clips and photographs of me as an idea,” adds Gillick, “And then she thought, ‘Why don’t I just ask the actual person rather than have someone try to imitate him?’”

In Exhibition, Gillick plays a successful artist. After 20 years, his marriage to a performance artist has gone stale. They live and work in the same place, a Modernist west London house, originally designed by the architect James Melvin, to whom the film is dedicated. In the Nineties it was updated by the Berlin-based firm Sauerbruch Hutton Architects and sliding doors were put in. The film revolves around the decision to sell the house and the emotional effect the sale has on the couple – not least on their sex life. 

“The difficult bit for me as an actor was not taking my clothes off and rolling around,” says Gillick, who was married to the artist Sarah Morris for 14 years before they divorced in 2012. “The difficult bits are the scenes where you have to say, ‘I love you’. That’s what you do training for.”

A critical thinker, Gillick has his own theories about the film and its place in screen history: “If you think about it, there’s already a film made in west London in the 1960s, close to Notting Hill, that has a name associated with acting in culture, Performance, and a non-actor playing the main role. There are lots of Nic Roeg  elements in the film.”

Despite enjoying the experience, Gillick doesn’t see himself following in the footsteps of his art-world contemporaries Steve McQueen and Sam Taylor-Wood and directing his own film. “I had been thinking about how I would deal with cinema before Exhibition came along. And I thought, bingo, this is how I’m going to deal with it. It’s the wrong thing to do in a way, because there is not much precedent for it.”

 ‘Exhibition’ is released on 25 April