|PROFILE: THOMAS HIRSCHHORN - MIND OVER MATTER|
Thomas Hirschhorn’s sprawling, gallery-filling bricolages immerse viewers in structures that seem halfway rooted in reality and halfway analogous to mental constructs; they encourage the creation of links between multifarious tranches of visual information; and, while invariably offering pointers towards political and philosophical concepts, they generally seem both to revel and to despair in the primacy of subjectivity. So it was peculiarly apt that, several weeks before his current show opened at Stephen Friedman Gallery in London, the Swiss-born, Paris-based artist should be describing to me what the show would consist of, and how it would hang together, while I, accordingly, built the expansive artwork – entitled Unfinished Walls – in my mind’s eye.
The two exhibition spaces of the gallery
and their connecting corridor are to be dominated, Hirschhorn explained, by
a structure of partially built walls that viewers will negotiate by means of
a raised wooden walkway. These walls, constructed from a mixture of
breezeblocks and grey-painted cardboard replicas of bricks, will constitute
a site within which is laid out a cornucopia of other elements: fragments of
specially commissioned philosophical texts, spinning off from the theories
of Michel Foucault, by Hirschhorn’s ongoing collaborator Marcus Steinweg
(whose ruminative sentences were previously chopped up and interjected into
the artist’s 2003 work Double Garage and his Bataille Monument at Documenta
11); headless mannequins, set tightly into gaps in the walls as if
decapitated by them; photographs, from the last Iraq war, of prisoners with
bags over their heads; oversized papier-mâché heads of the type used in
political demonstrations; and bones in bags. For the artist himself, each of
these objects trails an attendant history of allusion, a valuable weight the
laying out and measuring of which would, however, rather defeat the purpose
of his intentionally indeterminate though richly seeded work. Thomas
Hirschhorn, let it be stated, is not a neo-minimalist.
There’s a tendency among neophyte viewers of Hirschhorn’s works in this mode (mea culpa) to feel that, by inserting pre-existing highbrow texts into his work in a relatively unmediated way, he is simplistically offering solutions by standing on the shoulders of giants; and to otherwise feel preached at, as if the mere fact that he uses the nouns of global inequality necessarily meant that his syntax is the same as, and serves the same purpose as, that of the Socialist Worker. Yet extended viewing of his art – which is less likely to mean sitting down and devouring a temptingly available copy of Simone Weil’s Oppression and Liberty (though Hirschhorn’s works might have a function, for the true cognoscenti, as apocalyptic reading rooms), and more likely to mean figuring out how something that looked like a binary equation is actually far less stable – makes clear that this isn’t the case. A rifle through the artist’s press clippings accordingly shows numerous critics confessing to having made the journey from petulance to grudging enlightenment to bedazzled praise. Hirschhorn, a former graphic designer, doesn’t exactly despair of communicating anything; but he evidently feels that, while art should hold a mirror up to chaotic reality, the tenable extension of that mirroring is not to pose glib solutions. Rather, it would appear that he sees the encouragement of any alternative discourses, and the nudging instigation of a broader sense of responsibility, as more workable goals than the implantation of truisms via the seductive rhetoric of object-making.
So he creates transient, topical, internally paradoxical situations which contain elements that, while being in themselves staggeringly direct, clash and commingle so awkwardly as to encourage the viewer to adopt the role of mediator in a consistently flaring argument. In previous interviews Hirschhorn has prioritised the generation of energy as a driving force of his work and, as anyone who’s ever looked down an electron microscope knows, energy is effectively formed by collisions. Not that he simply aligns disparate material for the sake of it. There’s generally a theorem or two behind the procedure, and if Hirschhorn is concerned about the effects of how information is presented, he doesn’t see reception as an innocent process either. Chalet Lost History, installed in Chantal Crousel Gallery, Paris, in December 2003, enclosed within the form of an imitation wooden cabin a range of dancing particles, including pink dildos, magazines, documentary photographs, fans, bunting, oversized dollars and pasted-up fragments of text by the author Manuel Joseph. Viewing, here, operated under the critical sign of theft: aside from the nodes of meaning created by the contrasted materials, the show was predicated on the concept of the viewer being able, if only partly, to ‘loot’ the exhibition by looking, and so to annex both culturally valuable and commodified material. (For his guiding metaphor, Hirschhorn had in mind the looting of the archaeological museum in Baghdad during the last Iraq war, which was ransacked both for its air-con devices and for its artefacts.)
The outcome of Hirschhorn’s viewer-implicating face-offs is, perhaps inevitably, less a seduction than an entrapment in a web of inequalities, cumulative cruelties, bald simulations and false starts. His tangled, overstuffed aesthetic looks and feels a lot like the world we know; and, when contained within a gallery’s walls, it can be overwhelming to the point of inspiring that aforementioned instantaneous repulsion. As such, it behoves Hirschhorn to employ strategies that will keep his audience in the room. And so he does. His use of broken texts, Hirschhorn clarifies, is pragmatic rather than didactic: texts embody a kind of resistance to visual absorption, they are anti-spectacular, and they encourage viewers to spend longer in exhibitions. The screeds that he is increasingly choosing to use – generated directly by writers for the show in question – also have, he points out, a degree of autonomy. Whether this shift is in response to those ‘giant’s shoulders’ criticisms is debatable. What’s certain is that the texts he’s now using, and the reticular fashion in which he’s using them, has less to do with redaction than with refraction.
It’s also important that these otherwise-unpublished works don’t bring the world’s baggage with them. Because if there’s one thing Hirschhorn doesn’t like, it’s excess baggage. He makes weighty artworks and plenty of them; but he generally uses cheap, recyclable materials (cardboard, packing tape, photocopied texts, old books, magazines), quick and easy to put up and tear down, and philosophically he also appears interested in travelling light – or at least without the weight of excess conscience. He’s repeatedly said that while he doesn’t make political art, he makes art ‘politically’: pressed on this point, he launches into a discussion of the ethical dimension of his art-making, which extends from the materials he uses to the way his assistants are treated at exhibition openings. What one senses from this is that Hirschhorn’s idea of being an artist – his ongoing justification for his decision to become one, even – is exemplarily consistent and fine-tuned: thought out, manufactured and presented according to some kind of highly principled internal instrument; yet self-reflexive enough that, on occasion, such as in Cavemanman, the gilded, mannequin-staffed grotto for a political theory-reading hermit that he produced in 2002 for Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York, he has appeared to throw a bone towards those who would reduce him to just such an insular stereotype.
Still and again, any substantial degree of
time spent exploring one of Hirschhorn’s gallery-assaulting spaces or
extracts from his sidebar output of smaller ‘monuments’ and temporary
‘kiosks’ – which sometimes feel more like mobile libraries and touching
testaments to great writers than artworks per se – upsets preconceptions, in
this case having the function of erasing the artist. Even though Hirschhorn
will tentatively agree that he works in a non-Cartesian manner, which might
perhaps be thought to reveal automatist depths (‘I try to work without using
my head,’ he has repeatedly said), these are not in any sense self-portraits
by proxy. If, besides its jolting intimations of mind-body splits and the
violence underpinning recent geopolitical shifts, Unfinished Walls does
suggest the architecture of neurons and synapses, they will be the viewer’s
own. Hirschhorn is responsible for supplying some of the construction
materials and a pulsating sense of expediency; the ongoing design, as
always, is up to you.