Thomas Hirschhorn’s Monuments and Displays

April 3, 2009

Thomas Hirschhorn’s work parallels elements of a project I worked on and developed for a number of years called the Tollbooth Gallery. The Tollbooth was a reclaimed hunk of concrete in a public space that housed a twenty-four hour outdoor video galley and paper-based installations (video, audio, and paper) in an urban setting. The exhibitions changed every six weeks and featured work from artists from around the world. One of the most exciting aspects of the project was the precariousness of the materials and equipment that were left in public spaces even in the most extreme weather. The project was always in danger of vandalism, theft, or weather failure, but that became part of the work and how it was received. In order to succeed the project had to create a relationship where it trusted in the casual passerby and chance encounters. Like the Tollbooth, Hirschhorn’s work often consists of hewn together spaces in public locations that house an idea or event.

I have a mixed response to Hirschhorn’s work, but Phaidon’s monograph Thomas Hirschhorn gives a provocative view of the artist through a collection of his writings, interviews, and critical writing on his work. For me Hirschhorn’s words and ideas don’t always line up with the reality of the work. Often the work is better on its own without all his dialectic posturing. I appreciate his use of materials and the democratized thrust, but it feels like he tries to prop-up the pieces under the rhetoric of his intellectualized approach. I’m drawn in by the junk mail shantytown aesthetic, his bundled and taped together stand-ins and displays, and his use of public space. There’s something hand-hewn and homely about his objects, like kids scrawling “Prada” or “Gucci” on tee shirts with Sharpie. It’s a critique and DIY approach to creating with what’s at hand. In Hirschhorn’s interview with Alison M. Gingeras he discusses this choice in materials.

What I’ve got around me is some packing material; there’s some aluminum foil in the kitchen and there are cardboard boxes and wood panels downstairs on the street. That makes sense to me: I use the materials around me. These materials have no energetic or spiritual power. They’re materials that everyone in the world is familiar with; they’re ordinary materials. (15)

Last Fall I encountered Hirschhorn’s Cavemanman, as part of the Carnegie International Life on Mars. I remember reading a review when it was installed at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in 2002, probably in ArtForum. I have a soft spot for caves and work a lot with Plato’s allegory of the cave, but here it seems more a place of hiding out, a site to hole up during some apocalypse, as opposed to Plato’s idea of escaping the cave as metaphor for enlightenment. Hirschhorn’s cave is hewn out of cardboard and packing tape, poor materials littered with constructed rocks, soda cans, Bob Marley Posters, philosophy textbooks, manifestos, and mannequins wrapped in foil. It feels like something the group of longhaired boys that played in bands and went to my high school might create. They called themselves reefer-nation, and this cave is something they’d concoct in basements while worshipping the immense bong they called Thor.

Hirschhorn’s installations create a space for something to happen, cobbled from humble materials, with that half-baked earnestness. They are one part zealot and one part movie set or display. They are dioramic props for the viewer to step into and initiate through their obsessive construction.

The works only provide the possibility of activation. It wasn’t necessary that it should be activated-neither for the work nor for the spectator. Yet there was this possibility. (31)

It’s this possibility of activation and his any-materials-necessary approach that makes Hirschhorn’s work most exciting.

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