This year’s most captivating new art work -Thomas Hirschhorn’s summerlog ‘Gramsci Monument’, an installation at a city housing project in the South Bronx- excites so many thoughts that you may, as I did, want help thinking them. Start with the artist. Hirschhorn, fifty-six, a rangy and intense Swiss, is on hand all day, every day, at his tree house like village of purpose built shacks, se on open land amid the brick towers of the Forest Houses, which are home to thirty four hundred people. The sprawling construction bridges a walkway and is shaded by sycamores that poke up through its raised plazas. It incorporates a library and a museum of memorabilia commemorating Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937),a theatre for daily lectures and performances, an office for a photocopied free daily newspaper, a micro radio station, an art classroom, an Internet center, a food kiosk, a children’s wading pool. Residents were hired to build the facilities- of cheap lumber, Plexiglas, tarpaulins, and the signature stuff of works by Hirschhorn, shiny brown packing tape- and to staff most of them. The sponsoring Dia Art Foundation foots the costs.
This is the last of four constructions in poor and working-class neighbourhoods dedicated to Hirschhorn’s favorite philosophers. The others were Baruch Spinoza in Amsterdam in 1999; Gilles Deleuze in Avignon in 2000 and George Bataille in Kassel in 2002. The materials and the equipments of the Gramsci Monument will be distributed to the residents via lottery, once the installation has been dismantled, a week after the closing date of September 15th.
For the artist this is no social-work experiment but ‘pure art’. There is no ‘do-good’ condescension. Hirschhorn had solicited cooperation from forty six projects of the NYC Housing Authority before forming a warm if sometimes bumpy partnership with Erik Farmer, the president of the tenants’ association of the Forest Houses. Farmer, who is forty two and has used a wheelchair to get around since he was injured in a car crash, while a college student, is an impressively sage politician, committed to the interests of his community. He was the only one of the artist’ housing project contacts who asked to read texts by Gramsci, Hirschhorn said. Farmer selected the monument’s construction crew of fifteen residents and calmed local skeptics (He said that while the work was under construction ‘some old women said it looked like a clubhouse and they’d had enough of clubhouses’). He considers the monument a ‘boost’ to family life at the complex. The artist, for his part, carefully eschews any agenda. He cradles a hope that some people’s experience of the work might enhance their lives, but he makes clear that that’s out of his hands. His contribution to the program of public events brook no concession to popular appetites: the sparsely attended lectures by a young philosopher from Berlin, Marcus Steinweg, included one, the other day entitled ‘Ontological Narcissism’.
The monument is art in the mind rather than of the eye. Hirschhorn has a slogan: ‘Energy = Yes! Quality = No!’. His penchant for wrapping things in miles of irredeemably ugly packing tape neatly exemplifies both principles. Beauty has no evangelist in Hirschhorn. Nor does humor, as distinct from intellectual agility and a showman’s flair. In the course of a career that began in the late 1980s, when he was rebuffed by a left wing graphics co-operative in Paris, for wanting to work on his own projects, he has consented to show in galleries and museums and at biennials and art fairs -and to sell collages that relate to his installations- but always with disregard for the habits of the market and of institutions. His past exhibitions works have run to labyrinthine environments on themes including war and peace and consumer culture. An unforgettable one at the Gladstone Gallery, ‘Superficial Engagement’ (2006), intermingled images of ethereal abstract art with crudely Xeroxed photographs of human bodies blown apart in terrorist bombings. The point was elusive, but the dramatization of the peaks and abysses of human behavior profoundly moved many viewers.
Hirschhorn can be heavy-handed, as in an enormous rendition, last year at Gladstone with real and simulated furniture and fixings, of the submerged casino in the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that capsized off the coast of Tuscany in 2012. Gericault’s Romantic vision of doomed shipwreck survivors, ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ (1819) was reproduced on one wall. The forced irony thudded. Worse, a satirical emphasis on the casino’s kitschy decor had the unfortunate effect of seeming to memorialise disaster’s victim chiefly for their bad taste. But, even when his work misfire, Hirschhorn remains the most meaningfully independent of contemporary artists.
Hirschhorn has said: ‘I’m interested in the too much, doing too much, giving too much, putting too much of an effort into something. Wastefulness as a tool or a weapon’ He cites the potlach rituals of Northwest Native Americans, in which leading members of the tribe both affirmed and atoned for their standing by spectacularly splurging their wealth. The French renegade Bataille made much of the potlatch, as a model for economics based on gift giving rather than on exchange; and Hirschhorn follows suit, in the coin of gratuitous service and toil.
Artistically, his method of principled generosity recalls the career and the aura of Joseph Beuys, whose assurance that ‘everyone is an artist’ established the zone of participatory art events that Hirschhorn advances. In that sense he pays declared homage to Beuys and Warhol, for collapsing high and low culture with iconic imagery that is universally understood at a glance. There’s a Warholian tang to a grisaille painting on plywood of a photograph of the handsome young Gramsci, which fronts the monument Only, unlike a Warhol, Marilyn, or Elvis, the image doesn’t float free of its historical moorings but invites a dive into the legacy of an exemplary thinker. The divers may be few but there’s sorcery in the simple gesture of folding philosophy into daily life. Politically, the work steers hard towards realms of academic leftist theory, but in ways -both peculiarly sacramental and a lot of fun- that are as likely to humble tenured theorists as to exalt their profession. Nobody counts as special at the monument, except everybody.
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