whitehot | May 2007, Thomas Hirschhorn
This is Your Brain on Reality
Thomas Hirschhorn, “Stand-alone”
28 April to 7 July 2007 at Arndt & Partner, Zimmerstr. 90-91, 10117 Berlin
+ 49 30 280 8123
Reviewed by Arden Pennell
Spring 2006--A group of teenagers from a Parisian banlieue storm a private school in the sixth arrondissement and transform classroom banality into improvised sculpture.They imprison telephones and desk objects on the wall with large swaths of packing tape, while spraying graffiti “X”s over clocks and covering surfaces in names, slogans, and tags. Rather than destruction, the event is a startlingly aesthetic conversion of Hierarchical Order into the democracy of self-declaration.
Fast forward to last Friday, when Thomas Hirschhorn’s new installation “Stand-alone” opens at Arndt & Partner Berlin featuring the same taped-up technology and wall scrawl, alongside hulking cardboard tubes checkered with images of mutilated bodies. These tubes, called “mega-forms,” share space with fireplaces vomiting broken furniture, sheets of nonsensically mixed-up news clippings, and plastic-wrapped armchairs mounted in a line above eye level.
So what is going on here? One needn’t know Hirschhorn was inspired by the Parisian incident or even pick up the provided map of his thought process to understand “Stand-alone”’s primal defiance. The graffiti’s visual assault, the blatant disfiguration of everyday objects, and the visitor’s interrupted spatial navigation via the mega-forms all exude disobedience. This is disobedience to our very own filtering and regulating mechanisms; Hirschhorn condenses in several rooms the daily stimuli we work so hard to sift through, cheekily presenting a mish-mash of lived experience without the usual controls.
The artist’s most obvious attempt to remove our filters is his controversial employment of wounded Middle Eastern bodies, the pictures we are usually not “supposed” to see, but there is much more to the exhibit than burst intestines. The verbal and visual onslaught of the information age comes yelling off all surfaces, a riot of sayings and phrases elbowing each other for space and attention. Simultaneously, modernity’s myriad ways to stay connected, what Hirshhorn dubs the “dictatorship of being informed,” are upended here by silent, disempowered phones and computers.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. In talks that bookended his opening, Hirschhorn spoke at length about the symbolic value of objects such as the oversized sea-green pills stamped with the word “YOU,” and large tree trunk sections stacked up like coins. However, what each piece means takes a backseat to what it all looks like. The sum of the parts is lesser than the aesthetic whole, which acts as a hyper-stimulated sponge of perception wringing its contents back out upon the viewer. As Hirschhorn says, “My art is not chaotic. The world is chaotic. I just show it.”
Not all critics appreciate the show. A New York Sun reviewer lambasted Hirschhorn’s early 2006 installation “Superficial Engagement” as an “adolescent crap-fest,” citing his insistence on using everyday materials (mistakenly called “found materials” in the review) and reliance on collage as immature and lazy art-making. Others have accused his packed-to-the-gills installations of raising only obvious questions and then providing visual noise rather than real analysis. This was the case with last spring’s “Utopia, Utopia = One World, One Army, One War, One Dress,” which some reviewers found too shallow in its examination of the Iraq war’s effect on our collective consciousness.
The nay-sayers are right, sort-of. It isn’t terribly original or clever to comment on media saturation or the human toll of the American occupation. And mangled quotidian junk doesn’t quite have the revolutionary air it did when it first appeared in galleries decades ago. (Or, if we are being technical, way back in 1917 with an infamous urinal.) But they are mistaken when they poo-poo the artist as an intellectual poseur relying on effort-Lite technique to get him through. Four months of meticulous planning and execution went into “Stand-alone”’s construction. (The title, by the way, was plucked on a whim from--you guessed it--a newspaper headline.) After production in a Paris studio, the work was brought to Berlin, where the artist toiled with ten assistants to prepare it on specially-installed walls and doorways. Show me a teenager who is willing to work that hard.
Hirschhorn, who trained in applied arts rather than fine arts and answers my question “Do you draw?” with “I make diagrams,” is un-phased that critics find his cut-and-paste chaos too facile. When I ask him how he responds to negative feedback, he answers “I keep working.”
That work bears fruit. Every inch of “Stand-alone” shows its obsessively careful construction, treading admittedly familiar turf with unusual zeal. I don’t consider this familiarity sinful: impenetrable art risks irrelevance while recognizable art can speak with an audible critical voice. I’ll take a memorable gadfly over a forgettable butterfly any day. The art’s obviousness is also forgivable because like the banlieue kids, Hirschhorn readdresses social themes with a compelling aesthetic. While his ambitiously overloaded works strike some viewers as gimmicky or downright puerile, they cause others, like me, to stop and think. In a world saturated by sound bytes and eye candy, that is no small accomplishment.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief