Thomas Hirschhorn’s latest exhibition is a walk-in manifesto, a book of the dead about the psychic place where mysticism, modernism, mayhem, and terror collapse into one another. Many will find this show revolting. Not because it’s bad or resembles a parade float from perdition, or weakens on repeated visits, but because of Hirschhorn’s
use of violent imagery and his supposed aestheticizing of it. One critic has already lambasted the show as an “adolescent crapfest” that evinces “a puerile addiction to the macabre and the scatological.” This reaction is too easy. It’s also fishy, considering that horrific images—from lynching pictures to gangland murders—have been seen and produced in America for more than a century.
Hirschhorn has included hundreds of astonishingly gory color images, gleaned from the Internet and specialty magazines, of mainly Arabs in Iraq and Afghanistan who have been blown to bits, bodies utterly destroyed—”bodies,” as Hirschhorn has hauntingly put it, “in abstraction.” You see riven flesh, severed limbs, decapitated heads. It’s like a mass crucifixion, a Massacre of the Innocents, or Hirschhorn’s version of Guernica in which disfigured, tortured bodies and woeful death agonies abound. These pictures repulse, mesmerize, and anesthetize simultaneously; Hirschhorn steers art to shores beyond pornography. At the show I’ve heard people ask, “How can we look at images like this, let alone in an art gallery?” Hirschhorn’s answers seem to be: “How can we not?” and “America is the only country in the world not looking at these images.”
The exhibition is titled “Superficial Engagement,” “because,” Hirschhorn writes, “to go deep I must take the surface seriously,” although an alternative interpretation is that Americans are only superficially engaged psychologically in the carnage pictured. Overall, it is a jungle or junkyard crossed with a supermarket; a homemade temple of the martyrs and Goya’s Disasters of War. Its roots are in punk graphics, surrealism, Joseph Beuys, Kurt Schwitters, Edward Kienholz, and Warhol’s razzmatazz. Formally, Hirschhorn relies on bright lights, amplification, proliferation, and multiplication. His individual objects aren’t anything special; he’s not a sculptor per se but more of an assemblager. “Superficial” is comprised of four large makeshift platforms. Viewers move between them along narrow corridors; everything is in your face. In addition to the gruesome images, each platform has a number of repeating elements, including quasi-primitive wooden effigies with thousands of nails driven into them, mannequins covered in nails à la acupuncture needles or the pinheads in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, along with facsimiles of the works of the visionary Swiss healer-painter Emma Kunz.
Hirschhorn combines three worldviews: primitive religion, modernist utopianism, and state-of-the-art militarism, displayed within four architectural archetypes—the mosque, the morgue, the museum, and the monument. The entire exhibition transforms into a contemporary Merzbau. The bodies are often paired with a Kunz abstraction, as if Hirschhorn wants the painting to heal them. Indeed, he’s written that “Superficial Engagement” is “an attempt to heal war and violence through art.” This kind of magical thinking is apparent in the nails meant to ward off evil but which are also more contemporary tools of the suicide bomber.
Hirschhorn, 48, is a no-nonsense character who talks about “moral responsibility,” “justice,” and “art’s power to change reality.” He’s desperately earnest and doesn’t shy from pronouncements like “I don’t make political art, I make art politically,” “I fight hierarchy and demagogy,” “Nothing is impossible with art,” “Energy yes; Quality no,” “I am an artist, a worker, and a soldier.” He scorns political correctness as “a sophisticated American invention to dissuade small-minded and fearful European artists from addressing the real questions in art.” All this connects him to true believers of the modernist faith: people like Mondrian, who called for the “abolition of every hierarchy,” Malevich, who talked about “the beauty of speed” and “the zero of form,” Naum Gabo, who asserted “the active is beautiful; quality is garbage,” and Robert Smithson, who wrote, “The rat of politics always gnaws at the cheese of art.” These artists wanted to ignite a cosmic revolution. Hirschhorn is unequivocal but he doesn’t want to burn the house down. Rather, he wants to unleash the explosive power of art, remove boundaries, create a constellation of meanings, conjure the continuum of culture, and let you see that the fires that are burning now have been burning a long time.
Hirschhorn says he uses cheap materials because “people understand them.” This feels false: People understand polished aluminum as readily as cardboard. Nevertheless, Hirschhorn’s mania for accessibility ties him in enticing ways to the builders of medieval cathedrals who wanted the façades of their churches to be sculptural books that spelled out the Bible’s meaning in a visual language everyone could understand.
At his best, Hirschhorn grasps a critical paradox: All art is abstract, yet all art is also concrete. Just as a Vermeer is more than only beautiful and can affect the spirit, Hirschhorn offers a mental space or force field where things keep moving and we can consider the human condition. He’s trying to restore the nonsequential energy of history and tell unofficial stories. You may not leave “Superficial Engagement” thinking anything you hadn’t thought already; however, you might think it in a wholly
The “Them” Question
There’s a non-p.c., nevertheless vexing issue lurking in Thomas Hirschhorn’s current Barbara Gladstone exhibition: The vast majority of the pictures of the blown-apart bodies on view are apparently Arabs. On the one hand, this is an effective way of pointing a finger at America’s invasion of Iraq. Hirschhorn creates a kind of reverse Eucharist whereby Americans “consume” this flesh but rather than drawing life or redemption from it, draw shame and poison. We see our pathological lust for victims.
On the other hand, had Hirschhorn only portrayed the blown-apart bodies of Europeans killed in Madrid or London, had he located and placed in the gallery detailed images of those who jumped to their deaths from the World Trade Center, this would significantly alter the message of “Superficial Engagement,” pointing a finger in quite another direction.
I’m not preaching moral relativism or asserting that there should be an equality of death. Hirschhorn vehemently maintains that his work is not ideological and is about the human condition. Yet his portrayal of this condition, however heartfelt, is loaded with ideological baggage. This may be his intention; it may also be unavoidable. All editing is misrepresentative.
The other evening, the Tishman Auditorium at the New School was packed with art professionals, museum mucky-mucks, and students, as seven speakers, or gatekeepers, took the stage. Moderator Tim Griffin, editor of Artforum, introduced them one by one—all former or current curators of a show that has been called “impossible”: the Whitney Biennial. First, Marcia Tucker talked about looking for art in 1969 “that wasn’t made by straight white guys in New York.” Next came Elisabeth Sussman, whose visionary 1993 political exhibition was totally and wrongly dismissed at the time. Klaus Kertess addressed a generation of artists in 1995 who “were taking advantage of the fact that there was no Modernism anymore.” Louise Neri eloquently described the “fictional worlds” theme of the 1997 biennial. Finally, Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne, curators of this year’s model, refreshingly said they were forgoing “Top 10 lists” and just “doing a show, not a biennial.” After Iles passionately asserted that “art can make a difference,” Vergne ended the evening by saying, “I’m a virgin to the process. I hope it won’t hurt but I look forward to a lot of pleasure.” That’s something I think we can all agree on; too bad no one asked the question on every young artist’s mind: “How do I get into one of these things?”