Listening to Thomas Hirschhorn talk about art, it’s hard to resist the sensation that all other artists have got it wrong. Not that he’s critical of their work — in fact, I’ve never heard him mention another living artist by name. It’s more a matter of getting caught up in his enthusiasm. Thomas Hirschhorn is a fanatic. His ardor for the thinkers after whom he names many of his works — Ingeborg Bachmann Kiosk, Deleuze Monument, Bataille Monument, and, most recently, 24h Foucault — is evident not only in these works’ devotion to their subjects’ writings but also in the sheer volume of material deployed toward this end.
Viewers must be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the amount of verbiage in Hirschhorn’s displays. How can they be expected to absorb all of it? How can they be expected to absorb ANY of it?
The answer is that they’re not. Whenever he’s given the chance, Hirschhorn reiterates that his works are not about education or the betterment of the viewer (“I am not a social worker”). Nonetheless, specialists in the fields of philosophy and museum education are, not surpsingly, unimpressed by what they see as his forays into their departments. By their standards, his artworks are failed attempts at didacticism. And what’s more, those works don’t show their lofty subjects the respect they are due.
Herein lies the crucial distinction in Hirschhorn’s work: namely, the distinction between fanaticism and fundamentalism. As Terry Eagleton wrote recently, “Fundamentalism is a textual affair. It is an attempt to render our discourse valid by backing it with the gold standard of the Word of Words.” In his ardor for the writing of Spinoza and Bataille, he reproduces their words in staggering quanitity, stacking them in towers of photocopied sheets or using them to wallpaper entire sections of a gallery. Moreover, he mixes them with the debris of everyday modern life: discarded beverage containers, fake washing machines, shop window mannequins. He has, in other words, dragged these writings out from their “gold standard” vault and mixed them with the dross of material reality in the most irreverant manner imaginable.
For Hirschhorn, telling someone HOW to adore is every bit as wrong as telling them WHOM to adore. Hirschhorn is hardly bothered if institutions don’t approve of the direction his mania takes him. What matters is the adoration he feels for his subjects.
Craig Garrett: Every one of your exhibitions is an accretion of excess: an excess of materials, of concepts, of voices and points of view — almost like a battle or a shouting match. Looking at your works, it’s funny to think that you came to art via graphic design, a field based on the clear expression of ideas.
Thomas Hirschhorn: But I do want to be precise, and I want to clearly express my ideas! With my work I try to be absolutely clear and absolutely precise. I want to take absolute decisions and I want to work out the absolute truth. Truth is excess, and I want to work in strictness and be overwhelmed. Art is affirmation in excess, and I must risk transgression to give form to this excess. I have to be excessive and precise at the same time. I want to assert form and I want to give form. That I want to give form does not mean that I want to make forms. I want to answer the question: what is my position? I want to do it with and through my work.
CG: Your work quotes the vernacular aesthetic of protest marchers’ placards, beggars’ signs, and temporary memorials. What draws you to this visual language?
TH: I love the power of forms made in urgency and necessity. These forms have an explosive density. They are untameable and rebellious. These forms are very far from “over-design” and “over-architecture” everywhere! The legitimacy of these forms comes from commitment, from determination, from the heart. These forms do not want to impress by overeducating aesthetics or by mainstream aesthetical concerns, and these forms are not subject to changes of lifestyle. These forms have nothing to do with fashion.
CG: That’s interesting, because you live in a city of fashion — Paris. More than any other city, it represents the extreme cultivation of quality, luxury, and style. Yet it is also a city full of people who have come not for luxury or style but for life’s most basic needs: work, freedom, security. How has your relationship to these two faces of Paris changed over the years?
TH: I’ve been living in Paris for more than twenty years now. I came to Paris for work, as you said. I did not come to Paris for quality of life, for calm, for luxury, or for style. I did not come to Paris for culture, and I did not come to be an artist. But this city gave me time, anonymity, measure, encounters to develop my work. Here in Paris, in isolation, I understood how important at was to me. This is why, as an artist now, I can stay in Paris. Paris is a very big city, a metropole among others, so it is a good place to work. And I love the ordinary everyday life in Paris.
CG: Could you explain your 24h Foucault project, which will be shown at the Palais de Tokyo for Paris’s all-night art festival, La Nuit Blanche? If I’m not mistaken, it will be your most temporary work so far but also one of the most ambitious, in terms of scale and materials.
TH: 24h Foucault is an artwork made to celebrate the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who died twenty years ago. It is a homage made without respect but with love and with ambition. I share with Marcus Steinweg the idea that philosophy is art. So 24h Foucault is the affirmation that philosophy is art and that there is friendship between philosophy and art.
24h Foucault is an artwork with different elements: a twenty-four hour auditorium, a library and documentation center, the Peter Gente archive, an audio and video library, an exhibition, a shop, and a bar with a newspaper publication. 24h Foucault wants to be a battery charged with beauty, complexity, and thinking. I want to connect my brain with this Foucault battery. I want the public to be inside a twenty-four hour brain in action. 24h Foucault wants to produce urgency, listening, confrontation, reflection, resistance, and friendship. 24h Foucault will be done in collaboration with Daniel Defert, Philippe Artieres, Marcus Steinweg, and Guillaume Desanges.
CG: You’ve said many times that your artworks employ philosophy as just another material, like tape or cardboard. Where, then, can it be found in your work? Obviously recorded lectures or photocopied essays are not philosophy — they are merely its physical shell. Can you point out a way in which Foucault’s thinking shaped the way you create art?
TH: But precisely, philosophy is also material. The texts by Marcus Steinweg are philosophical theory and material aswell, and he agrees that I use it as material. He has the liberty and takes the freedom to give me his theory as material. So in my last two works, Unfinished Walls and Stand In, I tried to work with this material by cutting, enlarging, reducing, and extracting from it.
With Marcus Steinweg, we do not work together; it is not a collaboration. Each one is responsible for what he is doing. This work is based on friendship and responsibility between philosophy and art. I try to do something new. I do not need philosophy as an artist — I need philosophy as a human being!
I love the faithful philosophy — the pure, the powerful, the cruel, the sad philosophy of Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bataille, Deleuze, Foucault. Concerning Foucault, I do not understand his philosophy, and I think that I don’t have to understand philosophy in general. I am not a connoisseur. I am not a specialist. I am not a theoretician. But I want to confront, fight and be affected by philosophy in general, and I love Foucault’s refusal to speak for the other.
CG: That brings up another point. Among the people critical of your work, there seems to be a feeling that you incorporate these historical thinkers in a parastic fashion, that you rely on their intellectual stature without contributing to a better understanding of their ideas.
TH: My work definitely cannot avoid misunderstanding, incomprehension, and inattention. I have to accept this, and I have to work with this. I do not complain. I want to judge, and I want my work to be judged. I want to make affirmations in and with my work, and I understand that these affirmations meet incomprehension. I disagree with differentiation, criticism and negativity because I want to work beyond criticism and negativity, and differentiation is only negative, and criticism doesn’t risk anything — it just wants to delimit and exclude. I want to work as a fan.
A fan is someone who shares with other fans the fact of being a fan, not the object of his love. Love is important, not the object of love. I want to be a fan in order to speak directly through my work from one to another. I want to fight against resentment and nihilism, the dictatorship of morality, indifference, and cynicism. I want to act freely in my practice and with what is my own. I don’t have to communicate, to explain, to justify, to argue for my work. My work allows itself to fight against the culture of powerlessness, weakness, depression, and good conscience. I am against the inconsiderate pretentiousness of narcissistic self-fulfillment. I want to act, I want to hope, and I want to be happy!
CG: This past spring, how did you manage to convince the Centre Pompidou to lend so many irreplaceable artworks for the Musée Precaire Albinet, including paintings by Mondrian and Leger? Surely the name of he project [precaire = precarious] must have set off some alarm bells in their collections management department.
TH: I asked the Centre Pompidou to lend original artworks in order to integrate their active part into the Musée Precaire Albinet. The active part from every artwork is the part that wants to change the spectator, that wants to establish the conditions for a direct dialogue from one to the other. That’s why I needed the original artworks. I did not ask for the originals for their heritage value. And I asked with the legitimacy and the expectancy of the housing complex Cité Albinet because the inhabitants wanted the original artworks!
With the Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, producer of the Musée Precaire Albinet, I explained the absolute will of the project to the Centre Pompidou, the idea and the aim of the project, as I suppose everyone wanting to borrow work does. We of course had to present guarantees to the museum (insurance, transportation, and humidity and preservation conditions) like everybody. It was not easy to convince them, but it was not impossible either. I think that the implication of the people of the Cité Albinet, their understanding of the project, their acceptance and capacity to accommodate, finally convinced the museum to lend the original artworks. There was a real demand; there was a real project. There is no mission impossible in art. And why should original artwork only be lent to museums in Zurich, London, New York, or Tokyo?
CG: After your three most public undertakings (Deleuze Monument, Bataille Monument, and Musée Precaire Albinet) what is your assessment of the general public’s appreciation of intellectualism? Did your experiences with them alter your faith in the reflective capacities of society at large?
TG: Those projects do create a lot of difficulty, complexity, and beauty. Definitely I know there is a place for art in every person’s brain, and I know that art possesses the tools to enter this space.
CG: Several of the historical artists whose work you included in the Musée Precaire Albinet did not anticipate the effects that time and entropy would have on their works — the cracks in the surface of Mondrian’s paintings, the stains of the facades of Le Corbusier’s buildings. But failure is an element designed in to your work. What do you think is the main difference between your outlook and theirs?
TH: I am not interested in failure. I do not want to fail, but I do not exclude that I can fail, that my work can fail. But it is not an obsession for me. I am interested in energy, not quality. This is why my work looks as it looks! Energy yes! Quality no! I do not want to intimidate nor to exclude by working with precious, selected, valued, specific art materials. I want to include the public with and through my work, and the materials I am working with are tools to include and not to exclude. This is what makes me choose the type of materials I use. It is a political choice. I want to work for a non-exclusive audience because art can only, as art, be open to non-art. Art can only, as art, have a real importance and political meaning.
by Craig Garrett
[originally published in Flash Art no. 238 (Oct 2004)]
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by Abraham Cruzvillegas
Intensif-Station, 2010, K21, Düsseldorf. Photo by Romain Lopez, courtesy of Arndt Gallery, Berlin.
I’ve just received your answers to my questions and your handwritten letter in an envelope at home. They surprised me in a good way. Thank you very much. When asked to write an introduction to the interview, I decided to answer you with an open letter instead.
I think I allowed myself to understand more about your work through “making” questions. When I was asked to participate in a dialogue with you, I gladly accepted, seeing it as an opportunity to think aloud about your work.
When we met some years ago, in 2003, I think, at Cantina Montejo in Mexico City, a block away from where I live, you invited me to visit you in your studio in Aubervilliers. I had imagined it as a place of labor, a place in which art making means the production of knowledge, of language, of emotions, not as a factory or a sweatshop for art, as it often happens these days worldwide. It turns out your studio was actually a former factory, which your activity totally transformed into a place full of creative energy.
When I visited you in France, on a snowy afternoon, in late 2005, Aubervilliers and its surroundings showed me a landscape and an environment that was very different from my idea of what being an artist in Paris was like. This densely populated industrial area on Paris’s outskirts not only provides the city with labor, but also with culture: music, the sport of parkour, tecktonic dance, and verlan slang. From the entrance to your studio I saw the Stade de France, France’s national stadium, Zinedine Zidane and Franck Ribéry’s playground. You gave me and our dialogue several hours (and some tea); it is there that I learned, or perhaps understood, that I could be in a new situation, in a totally different environment and universe: Paris is alive.
Thank you, Thomas.
Un abrazo fuerte.
Abraham Cruzvillegas Why live in Paris?
Thomas Hirschhorn Because living in Paris is beautiful. It makes sense for me as an artist and it’s a challenge! I love ordinary, everyday life here and I love the people I’ve met who have become my friends. I stayed in Paris because of the Frenchwomen and Frenchmen that are living here. I like France with all its unresolved contradictions, in all its complexity. I really do love the motto: “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” I take it as something to fight for, at every moment. To live in Paris was never romantic to me. Coming from Switzerland, a very small country, it’s been my effort to confront myself and find out my own measure. This is only possible in a large urban city. I am speaking about “Le Grand Paris” and it’s clear to me that thinking of Paris includes all of its suburbs. To me, the interest and the beauty of working in this country and in this city come from the work of my friend Manuel Joseph, a French poet, but also from many other poets, writers, and philosophers living and working here today. They create a real dynamic. To me this makes Paris a special, powerful, rich, and graceful city of creation. I love to confront the very condensed, critical way of thinking—a sometimes fucking hypercritical thinking—that only the French can produce. I love it; it’s excessive and not always justified, but is terrifically rebellious and crazily resistant. It’s an intellectual pleasure and an artistic challenge to be confronted with such theories. There is also a real Republican, egalitarian tradition which I love. Living in Paris is stimulating and demanding, but I understand the economic pressure as an invitation to face reality. The possibility of being in touch with the sharp thinking of a Frenchman such as Manuel Joseph, without compromise and without reconciliation, gives meaning and reason for me to work here more than in any other city.
AC You worked and lived in Aubervilliers for a while. What does the banlieue mean for you?
TH I am still working in Aubervilliers, where my studio is located. Paris is not Paris without its suburbs. Aubervilliers is a part of Paris. What I need, as an artist, is to live in a space of truth, and this space of truth exists in Paris. As in almost every large city, the space of truth is its suburbs, their so-called banlieues. In Aubervilliers, as in other Parisian suburbs, one can touch the truth and be in contact with it. It’s in the suburbs that there is vitality, deception, depression, energy, utopia, autonomy, craziness, creativity, destruction, ideas, young people, hope, fights to be fought, audaciousness, disagreements, problems, and dreams. It’s in the suburbs that today’s big issues are written on the building facades. It’s in the suburbs that today’s reality can be grasped, and it’s in the suburbs that the pulse of vitality hurts. It’s in the suburbs that there is necessity and urgency. It’s the suburbs that will save the city center from a most certain death! This incredible energy has to be directed somewhere and be fruitful somehow, find a destiny and a response. This is the problem of “small” Paris. The “small” Paris turns its back to all this energy coming from the suburbs. That’s why I am for “Le Grand Paris.”
Das Auge (The Eye), 2008, Wiener Secession, Vienna. Courtesy of Arndt Gallery, Berlin.
AC How do you deal with humor in everyday life and in your work?
TH I have a lot of humor. The problem is that others don’t understand it—it’s a pity! And it’s the same thing with the humor in my work. People do not understand that there is humor in my work! More seriously, I think humor can be a path and an opening toward the other. But I do not “deal” with humor in my work, I just want to give it form as much as I can. What is certain is that I have a lot of fun doing my work, always and everywhere—in my studio and in public spaces too. To do my work is not glamorous, but it is a lot of fun. And to do my work is pleasure, it is full enjoyment.
AC Is disaster—famine, flooding, earthquake, forced migration, genocide, holocaust—a source of energy, creation, love?
TH Yes, because disaster is part of the world, our one and unique world! I agree with the world I am living in. It is only if I agree with it that I can have the power to change something. To agree does not mean to approve of everything or to support or to endure everything. To agree means to love—to love the world—beyond “respect,” “empathy,” “tolerance,” “compassion,” and “kitsch.” Love is passion, desire, ecstasy, infinitude, and cruelty. As an artist, who is part of the world, I have to confront disaster, my own disaster first, but also all disasters. I have to love this world if I want to change its conditions, I have to love the fact that disaster and “the negative” are also part of it. The world is not the world without the negative. Even within the negative, I have love for art and for artists, love for philosophy and philosophers, love for poetry and poets. This love gives me the energy and the will to create despite all the negative and despite all the past, present, and future disasters. Love is stronger than disaster.
Poor-Racer, 2009, in One-Day Sculpture, Christchurch, New Zealand.
AC What happens to the obscene when we are able to see it?
TH I never use the word obscene or obscenity. I think we are living in a time where words like these are used to impose morality. I refuse this and I refuse the kind of “hypersensitivity” developed and encouraged these days—I am sensitive but no more than any other human being. The Western and Northern luxurious hypersensitivity is the attempt to avoid contact with reality and its hard core. Terms such as obscene are used swiftly in order to protect people from exposure to the truth. Truth needs to be paid for. For there to be truth you have to make a sacrifice. I mean truth—not fact, not opinion, and not information. We are living in a dictatorship of opinions, of facts, and of information. Opinions about what is “obscene,” what is pornographic, and what should not be shown to children! As if everyone and everything should be neutralized by so-called morals or even ethics. There is no longer a single art exhibition without a warning about “obscenity” or “pornography!” But I, as an artist, want to see everything, know everything. I want to be emancipated and sovereign. I do not want to be neutralized. I do not want to be the one saying: “I can’t see this! I don’t want to see it!” I don’t need to be told what to support or not. During the second Iraq war, the former American secretary of defense said: “Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.” That’s exactly the point: in order to discourage inhumanity, we need to see it! As an artist, I don’t want to dream or escape reality.
I don’t want to flee the hard core of reality.
Exhibiting Poetry Today: Manuel Joseph, 2010, Centre National de L’Edition et de L’Art Imprime, Chatou (France). Photo by Romain Lopez.
AC Can you imagine a noncapitalist way or environment for sex? Not efficient, not productive, not amusing, not serious?
TH Sex is apolitical. Sex exists—thank god!—beyond politics. I think the people in North Korea have sex also, don’t they? Sex happens completely and forever beyond everything else. Sexiness is generosity, expenditure, non-economization, emancipation, infinitude, ecstasy, intensity, risk, self-authorization, pride, the absolute. Sex is not reality—sex is the real. And the real—because it is the real—stimulates, boosts, or even dopes and resists all environments and all contexts. And I refuse to fall—like a mouse—into the trap of “noncapitalist” sex!
AC Why collaborate?
TH I do not collaborate and I do not use this term collaboration. I want to work with friends, I want to work in friendship. Working in friendship, as I do with the German philosopher Marcus Steinweg or with the French poet Manuel Joseph, means to work in unshared responsibility. Unshared Responsibility is a new term we created in order to avoid collaboration. Unshared Responsibility means I am completely responsible for the work of my friend, and it means that my friend takes complete responsibility for my work. Unshared Responsibility does not mean discussion, argumentation, negotiation, or finding a compromise. Unshared Responsibility means to be absolutely committed to the work of the other, to take it for what makes its strength: a sovereign affirmation. To work in Unshared Responsibility means to take the responsibility for something I am not responsible for; it means to be generous and it means to have absolute confidence. Unshared Responsibility does not mean to control but to share the love of art, of philosophy, and of poetry. Unshared Responsibility is something I only do with someone and the work of someone I absolutely agree with.
AC Describe chaos.
TH Chaos is form. I want to give form to chaos. Chaos means complexity, inclusion, incommensurability, clarity, precision, exaggeration. Chaos is a tool and a weapon to confront the world, which is chaotic, but not in an attempt to make it more calculated, more disciplined, more educated, more moral, more satisfying, more exclusive, more ordered, more functionable, more stabilized, more simplified, or more reduced. No, chaos is the form to confront the chaotic world. I must specify the chaos, touch it, struggle with it, to finally be lost in it myself. Chaos is another word for ethics. Chaos is resistance, courage, and hope. In art, the question of form is the most important and essential question. I have to struggle with my will, I must give form in the chaos.
Théâtre Précaire 2, 2010, Les Ateliers de Rennes-Biennale d’Art Contemporain, Rennes.
AC Sometimes while looking at your work, The Planets by Gustav Holst comes to my mind.
TH I do not know Gustav Holst. Should I know about him?
AC It’s not necessary. What are you listening to recently?
TH I am listening to fado. I have three fado CDs: Maria Teresa, Katia Guerreiro, and Amália Rodrigues. My favorite one is the CD of Amália Rodrigues, Uma Casa Portuguesa. It’s beautiful music and I like to play just one song on the repeat track mode and listen to it for hours. “Barco Negro” is one of those songs—it’s sad, beautifully sad.
AC What’s the meaning of labor in your work? Do you work with assistants?
TH I love to work and I love to do my work. I always liked to work a lot, and because I like it, it’s easy for me to work and work a lot. Because I, the artist, am the art maker, I have to and want to do the work, to give it form and to work it out. I want to be overgiving in my work, I want to work with excess, and I want to be generous while working, I want to self-exploit myself! I like the fact that my work involves a lot of labor. Even when something is big, its big size is made with labor, it’s not blown up industrially. The fact that people can actually see the labor is a way to include them in my work, to make an opening. This opening and including is precisely what I mean by working, or put differently self-erection. To me the term of work and labor are positive terms, terms of self-invention, of self-authorization, and of being mobilized. I am for production and I am for affirmation. To me production is related to dignity and pride. Sometimes people tell me: “Do less! Work much less!” They are wrong, I don’t fall into this trap of nonproduction, into the trap of deception and cynicism. They don’t understand that to work—besides the big pleasure it gives me—is a necessity. It’s the necessity to give form; to assert and to defend my form. It’s necessary to insist by working a lot and by producing a lot. For those who want to do less—it’s fine with me—let them do less, let them produce less. But don’t tell me I should do less! I want to do what I love: to have fun and, to me, to have fun means to do my work! Yes, I do work with assistants.
AC How do you choose materials to work with? Do you choose?
TH I love the materials I am working with. To use the materials I work with is more than a choice—it’s a decision. Doing art politically means loving the material one works with. To love does not mean to be in love in a kitschy way or to fall in love with one’s material or lose oneself in it. Rather, to love one’s material means to place it above everything else, to work with it in awareness, and to be insistent with it. I love the material because I decided in favor of it, therefore I don’t want to replace it, substitute it, or change it. The decision about the material is an extremely important one in art. I decided on the materials I am working with because they are everyday materials. Everyone knows about them, everyone uses them—to do things other than art. These materials surround me, are easily available, unintimidating, and nonartsy. They are universal, economic, inclusive, and don’t bear any plus-value. That is the political, and because I made that decision, I cannot yield to wishes and demands for “something else” or “something new.”
AC What are you reading these days?
TH “L’éthique, essai sur la conscience du mal” by Alain Badiou, and the exhibition catalogue from MAK Vienna, “Blumen für Kim Il Sung.”
AC What are you working on now?
TH I am working on Too Too—Much Much. This is my next big work to be exhibited in the Museum Dhondt Dhaenens in Deurle, Belgium. In this work I want to give form to the logic of being overwhelmed by a situation and in assuming the consequences. I will work following my guidelines: Energy: Yes! Quality: No! I have the ambition of creating a new form, to give form to a kind of universal and conflictual hyperconsumption, a form which is the result of confronting three different overconsumptions: 1) The overconsumption of natural disasters; the consequences of being overwhelmed and alone in facing a natural disaster. 2) The overconsumption of the feeling that everything is burning everywhere and everywhere around me; and, 3) The overconsumption of personal and communal human disasters in our lives and their consequences. The question with Too Too—Much Much is: Am I able to give a form which goes beyond usual facts and criticism of consumption? Can I create in my new work some kind of desperate fun that will cut precarious breakthroughs into the hard core of reality?
—Abraham Cruzvillegas’s work has been shown in over 20 countries since 1987. The Mexican artist’s most recent multimedia project, Autoconstrucción—for which he charted the makeshift evolution of his family’s house and neighborhood and found the origins of his sculptural practice—was shown at REDCAT in Los Angeles and Kurimanzutto in Mexico City. He is currently based in Berlin, where he is a DAAD artist-in-residence.
Thomas Hirschhorn. All photos: Paul Schmelzer
When Swiss-born artist Thomas Hirschhorn visited the Walker last month to install Cavemanman, he spent a few minutes with me discussing the piece, a massive network of tunnels and caves made from cardboard, mailing tape, aluminum foil, and other everyday materials. In this interview, he discusses how his work is a “collage in the third dimension,” the historical and contemporary influences behind the piece, and how a cave is a good metaphor for the mind.
Interviewed in October 2006 in the installation Cavemanman, part of the Walker Art Center exhibition Heart of Darkness: Kai Althoff, Ellen Gallagher and Edgar Cleijne, Thomas Hirschhorn
Paul Schmelzer: Your material is really accessible. It’s not high-art material: tape, aluminum foil, Xerox copies… Could say more about that?
Thomas Hirschhorn: I really try to use materials that everybody knows and uses in their everyday life, not for doing art. It’s very important to me that there is no question about from where the material is coming. So tape, cardboard, paper, photocopies, mailing tubes, silver paper: it’s very important to me to have materials that are in everyday use. Also, I like that [they don’t have] this arty aspect. There’s no kitsch behind it. The question is not what material is it from, the question is what’s it about? That’s why I use this material, because I believethey have a part of universality inside them.
Schmelzer: I also see there are a lot of mass communication, mass-culture items. All the philosophical tracts are Xeroxes, which is a mass production technique, and there’s also stuff from mass media.
Hirschhorn: They are a tool to make a window to another reality, or our reality to another world. I like to start with materials. They are accessible, and they still exist, because in fact it’s about a collage. It’s a collage in the third dimension, not in the 2nd dimension. What means doing a collage? It means to put things together who are not made to be put together. This is a collage, and here it is in the third dimension.
The entrance to Cavemanman in the Walker galleries
Schmelzer: Your politics have been described as radical, but I like to go back to the etymology of words. And radical doesn’t mean “extreme,” it really means “to the roots,” if you break the word apart. Are your politics radical in that traditional sense, or in that earlier sense, that sense that you’re going back to the roots of what’s fundamental about democracy, for example.
Hirschhorn: Absolutely. I’m interested in working politically, not in doing political work. Doing work politically means, yes, to question the material, to question the work that is done, to question every element: is every element I use, is it an offer, is it a key, is it a possibility to give the tool for the spectator to establish a dialogue or a confrontation with the work. That means to me, for example, working politically. In this way, yes, I would like that it has a kind of radicality, but in the small questions of materials, of elements, of light, of space, every question embracing my tool as an artist to give form has to be radical, yes.
Schmelzer: There’s often an immersive quality to your work. It’s often an environment you go into. It seems there’s extremeness in the emotional quality; for example, the piece you did early in 2006 with the images of victims of war (Superficial Engagement) or this one, it’s a bit claustrophobic, it’s lots of shiny things and bright things and bomb metaphors. So you’re dealing with things that are emotionally pretty powerful, but also intellectually powerful: Noam Chomsky and Bataille and Foucault. Is this your way of getting people to react, or is it your way of exploring ideas you care about.
Hirschhorn: To me, it’s never about getting people to react. As you say, the immersive manner: I feel as an artist I have to do too much. I have to do the whole thing. It’s always about the whole world. It’s always about the entire possibility, the entire thing. And of course, that’s pretentious and it’s ambitious, but in another way, it’s stupid, also, to want to do this. I have, as an artist, to stand out this ridiculousness of this ambition and this pretension. It’s always about the whole world. So that’s why I like to be over-formed, to make too much, to put everything inside. To try again and again, to put everything into the work. It’s about me, about how I see, as an artist, I can work. It’s not about a spectator who has to react or not to react or who I want to provoke or not. Never. It’s always about: what’s my tool? I think this is one of my tools; the immersive, the too-much, the stupid, the way to go over something who is permitted in a way.
Schmelzer: This work is all over-the-top consumer society kind of stuff; and the fact that you’re using what could be seen as stuff you’ve found on the street, is there a critique or a way of addressing that—the consumption culture idea?
Hirschhorn: It’s not about a critique of the consumption culture or the consumption society we live in. I’m a part of it. I’m part of this chaotic world. I’m a part of this unclarity in the world. I see as one of my missions as an artist to work in this unclarity, to work in this chaos. Not to bring clarity, not to bring clearness, to struggle with the chaos. To struggle with what’s around me. For example, to work in the chaos of the world means not to me create clear forms, to make less things or make not a lot of things. For me, to go in the same direction and even beyond this chaos and this unclarity is what I think I have to do.
Schmelzer: Now this piece, Cavemanman. You said you’re not trying to say just one thing, but, this obviously is the hermit’s cave, the bin Laden hideout, maybe even the little hole in the ground Saddam was found in, the philosopher’s cave: what was your impulse to begin this project?
Hirschhorn: One of the impulses was: a young man was condemned in France because he was making graffiti in a prehistorical site—
Schmelzer: In Lascaux?
Hirschhorn: Not in Lascaux, near Marseille. He did make graffiti, and what did his people make 30,000 years before? Aren’t they graffitists also? That was one of the points, to say I have to work out an un-hierarchical form, because we know caves—there are also fake caves. There are fake caves that are recent, there are fake caves that are very old. There are caves that have nothing inside—no painting or perhaps the painting disappeared. There are undiscovered caves. So I wanted to give this un-architectural and un-hierarchical space form into the cave. That’s why in fact the idea of a cave arised.
Then, it’s also, I’m Swiss. In Switzerland, we have a lot of caves, but we have also have a lot of tunnels. We’re tunneling all the time because there are big mountains, so this kind of obsession to tunnel, to go through the mountains and make caves in the mountain. Then, of course, the picture you mention of the
cave of Tora Bora or the caves people take to find refuge all over the world. This was the point of start for my work Cavemanman.
Schmelzer: I’m curious about the imagery from magazines here; it seems there’s a lot of images of progress and production and marking—sort of marking the earth much like they’re marking the walls of the cave.
Hirschhorn: Yes, absolutely. We are here in this cavation with these color pictures on the wall. What they share together: people at work. Every one of these people has a mission, has something to do, is at work. So I wanted to connect them to the entire history of caves: where is the space more for contemplation or religious space or a space we don’t for spirit or we don’t know. I wanted to connect it to the reality of work. To me the cave that is just a picture, the cave is in your brain, the cave is in your mind. We have our own layout of a cave in our mind. That is why, in fact, Cavemanman.
Schmelzer: So there’s an archetype of a cave we all kind of—
Hirschhorn: Not an archetype—
Schmelzer: Not an archetype but an individual conception.
Hirschhorn: Absolutely. I believe there is the possibility to structure your mind in a cave with cavations where you put something inside, with garbage, with unspeakable things. We think there’s no light on it, we think they’re forgotten. So, yeah, it’s a metaphor for the space in the mind.
Schmelzer: That leads well to all the books that are here: you have large-scale replicas of books, you have actual texts from different books of philosophy and economics even, it looks like, and political theory. And then there are these bomb-like things connected to them. It seems pretty directly that there’s maybe an explosive potential of knowledge thing, but there must be more than that!
Hirschhorn: Of course, the books are important, but not as material to read, but more as the knowledge was here, but who has to be applicated. It’s about the understanding of the world. It’s not about the knowledge we have or have not. That’s not the question. So it’s about this, that’s also why the books are not reachable in the cavation. The shelves are too high. Here there are text excerpts that could be like a decoration. Of course you can read it, because that’s always the possibility I want to give. Then the enlarged books, of course, that make an engagement to the same time, the book becomes empty because you cannot read it. So it’s important to put together these two meanings.
Finally the dynamite bombs with the books, of course it’s an image, as you say, yeah, the dynamite or the explosive in a book, but also it’s an image to me perhaps also to a paranoia idea of somebody who wants to make fear to someone who comes to discover his cave. Lonely people they have this kind of paranoia, this kind of thinking to protect themselves with this often fake protective materials. It’s another image of somebody retiring himself and trying to confront the world.
Schmelzer: It reminds me of Ted Kaczynski, the Unibomber.
Hirschhorn: Absolutely. It’s not about him, but it’s just about this kind of, in a way: you have to confront the world. It’s important not to retire yourself in a cave. But in another way you have to build this cave in your mind and to struggle with what happens in this cave, in confronting it with the world.
Schmelzer: When I first started at the Walker back in ’98, the first piece I saw of yours was, in [the Walker Art Center exhibition] Unfinished History, a big Swiss Army Knife, but I didn’t understand it at all… but the materials, post-9/11, really speak to me much more. When I look around here, I see detritus, the sort of things we all saw blowing through the streets after the World Trade Center fell. Do you see your material differently after a big disaster like that?
Hirschhorn: No. It’s interesting what you say. I saw the pictures, of course, of the dust, for example, after 9/11. I saw the pictures of the millions of papers fluttering down. And, yes, it doesn’t change everything to me, but in a way it’s true. These materials, for example, that could have an importance so much at the moment on somebody’s office desk, and because something completely crazy happened, at a moment everything changed and the paper got completely no more importance to nobody. This is interesting me, because I always believe always… nobody can say to me what’s important to me. Everything can be important to everybody at a moment and at a time. This is the thing I get with this visual experience I had, the importance of things. The importance for one human being, for one element, one shoe or one thing you can see after this kind of incredible event happened; that’s touching me. I was always interested in these elements.
Schmelzer: The other day when we spoke, you mentioned the theme of the larger show this is part of, Heart of Darkness. Does that title or your knowledge of the Joseph Conrad book, does that change how you view this work? What do you think about the theme?
Hirschhorn: I think it’s fantastic. It’s a really great theme. First of all, it’s a really beautiful title, of course. And I think—I’m really happy to be in this exhibition because I think there is really a concern that is so deep in this time today, and I think to these four artists who exhibit, everybody, a kind of big work, who is in a way have built a world for himself, each. It is an ambition to build his own world. I like it a lot. This is really what I want, and perhaps what other artists want—to build a known world and to confront this world directly with the world we are living in. Heart of Darkness is beautiful because there is a heart also, in the darkness, also in the unspeakable, also in something very non-communicatable.
Schmelzer: You just struck on the theme of one of the rooms: “1 man = 1 man.” It strikes me that, much like the marking of a wall of a cave 30,000 years ago or the marking of a graffiti wall today, or the way one person’s life is destroyed in 9/11 is the same as one person’s life being destroyed today in Iraq right now. It seems like there’s that idea here, too, all the way around. This work is going to be hard for people because it’s not pretty, but it seems to have an essential love and equality about it.
Hirschhorn: Yeah, there is a heart. Absolutely. That’s why I like the title (Heart of Darkness). There’s a heart. But I don’t want to be kind, but the heart is the beautiful idea of equality between human beings. In a way I wanted to stupidly write it on the wall like graffiti: one man = one man. But in another way, I needed to build a cave that this idea gets acceptable in away. Everybody says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, but…” No, no, no, it’s not about but. It’s not about fact. It’s not about journalism. It’s not about who is wrong and who is right, who is OK, who is not OK. It’s just about this idea: one man = one man. This is why I needed to build the whole cave.
Schmelzer: So you’d have a wall to hang that message on?