Philosophical Battery

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)]

copyright 2004

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