Thomas Hirschhorn (57) is a wandering paradox, a rebel, an academic, a commercial artist, an activist and, more than anything, the harshest critic of his own work. Since the age of 33 he has worked as an installation artist. Based in Paris, but constantly active all over the world his work can be found in commercial galleries, artist run spaces and institutions as well as public spaces. His most famous works are possibly the large scale monuments that began with Spinoza Monument in Amsterdam in 1999. After that followed Deleuze Monument in Avignon in 2000 and Bataille Monument in Kassel in 2002. His fourth and last, Gramsci Monument, was made in an area called Forest Houses in South Bronx in 2013. It is dedicated to Antonio Gramsci, a communist philosopher who is known for his theories on cultural hegemony, where he among other things discusses how the capitalist state uses culture and cultural institutions as repressive tools to help maintain power relations. Gramsci is famous for his claim that “Every human being is an intellectual”, calling for a more integrated, “organic” role for the intellectual in society.
Last Thursday Hirschhorn came to Oslo to talk about the Gramsci Monument at Kunst i offentlig rom (KORO). I met Hirschhorn for a short half hour, totally confused after all the information I had processed both about him and Gramsci over the last two days (and nights). It didn’t help that the eclectic artistic practice of my own generation is so inspired by his aesthetics. After reading his own analyses of his Gramsci project I wondered if there were really any substantial questions left. I sat down, got starstruck and all I could think about was the color red.
Is there any connection between Gramsci and New York?
There was no connection but this was one of my ideas, to make the connection through the monument. Of course there are connections. But the first idea was not to look for connection. Not to make the Gramsci monument in Italy. The idea was to place it where there was no connection. I learned though that there is a connection, for example the Gramsci archive in the Calandra Institute, which is 2000 books by and about Gramsci. I learned this when I went to New York.
By coincidence! I integrated 500 of these books into the monument. They lent it to me. There are a lot of connections. Prison is a connection, because in Forest Houses in Bronx there are quite a lot of people with prison experience. That is a strong connection, though these people didn’t go to prison for the same reasons as Gramsci, it still leads to discussion. One of the most important things was to give form to this beautiful sentence: “Every human being is an intellectual.” So why not in New York? Why not in South Bronx? Why not somewhere else?
Well, that brings me to the fifth question, or something. You kind of choose these venues randomly?
The monument series is a work in progress. The first monument I made was in Amsterdam. Actually, Spinoza came from Amsterdam. It was my idea to do a Spinoza monument because I love Spinoza, and I had to do it. Then again, I thought it was not necessary to find a connection that is already there. So this process of the four monuments was developing in regards to the location as well as the dedication, and also in regards to what I call “presence and production”. Gramsci Monument is the last, but also the most complete of these four monuments. Accomplished not in the sense of more successfully than the others, but in regards to no connection, and in regards to the presence of myself. Here I also take into consideration the production of myself. Regarding the Deleuze Monument, which was the second one, I didn’t think that I needed to be there all the time together with them. I was just there for building the monument, but then I left. This was an error because after a few weeks the monument was not active. I had to dismantle it before the end of the project.
Because it was not anymore what I wanted, but it was my fault, because I was not there. So I learned I needed to…
At the third monument, Bataille Monument, I was present all the time until the end. I was there all the time, and this was fine, but I didn’t produce a lot. Then I thought I had to make something that was more produced, so that’s why here at the Gramsci monument there is a lot of production.
The thinkers you produce monuments for all have in common that they are exceptions in their time.
It is my guideline. I want as an artist to work through the fields of love, philosophy, politics and aesthetics. That is my form and force, also when working with museums and galleries. I thought these four philosophers are on the cross points of these form fields. Spinoza is between love and philosophy. Deleuze is between pure philosophy and aesthetics. Bataille is between aesthetics and politics. Aesthetics because he is interested in the surrealists, he’s interested in the pictures.
And the inner experience as well…
Of course. Politics because he is thinking about the potlatch. The expenditure of the loss. Last to me, politics and love. That is why I chose Gramsci.
This is why I put them in my form and force field, which I am interested in as an artist. This is the main reason. Now you say that they are exceptions, of course they are, but there are always exceptions.
But Bataille got thrown out of the situationists. Gramsci got thrown into jail. Deleuze, he ended up not as an exception, but he IS an exception.
Everybody is an exception. Well…
Each great thinker is an exception. First of all because they are exceptional, but also in order to develop in thinking and give form to it he needs to be on the border and the front line. He can not be in the middle. There he can’t develop. It’s the same for Hannah Arendt. She had to develop her thinking as an exception.
You mention love. Is this big part of your work?
Love as such. Love for art and the absolute love. The absolute decision for something, but not in a self-beloved way as an artist. The love of the material as a decision, and being totally committed to something. The complete commitment in love interests me. Agreement without criticism. You don’t say to a woman “Oh!… You’re beautiful and I love you, but you’re too small”.
I don’t know in these times but yeah…
No. That is not possible. No?
You’re too small…
You cannot say “I love you, but you’re too old”. That is not possible, because then it’s not love. There is no criticism in love. This interests me. This is a complete decision for something. You have to pay, pay a price for it. That is why love is love, and so important. That closes the discussion. There is no way to relativize it. The love for “the others” is important.
The other philosophers. Love is very important in my work, because it helps me to be straightforward and truthful to the matter. Not to doubt. Not to be into stupid criticism of things. I want to be relieved from doubt and ignorant to stupid criticism of my work and practice.
You are doing something exceptional in the criticism of your own work. Very few artists dare to do this.
I made a lot of errors, and the process had a lot of flaws. The problem is not what I understood. The problem is not to do a work without lacks and errors, because dealing with this is a waste of time. The important thing is to create work where errors and lack are not important. Gramsci Monument is an accumulation of failures.
You say failure is an important part of your process. Your monuments are not as violent in content or aesthetics as the work you do in institutions or galleries.
There is another kind of work, and therefore another practice. The problem is never a visual problem, but rather a problem with the people. With the reality of the people, and the non-understanding, and the affirmation of art where art has to stand alone. This is the violence. This is very difficult. This is very tough. The discussion is not about aesthetics but situations. The violence of not being disappointed with reality. The reality of your surroundings, the one you’re speaking with and working with, this is the real problem or the real work to do. To endure that someone judges what you’re doing. I work with people who are not interested in art. They have no time to be interested in art. They have other problems. You have to confront this. We are sharing the problem.
Does the context affect your work?
I want to confront different people. You can only do this when you go out of your house. What I mean with “house” is the museum or the gallery. But I’m not always out of the house. I’m interested in working in the museum, the gallery, the alternative space, but still also on the street. Since the beginning I decided to work on the street where art has to struggle with the question of “what it means”. Is this garbage or whatever? You can not meet the Gramsci monument with ignorance such as “I have my work represented by MoMA” or “I have exhibited in this and this gallery”, because for normal people this doesn’t count. This is interesting. The violence of public space. Normal people want to say something. When they confront art they want to say something. They feel better and freer if they can. They want to express themselves like the artist does. When they go into a gallery in Chelsea in New York City… First of all, they don’t go…
When they are there, they think they have nothing to say. I can not address…
I am not allowed to talk.
But on the street everybody is allowed to talk.
But not in a gallery in Chelsea…
The people think, and then again it’s much more difficult to tell to a girl at Gladstone Gallery that this show is bullshit or whatever. This I think is the challenge in public space (laughing). This is never an evaluation of what you’re doing. In the public space it’s judged. From the heart. Right from the heart. This is the harsh part of the work. This is not easy.
The question is if you make anti-monuments.
No. I make ANOTHER monument, or a monument, which is the same.
Ok. Then the question becomes: destruction is as hard as construction?
A beautiful sentence no?
It’s amazing. And it has a release of shame put into it.
Destruction is to negate the construction, and then again deconstruct something. We have to go back to childhood. Children need to construct and then again destroy what they have done. This is a normal gesture. This is not bad, is it? But as adults we go NO! We try to…
It’s not a destruction. It’s another way to see the world. We have to go back there, and then Gramsci helps us. We see revolutions today. In Ukraine, or whatever, how complicated it is. To destroy a system, even a corrupt system, it’s hard. The destruction forces you to see things in another light.
Do you enjoy being misunderstood?
No. No. I don’t enjoy. I don’t enjoy. No. No. No.
But then again, misunderstanding is a way to deal with people, which is not a problem to me. I try to be very blunt. I am. I know what I want. I know exactly what I want. I know exactly where I stand. Even though what I’m doing is not clear to other people, I don’t’ find it a problem being misunderstood, because time will force us to understand eventually. I try to be precise. I try. I try to be clear, and I am. Sometimes it is really difficult to be clear. I agree with it but I do not want it. It happened.
What I propose is new. A new light on things, and that’s why sometimes it’s difficult to understand. I have to deal with it, but I don’t want to make it easier either. I do not want to make it more understandable.
Your connection to Deleuze is quite obvious. “Style is the pure auditory, while competition is nullity.” So I’m asking about your use of the color red. Why is it dominant?
That is not true. I used red once because there was blood.
It’s not an important factor to you?
I like the color red like I like… yellow… like I like blue.
You have to make a decision for a color as a choice. Red is obvious! Should I do blue?
I find red a difficult color. I also find it very strong.
It’s a powerful color. At the Gramsci Monument it was not dominant.
I choose black.
Look at the pictures of the work in my installation, because they are not colored.
You once said that collage is your most important working method.
Gramsci in the Bronx is a collage in a way. I like this idea. Put something together that has nothing to do with each other. Because you put it together it develops. Every child from Thailand made a collage, which is what makes it universal. We can say that collage is not necessary today because of Photoshop and so on, but this is not collage. I do not say it’s not good, but it’s not what I love in collage. To put two existing things together, to form something new. I want to go back to the two elements. The heart and the flower. Or whatever. Or two people together.
Do you see an end to your project?
No. I don’t see an end.