For more than a decade, Thomas Hirschhorn has rigorously, with incredible determination, carved out an aesthetic of discontent: “Not about hope, or about creating points of stabilization, it is about showing my disgust with the dominant discourse and showing my contempt for the fascination with power.” If the work and the artist clearly admit a debt to some “father figures” such as Piet Mondrian, Joseph Beuys, Allan Kaprow, or David Hammons, Hirschhorn’s methodology owes equally to thinkers who illustrate a tradition of resistance, including Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Georges Bataille, Antonio Gramsci, or Toni Negri. The power of images and language, the structure of semiotic knowledge, and the possibility of an alternative discourse (or at least a critical one) are what animate Hirschhorn’s aesthetic program. Trained as a graphic designer, he is concerned with the economics and politics of public discourse. Disenchanted with the constraints attached to design practices as well as to practical politics, he found in art a utopian field where an analysis of the fabric of collective meaning could happen on his own terms.
Hirschhorn’s work assumes a wide diversity of forms: room-size sculptures, drawings, videos, writings, assemblage/paintings, altars, pavilions, displays. In each instance, the medium tends to be contextualized to its location: paintings, sculptures, or drawings in museum and galleries; altars, pavilions, or displays in public areas. Using the word “display” instead of the art-specific word “installation,” he makes clear that his forms do not come from an art-historical background, but from a deliberate desire to confront a street-based, commercial language. Similarly, his “altars” follow the visual language of spontaneous urban commemoration or worship, often involving what he calls positive, planned vandalism or a direct engagement of the audience (passersby) with the work.
His visual vocabulary includes cheap plywood, sawhorses, plastic sheeting, adhesive tape, fluorescent lights, plastic flowers, cheesy candles, low-quality artwork reproductions, aluminum foil, and pictures found in newspapers and magazines collaged on cardboard and saturated with his ballpoint pen writings. He uses these materials to construct rudimentary commercial logos (Mercedes, Rolex, CNN), which he then juxtaposes with historical, sociopolitical images: Chanel with dictatorships, BMW with Kosovo, Nike with neo-Nazis. He epistemologically weaves a network of contradictory images in order to better question them, to better understand what they stand for.
Abstract Relief: Archaeology (2000) follows this premise. It belongs to a series of paintinglike reliefs in which Hirschhorn analyzes the condition of globalization and human welfare in a postcolonial world. Built on a rough wooden structure approximately 4-by-4 feet, the relief of adhesive tape, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and plywood depicts a map of the world that seems to be invaded by a spreading red virus. In the lower right corner of the work is an accumulation of magazine photographs; images of archaeological excavations confront images of disasters and concentration camps. Hirschhorn raises—frontally, brutally, simply, and with a disarming naiveté—the question of our global condition, its history, and its unconfessed archaeology. Deliberately edgy, this memory of our present borrows its technique from the handmade collages, reliefs, and paintings the artist saw in East German homes, miles away from any art-educated demographics. Without sarcasm or postmodern irony, Hirschhorn recycles this homespun aesthetic and turns it against the certitudes that constitute art history—or more bluntly, the history of acceptable taste. He does not, however, raise the notion of good taste, bad taste, or kitsch, but attempts to learn from vernacular taste. By producing an object that carries all the parameters of an aesthetic anomaly, he literally questions the anomalies in the gaps of knowledge systems.
The series of drawings/assemblages titled Blue Serie (2001) was conceived as a reflection of endless discontent. Images that the artist does not or refuses to understand—of public hangings, mass graves, refugee camps, weapons of mass destruction, battlefields, and beheadings—are juxtaposed with glamour shots of models; on top of everything, Hirschhorn has scrawled words and drawn teardrops. The series embodies the Bataillian tension between desire and death, Eros and Thanatos. The artist may be asking: “Is this the price we pay?” or “Who is paying the price, and why?” Displayed in an American context, these pictures raise another issue, one of the circulation and censorship of images. Most of the photographs involved in the series come from non-American publications and have never been seen by a U.S. audience. The next logical question is why; Hirschhorn’s Necklace CNN (2002) might not be able to answer.
His program reassesses the possibility of artists’ involvement with the history of their own time. He embraces the challenge of emancipating himself from anecdotal facts in order to access an undisclosed version of what constitutes our awareness. There is a utopian aesthetic in Hirschhorn’s work, an urge toward engagement through art akin to that which philosopher Jacques Rancière shares when he writes about “the idea of a politics that would no longer be the politics that had once been in accordance with the dream of an art that would no longer be art.”