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The Momentary Monument
Philippe Vergne on Thomas Hirschhorn’s Ode to Gramsci

By Paul Schmelzer

Thomas Hirschhorn’s idea was ambitious: build a temporary structure in a diverse urban neighborhood and use it as a community center to spark discussions around philosophy, art, and life. It’d house a café, a gallery and a library, a philosopher-in-residence, and a daily newspaper. But while the idea sounds familiar, it was never realized—in Minneapolis, at least. In 2004, the Swiss artist proposed to Philippe Vergne, then the Walker’s senior curator of visual art, that a 50-foot-tall building be erected on Lake Street in South Minneapolis in the shape of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s book A Thousand Plateaus. The project proved too expensive, and Hirschhorn went on to pursue other projects, including his return to Minneapolis two years later to install his immersive environment Cavemanman as part of the 2006 Walker exhibition Heart of Darkness.

Nearly 10 years later, Hirschhorn is concluding a similar, but even more ambitious, project in New York—backed by the Dia Art Foundation, the storied art organization Vergne now helms. The Gramsci Monument—named after and inspired by 20th-century Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci—is the fourth and final of Hirschhorn’s “monuments” to philosophers; his other works honored Baruch Spinoza (1999), Deleuze (2000), and Georges Bataille (2002). Located on the grounds of Forest Houses, a housing development in the Bronx’s Morrisania neighborhood, this monument isn’t the bronze or gilded variety typically erected to honor generals or politicians. In Hirschhorn’s trademark style, it’s a series of pavilions constructed from plywood, blue tarping, packing tape, and other readily available materials. Built by residents of the community, it’s the temporary home to a daily newspaper, a computer room, a lounge, an exhibition space, a stage, a radio station, and a space where philosopher-in-residence Marcus Steinweg gives daily lectures. With Dia curator Yasmil Raymond—an associate curator at the Walker from 2004 to 2009—as ambassador, the project also includes field trips around New York for children from Forest Houses. Everything from its slate of activities (from talks by curator and writer Okwui Enwezor to a radio show featuring local voices) to its aesthetic, seems pinned to Gramsci’s expansive notion that “everyone is a philosopher, though in his own way and unconsciously.”

With the Gramsci Monument closing on September 15 after 77 days, Vergne shares his reflections on the project with Walker web editor Paul Schmelzer: its reception in both the neighborhood and the art world, its potential ripple effects in the community after it’s gone, and what its success might mean for Dia’s path into the future.

Paul Schmelzer

Let’s talk about Gramsci, the man. His many contributions to modern Marxist philosophy include his call for a kind of working-class intellectual and his idea of resisting cultural hegemony by creating counter-hegemonies. Tell me how his ideas are playing out in the project.

Philippe Vergne

In the project, it’s not literal. The ideas are there, but the reason Gramsci is “involved” are all the reasons you described. His notion that everybody is an intellectual, that everybody has the ability to think critically and that quality needs to be found in human beings, rather than in objects, are key ideas for Thomas Hirschhorn’s work.

Schmelzer

Positioning the project in the South Bronx—both outside the center of capital and the art-world center of Manhattan—seems really important.

Vergne

When we started working with Thomas, it was very important that the project wouldn’t necessarily happen in Manhattan. He was looking for the right “spot” (his term), a residential area where people lived. During the two years that Yasmil worked with Thomas looking for sites, we didn’t exclude Manhattan—actually we looked at a location in Manhattan—but it was also a matter of meeting the right group of people. For two years, Thomas went and visited 47 different public housing developments in and around Manhattan. He was attending tenants’ association meetings and asking if he could be on the agenda to present his project. That’s where he got to encounter Erik Farmer, the president of the Resident Association at Forest Houses, who understood Thomas’ vision right away and what the project could mean for the community. It was Erik who asked Thomas to build the Gramsci Monument at Forest Houses. From there the process unfolded, meaning working with NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) to make sure we could get the authorization we needed. It was a lot of work. Erik was instrumental for the project; he helped Thomas hire the residents who worked as the construction crew and who ran the project after it was built. Erik is what Thomas calls the “key figure.”

Schmelzer

One critique I’ve seen of the project—notably from Ken Johnson in The New York Times—is that while Thomas is talking about outside-the-art-world revolutionary thinking, he’s also represented by a “blue chip capitalist gallery” and funded by the Dia Art Foundation, “a pillar of the American art establishment.” What’s your response to that kind of critique? It sounds like he’s saying that the artist can’t be both inside and outside, that we can’t have contradiction.

Vergne

Well, that’s Ken Johnson’s opinion. Thomas has a very key idea in his work, which is a “non-exclusive audience.” A non-exclusive audience means not excluding residents of Forest Houses, but it also means including supporters of the art, gallery-goers and collectors. I don’t think it’s a contradiction. It’s Thomas actually using all the platforms that are available to him to realize his work and his ideas. Of course, it’s a totally different audience from those going to Dia:Beacon or the Gladstone Gallery. There is no reason that one audience should exclude the other one. Today, for instance, we had a poetry reading by Okwui Enwezor, the director of Haus der Kunst in Munich, and on Saturday we are hosting philosopher Gayatri C. Spivak, who will speak on Gramsci’s work. On Sunday we have an open mic event where residents have expressed their opinions, voiced questions, and conducted performances. There’s a really broad and diverse audience happening there, and I think Ken Johnson’s comment is actually quite hyper-rigid and conventional. The fact that Thomas is supported by the commercial galleries shows, maybe, one of the best sides of the art world, that there are still people running galleries that can actually support an artist who has ambitious projects and complex ideas that go way beyond the risk-averse blue-chip art world.

Schmelzer

When Thomas was here installing Cavemanman at the Walker, I asked him if his installation was a critique of consumerist culture. His answer seems pertinent in light of Johnson’s complaint: “It’s not about a critique of the consumption culture or the consumption society we live in,” Thomas said. “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.” So, it’s not about purity but about acknowledging complexity and the possibility of contradiction?

Vergne

I cannot speak for Thomas, but I think in this case, the necessity to create awareness, to create exchanges, to create encounters is important for the work. Does it come with contradictions? I’m sure it does. That makes it more interesting. It’s a conflict of interest: when there’s no conflict, things are dull; when there’s no interest, things aren’t interesting. So actually conflicts of interest are pretty good!

To realize this project, Thomas came to New York quite often, over eight visits, for periods of two and three weeks, to spend time doing “field work” and research, meeting with a range of communities, until he encountered Erik Farmer. He made a map, which he carried with him every time he gave a talk about the Gramsci Monument and his ideas. I heard him give his presentation to a wide range of audiences, from our staff at Dia to art collectors in the house of one of our trustees during the Frieze Art Fair to the tenants association meeting in the Bronx—several of them—and what was extremely amazing to me was that his language never changed. He was talking to this very diverse group of people in exactly the same way. There was never a moment where he compromised his words or edited because he was in front of a different audience. That, actually, is a real achievement, to be consistent in your belief in universality, and to treat every single human being the same way. It goes back to the graffiti inside the walls of the Cavemanman: “1 man = 1 man.”

Schmelzer

How has Gramsci Monument been received by the neighborhood?

Vergne

I think there are different kinds of responses. At the beginning, people were skeptical. One resident asked him, “Why do you want to get yourself in trouble?” Another thought—and I’m quoting Thomas here—that he must not be “sane.” But in the end, Thomas won people over. They realized that he was serious, that he kept his word, and that he showed up day after day to realize his work—what he calls “presence production.” Thomas works harder than anybody, and people respect hard work.

The residents have respect for the project, respect for the ideas that Thomas is bringing forward. I remember quite early on, before they started building, we had a gathering at Forest Houses, a “meet and greet” where Thomas presented the project to a broader group of residents. Around a hundred people showed up, and we had lunch with them. As I was leaving, I stopped to talk with Clyde Thompson, the head of the community center, who was instrumental (he introduced Thomas to Erik Farmer). I wanted to thank him for his support and involvement on the project. Clyde told me, “I’ve never heard of Thomas Hirschhorn before. I don’t know art, never heard of Antonio Gramsci. But Thomas told me about Gramsci, so I decided I should read it. So I read Gramsci, and I realized it was very much like Malcolm X.” When I heard that I knew that the project would succeed, that Thomas had partners at Forest Houses. Even if Gramsci is little-known, a connection was made with Malcolm X, and a translation was happening between Thomas’ world, the world and the ideas of Gramsci, and the residents of Forest Houses. That, and we’ve experienced similar comparisons during the seminars. Scholars have drawn parallels between Gramsci’s ideas and those of, say, Rev. Martin Luther King or W. E. B. Du Bois. The seminars on Saturdays are packed. There are people coming every day: that’s a sign that the residents are interested in the project. I remember I was there one morning just before it opened to the public and a group of kids was running toward the monument, screaming, “The monument is about to open. Let’s go to the computer room!” There is ownership. The Gramsci Monument is part of Forest Houses; it’s part of their lives.

I think it was almost better received there than it was received—well, it was well received in the art world, but it was more welcoming there.

Schmelzer

What do you hope for the site after you pack up the monument and leave? Do you hope there’s a residue or a trace of the project that’s left behind in terms of its spirit living on?

Vergne

Of course. The Gramsci Monument for me is not only a physical form that had been built—the pavilions or the workshop or the library. I think the real “monument” is made up of the principles and ideas that Thomas has brought to this neighborhood: his insistence on co-existence, friendship, and universality. Without being patronizing, the project is about encounters, the meeting of people, and that also includes confronting differences and hard truths and being in contact with one’s own assumptions and prejudices. There is also an element of discovery and accessing new experiences. For instance, every Thursday Yasmil, in her role as “ambassador,” takes a group of children and adults on a field trip (accompanied by an adult resident). The first one was a visit to Dia:Beacon. Another time they went to bookstores around Columbia University (there are no bookstores near Forest Houses), and they also had the opportunity to visit the New York Times headquarters—not with Ken Johnson, but with Randy Kennedy. The idea was to make connections with Gramsci’s life and work—Gramsci’s work as a journalist, his writing on art and culture, his passion for reading—while at the same time giving access to new ideas and generating encounters with other contexts and realities. The idea that 10 years from now—10 months from now—people will keep talking about an artist from Switzerland who landed in the middle of Forest Houses and for 77 days brought a different image of reality, that’s the real monument. It may not trigger a vocation, but it might trigger new ways of seeing reality and thinking that might not have been imaginable before. And maybe it’ll give us all, residents and non-residents of Forest Houses, the confidence that we can have an idea, have a project of our own, have a mission in life.

There’s a real question, and it’s a question we debated even when talking about doing a project with Thomas in Minneapolis: when you leave, what’s left? But something is left behind which was not there before Thomas did the project, because there’s added value just by the fact that the project existed. I asked myself for Dia: what’s our responsibility after the project? What will be left for the residents of Forest Houses, but also for the more conventional art world community. This project made New York, for us, a bigger city. I’ve never been to Forest Houses prior to the project. I’ve never been to this part of the Bronx before, and I think many people are the same. The monument will also remain with them, because they discovered a part of New York, of the United States, that they had no idea about.

When we decided to commission the Gramsci Monument, I kept explaining to people at Dia, it’s not that different from building Walter De Maria’s The Lighting Field in the middle of a remote desert in New Mexico. I remember when I met the neighbors of The Lighting Field, I asked them, “What did you think when Walter De Maria came wanting to install 400 lightning poles in the desert?” They said, “Well, he was a very respectful person, and his project was not rubbing against anything. It actually brought attention to this part of the country and brought jobs. Do we understand the project? Maybe not. But we just decided to go along with it because we wanted to get to know Walter De Maria.” I think there are similarities between Forest Houses and Quemado.

Schmelzer

That’s a good segue to my next question, which is about the history of Dia. Since 1974, you’ve supported work that might not exist otherwise because it’s too big or too ambitious or even too controversial, from The Lightning Field to the Roden Crater. But the Gramsci Monument also seems like a different kind of project from these earlier ones. Has it opened up new possibilities or a new path for Dia going into the future?

Vergne

I don’t think it’s a new path. Actually, I think it’s a path that needed to be trimmed. It was full of weeds!

The path that Dia walked with Joseph Beuys in Kassel or with Donald Judd in Marfa, for example, is not that different from the one we took with Thomas Hirschhorn in the South Bronx. Furthermore, I think a project like Gramsci Monument holds a tangible connection with Beuys, with his emancipatory claim that “every man is an artist,” in that Gramsci wrote decades earlier that “All men are intellectuals… but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals.” And we can see how Thomas has retaken Beuys’ social sculpture in his “presence and production” criteria. There is also another precedent to Dia’s interest in Hirschhorn’s project: Democracy, an installation and series of events presented between 1987 and 1989, conceived by Group Material (Doug Ashford, Julie Ault and Felix Gonzalez-Torres), on Mercer Street. The project included private roundtable discussions, four exhibitions, and several “town meetings” led by Yvonne Rainer and Martha Rosler. We have to remember that Dia has been commissioning temporary and long-term projects for more than 35 years. The association with Minimalism and the art of the 1960s is only one aspect of a broad and diverse mission, which includes a wider range of artists and aesthetic interrogations.

That’s one part. The other part is: For me, what we are trying to do with Dia is resume this capacity that Dia has had to not only mount exhibitions in Manhattan and Chelsea, or to be custodians to an extraordinary collection in Beacon or in the desert in New Mexico or the Salt Lakes in Utah. The very first manifestation of Dia is what you describe, these projects that exist beyond walls. We have started to restore Dia to its original mission, as well as to grow the collection and expand scholarship on the collection. Having a kunsthalle in Chelsea where we can commission new works is one dimension of Dia’s mission, but also enabling complex projects like the Gramsci Monument is of equal importance, and we will continue to work in this direction.

I think that what we’ve achieved with Thomas is Dia at its core. The Gramsci Monument might not match what people associate with Dia’s aesthetics, but those who have been to Quemado or Marfa or visited Group Material’s Democracy know that Dia’s mission is to accompany the artist in the reinvention of art itself. Remember that Dia was the institution that accompanied Beuys, Robert Whitman, Bruce Nauman, Alighiero Boetti, Rosemarie Trockel, Robert Gober, among many others. So, again, aesthetically Dia is more eccentric and interesting than merely a bastion of Minimalism.

Schmelzer

Wrapping up, I wanted to ask you about the project you worked on with Thomas here that was never realized. In looking over the materials from then, the two ideas are strikingly similar. In 2004, he wanted to build a giant volume of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus in South Minneapolis’ Powderhorn neighborhood. The book-shaped structure would’ve housed a daily philosophy newspaper, community events, lectures, a gallery, and a café, and Marcus Steinweg—the same philosopher who’s been involved at Forest Houses—would be in residence. Could Gramsci Monument have happened right here in Minneapolis almost 10 years ago?

Vergne

A Thousand Plateaus wasn’t conceived as a monument. In Thomas’ work, there are only four monuments: Spinoza, Deleuze, Bataille, and Gramsci. The large book would’ve been another kind of work in a public space, but not a monument. I think Thomas conceived Gramsci Monument early on to be realized in New York. I actually think we mentioned Gramsci at the time, when Thomas and I talked about A Thousand Plateaus in Minneapolis. The Deleuze project would’ve been a great work too, but we were not ready. The stars were not aligned.

Schmelzer

The twist here, of course, was the size of the book—50 feet tall—which was based on Thomas’ love of Minnesota-style giant road-sized attractions—

Vergne

Like the Jolly Green Giant. I’m not sure how people would’ve reacted to that!

“The real ‘monument’ is made up of the principles and ideas that Thomas has brought to this neighborhood: his insistence on co-existence, friendship, and universality.”

“The path that Dia walked with Joseph Beuys in Kassel or with Donald Judd in Marfa, for example, is not that different from the one we took with Thomas Hirschhorn in the South Bronx.”

Thomas Hirschhorn (with microphone) at Gramsci Monument. “Ambassador” Yasmil Raymond at left, center

Photo courtesy Matthew Bakkom

Graffiti and a portrait of Gramsci await visitors to the monument

Plywood, tarps, and tape are among the building materials comprising the temporary structures

Photo courtesy Matthew Bakkom

Quotes by Gramsci are found throughout the project

Interior view of Thomas Hirschhorn’s Cavemanman, part of the Walker exhibition Heart of Darkness, 2006–2007

“A Gramsci-Apple a Day…”

Photo courtesy Matthew Bakkom

Philosopher in residence Marcus Steinweg

Gramsci Monument ambassador Yasmil Raymond

Located on the Forest Houses grounds, the monument attracts residents and art-world insiders alike

Thomas Hirschhorn installing Cavemanman at the Walker Art Center, 2006

Thomas Hirschhorn’s sketches for The Giant Road-Side Book Project, 2004