Thomas Hirschhorn, Skulptur Sortier Station, 1997. Installation view, Warsaw, 2004.


A few hours into a two-day visit to Warsaw, I took a short taxi ride to a primarily residential neighborhood just across the Wisla River from the city’s historic center but seemingly light-years from its “olde-world” charm. Thanks to an early snowstorm, an otherwise prosaic cityscape had taken on an almost festive winter ambiance. Perhaps because of this pristine dusting of white, Thomas Hirschhorn’s cardboard-and-Plexiglas sculpture was almost impossible to find. Installed on an empty patch of concrete not far from an outdoor fruit-and-vegetable stall, a newspaper stand, and a makeshift cubicle selling household wares, the work seemed at first to be just another sidewalk kiosk. Hirschhorn chose this precise spot with the help of curators from the Foksal Gallery Foundation, which brought Skulptur Sortier Station to the Polish capital. Originally presented at Munster Skulptur Projekte in 1997, the work was acquired by the Centre Pompidou in 2000 and presented under the Stalingrad metro in 2002. As with the two previous installations, Hirschhorn sought out what he calls “a non-lieu”—an urban setting where the work is almost camouflaged, where average city dwellers go to recycle their glass bottles, wait for a bus, or make a call in a phone booth. Most passersby didn’t pay much attention to the curious, crude objects—barely protected by ten Plexiglas windows—as they went about their Saturday shopping. A miniature replica of a kunsthalle, the Robert Walser and Emmanuel Bove “Prize” trophies, and a collection of some fifty wooden blocks with postcard images of famous sculptures, from the Venus of Willendorf to the Winged Victory of Samothrace, all appeared to barely rate a second glance. But in fact, the neighborhood’s indifference was a mark of the work’s success. In this context, Skulptur Sortier Station proved to be a neat examplar of Hirschhorn's “non-lieu” conceit, his signature use of precarious materials, and his conception of sculpture as a two-dimensional display. Unlike many of his more high-profile outings, this work encapsulates the most convincing aspects of Hirschhorn’s practice. At a moment when the press has increasingly picked on him for tending more toward “social work” than conventional art making—witness a slew of recent projects that necessitated the active participation of “local” residents, such as his Musee Precaire Albinet in a disaffected banlieu just outside Paris or 24 heures Foucault at the Palais de Tokyo—this work comes down on the “art” side of the fence. Having experienced the “activist” Hirschorn—or at least the zeal with which his art world boosters want to believe his work is a catalyst for social agency—I will admit to being rather relieved to witness Skulptur Sortier Station working its estranging power precisely by dissolving into the Warsaw everyday.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Skulptur Sortier Station (detail), 1997.


Thomas Hirschhorn, Skulptur Sortier Station, 1997. Installation view, Warsaw, 2004.


Thomas Hirschhorn, Skulptur Sortier Station (detail), 1997.


Left and right: Thomas Hirschhorn, Skulptur Sortier Station (detail), 1997.


Alison M. Gingeras