Critics’ Picks

Thomas Hirschhorn, Universal Gym, 2009, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view.

New York

Thomas Hirschhorn

Gladstone Gallery | West 24th St
515 West 24th Street
February 13 - April 11

Thomas Hirschhorn’s Universal Gym is far more hospitable to thin-skinned viewers than his last exhibition at this gallery. Gone are the excessive images of war victims and the brutal newspaper headlines. Instead, he presents a droll mock gym, replete with workout equipment rigged from common objects, cardboard, and packing tape. Nearly a dozen makeshift fitness machines dominate the floor, while cardboard mats and empty water bottles are scattered throughout. An ersatz shower, stockpiles of provisional weights, and several mounted fans span the gallery’s periphery, all adding to the theatrical, stage-set atmosphere in which the viewer may play a part.

Several details imply a grim undertone, however. Geographic globes dangling from above resemble punching bags; a massive black sphere composed of painted cardboard skulks in the gym’s center; scenic wallpaper clings tentatively to the walls. Meanwhile, three mannequins wearing tracksuits and one life-size anatomical model stand inside individual cases, each with a tunnel punched clear through its chest––presumably a message about vanity, isolation, and corresponding heartlessness. Driving home the notion of an ailing human condition, one of the missing dummy hearts resurfaces across the gallery, beside a wall of mismatched television monitors flickering with cryptic, ECG-heartbeat-like patterns.

As in his previous work, Hirschhorn demands contemplation of societal ills through mostly meager materials. But he does so here without the addition of gory media imagery (as employed in his similarly setlike Laundrette in 2001) or war-specific references (as with his 2002 Cavemanman, a mock cave evoking an al-Qaeda hideout). Consequently, Universal Gym is not limited to a sinister interpretation, and for some viewers, it might evoke a metaphor for humankind shaping up despite the odds. In this light, the word SCULPT—written in red tape on a gallery wall—is not a shallow command to chisel our bodies, but rather an astute directive to change our behavior for a more strapping world.