PRINT March 2000



How much information can one receive from an artist in less than thirty minutes? Plenty, if the artist happens to be Thomas Hirschhorn. The thousand words gathered on this page are but a small fraction of the verbal barrage that was set loose with a click of my tape recorder and a few questions about Critical Laboratory, 1999, which the artist installed at the BildMuseet in the Swedish city of Umeh in late November. One of the more ambitious contributions to “Mirror’s Edge,” an international show organized by Okwui Enwezor in that small town on the northern outskirts of Europe, Hirschhorn’s complicated piece struck me as deeply personal yet of global application. The simultaneity of the various sensations passing through the brain at a given moment isn't easy to capture in an artwork, especially if the brain in question is so hyperactive as to be processing on parallel channels the poetry of Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, the fashion industry, the crisis in Kosovo, and the development of Parisian suburbs. Hirschhorn is in possession of precisely that remarkable organ, and no installation—not even the artist’s own—will ever be able to keep up with the frenetic pace and free-associative serendipity of his thoughts.

Born in Switzerland in 1957 but based in Paris since 1984, Hirschhorn is now one of the more prominent artists of his generation. In recent years I’ve encountered his intriguing environments around the globe. Typically, when an artist explains his or her work, it lessens the allure. But that’s hardly the case with Hirschhorn: To be exposed to his friendly bombardment is an art experience in itself.

Daniel Birnbaum


As an artist I experience the same disappointment over and over again. I claim that the end result isn’t so important, but then, when I’m confronted with the failure of my work, I’m disappointed. I don’t want to sound coquettish—this could easily come off the wrong way—but the constant failure of my works to express the simultaneity that I’m after is probably what makes me keep on trying. When I see the finished product I’m not satisfied, but I never feel like I know how it should have been done instead. The attempt to capture an instantaneous mental state, a “slice of consciousness,” if you will—all the things that pass through the brain in a second—that’s what connects my works.

In an instant, all these things pass through my brain, different sensations that relate to one another in a confusing way. The work that I presented here at “Mirror’s Edge” is a “critical laboratory.” I’ve tried to create an autonomous space, with its own atmosphere, in which a critical position can be made clear. The idea was to make a secret space on the periphery of the exhibition. It’s somewhat hidden. I think that one can express simultaneity only with the help of physical space. My thoughts and sensations relate in a rhizomatic way to fashion, philosophy, fiction, and reality. They are there all at once, but how can I illustrate that? For instance, on one of these tables you’ll find books by Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, and Ingeborg Bachmann, all of whom I like very much. But we also have fashion magazines, which I don’t really care about, but I have to relate to them, because everybody must. Here, I tried to organize all of these connections that the brain makes so fluidly, but my attempt hasn’t been successful. People come to see the work, and for the most part they’re willing to spend time. What I give them is space. You can’t do that in the same way with cinema or literature. Space makes it possible to go from one thing to another and create connections. The eight tables I set up for Critical Laboratory are organized according to themes. Here is the Klein, Klein, Klein, Klein, Boss, Boss, Boss, Boss table. It’s about fashion. The other themes are literature, suburbs, mirrors, plants, and reality. I always try to bring reality into my work. Not always my reality, but images of a reality that is out there. Here there are, for instance, images from Bosnia. I don’t want to make political art. My sculptural vocabulary is chosen so as not to exclude people, but instead to implicate them in my work—or rather, implicate them in the world. That’s what I try to do. That is why I work. That’s my political statement.

I feel involved. This is also my world. The people who really give me stuff to think about also make me feel implicated in the world. I get this feeling primarily from writers and philosophers, not so often from other artists. Sometimes I don’t quite understand what these thinkers have written, maybe because I don’t have the right education. For example, I can’t understand Nietzsche completely. I grasp maybe fifty percent, or perhaps only thirty percent of what he’s saying. But he really gives me stuff to think about. Sometimes what’s most interesting is what you can’t really understand or accept. Deleuze also gives me this sensation. And Bataille’s ideas about human values, how values are created, is something that makes me relate to things in a new way. And the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann is somebody I love. I like her texts and I like her life—so I say love. She was a person who lived and worked in resistance to the world.

Why am I an artist? Because I take a critical position toward how the world looks and what the human situation is like today. My non-agreement gives me energy to work. I sometimes produce very large works, like in Venice recently, but they’re never monumental. I don’t want to intimidate people, so everything’s handmade. I want to implicate the viewer—not so much in my work as in the issues that my work deals with. I hope that I can make people think and relate to the world as human beings. I don’t want to be didactic, because I can’t tell people how to act or how to change the world. But without serious thought there obviously can’t be any meaningful political action, and I hope that I can make people feel involved, in the same way that certain writers—like Bachmann—make me feel involved in the world. It’s not about interactivity. I give something to the viewer, but I don’t expect communication. I’m a transformer.

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