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PRINT February 2005

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Thomas Hirschhorn’s “Swiss-Swiss Democracy”

THE AGGRESSIVE REACTION to Thomas Hirschhorn’s multimedia extravaganza “Swiss-Swiss Democracy” at the Swiss Cultural Center (CCS) in Paris came as a surprise to the artist. Hirschhorn and eight assistants (after four months of studio preparation) had spent three weeks installing his signature cardboard cavern of photocopied articles and pictures, scripted slogans, philosophy books, videos, and packing-tape-covered objects for the December 4 opening. This time he added a one-hour burlesque of Schiller’s play William Tell (the mythical fourteenth-century hero who freed Switzerland from foreign control), staged every evening of the show’s run by French thesp Gwenaël Morin; a lecture each day at four by Berlin philosopher Marcus Steinweg (Hirschhorn’s in-house mouthpiece); and a photocopied journal, made daily on-site until the show’s January 30 closing, with extracts from Steinweg’s lectures, philosophical tracts, and paper works by Hirschhorn. The tempest began with a review in the French-language Swiss tabloid Le Matin on December 5, vilifying the artist for this “assault” on his native country and unleashing a torrent of negative press in Switzerland.

The Matin article angrily remarked on the conspicuous absence at the opening of the Swiss ambassador to France, François Nordmann, and noted that he had sent a confidential note to Bern suggesting the exhibition could “harm the image of Switzerland,” a bottom-up democracy where just about everything is decided by popular vote. But two other items in Le Matin’s reportage spilled over into foreign publications, including the New York Times. First, late in the Morin play an actor playing a dog pretended to urinate on a poster of a prominent Swiss politician; in the next scene the same actor, now an intimidated voter, was repeatedly ordered by a policeman to place his vote “IN THE HOLE,” driving the actor to vomit onstage, as if voting were noxious. One barely noticed the peeing, but the puking culminated a pivot point just before the raucous finale, in which the actors proclaimed, “We’re free! We’re free!” The second item was the poster Hirschhorn designed for the show, which included a photograph of a naked Iraqi posed before a uniformed American soldier at Abu Ghraib, shields of Swiss cantons, and the phrase I ♥ DEMOCRACY! Under the photo Hirschhorn had blue-penned his signature drips, signifying the oozing of one element into another. Critics angrily interpreted the oozing element to be American civil-rights abuses in Iraq bleeding into Swiss political ideology. But they were angriest about Hirschhorn’s pillorying of the minister of justice and police, the conservative nationalist Christoph Blocher (on whose visage the “dog” had “pissed”), and for using $200,000 in Swiss funds to mount an attack on his own country from France, where Hirschhorn lives. The Swiss parliament reacted by cutting more than a million dollars (about 3 percent) from the annual budget of Pro Helvetia, the government-funded foundation charged with promoting Swiss culture abroad, which finances the CCS. The more radical legislators wanted to fire CCS director Michel Ritter, who had begun planning this exhibition two years ago.

The surprise—even shock—of the Swiss is itself somewhat surprising, given that, a year earlier, Hirschhorn had loudly proclaimed he would stop showing his work in Switzerland in protest of Blocher, whom he sees as the embodiment of Swiss xenophobia. And as Hirschhorn points out, “Swiss-Swiss Democracy” was hardly his first installation to criticize Swiss culture but rather the eighth in a series that included Hotel Democracy at Tate Modern in 2003 and four in Switzerland, all of which had focused on Swiss clichés—its insular neutrality, the chocolates and watches, its secretive banking system, and so on. Yet only “Swiss-Swiss Democracy” focused so critically on one politician, the freely elected Blocher, who inspired Hirschhorn’s stated “revolt against the absurdity of direct democracy in Switzerland.” Asked why, he exclaimed, “Because I’m Swiss! The Swiss think the vote can take care of everything.” (Funding for Hirschhorn’s exhibition, one notes, was approved by committee vote.) His goal, he said, was threefold: “a boycott of Blocher’s election, an echo outside the country, and a discussion of democracy itself and how it is idealized.” But not even Hirschhorn anticipated the success of this succès de scandale.

Swiss democracy is as good a model of democracy as any. One of a handful of small, rich, secular, northern European nations (like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway), Switzerland is culturally if not ethnically homogeneous. Political power is typically gained through debate and public consensus, not by money. But the Swiss now live in the geographic center of the twenty-five-nation European Union, behind still-closed borders and with a currency they insist on keeping. They are nervous about globalization, immigration, and a changing Europe, whose population is moving around as never before. The murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a member of the local Islamic community is only one recent event that has called attention to population shifts across Europe. Blocher and his Swiss People’s Party rose to power by opposing immigration and Swiss membership in the EU. Hirschhorn wants his compatriots to consider the possibility of their democratic insularity turning sour through the meddling of such populist demagogues. He further suggests that Blocher’s election may not have been in “good democratic consciousness” (an idea he also attacks) but resulted from geopolitical insecurity. Put simply, Hirschhorn would like Fortress Switzerland to not keep others out by raising the palisades higher. Yet provocative slogans in his installation—like “Art is the antithesis of democracy!”—seemed only to heap complexity on visual confusion.

The Swiss are a people who don’t rile easily, but Hirschhorn struck a nerve, and his countrymen (many traveling from home) along with Parisians came to the show by the hundreds, traipsing through the cardboard corridors and the onslaught of political broadsides, through the theater, conference room, and café, arriving in the photocopy room, where the artist held court every day—friendly, earnest, convinced—openly welcoming their questions. I asked Ritter how he felt about the Swiss reaction. He sidestepped the question, remarking that even democracy could go too far, and then he started complaining about all the bureaucratic paperwork.

Jeff Rian is an editor of Purple magazine and a regular contributor to Artforum.