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TRUTH OR DARE: THE ART OF WITNESSING

Thomas Hirschhorn, Das Auge (The Eye) (detail), 2008, mixed media. Installation view, The Power Plant, Toronto, 2011. Photo: Steve Payne.

IN AN INTERVIEW published when his 2008 work Das Auge (The Eye) was installed at the Power Plant in Toronto earlier this year, Thomas Hirschhorn declared: “I want to give a form which resists facts, which resists opinion and which goes beyond actuality, which reaches beyond information—that is why I invented the motif ‘eye and its capacity to see everything red. . . . The eye doesn’t need to know—the eye just sees and that’s what counts.”¹ Coming from an artist famous for his impassioned political engagement, this statement is surprising, if not shocking. Hasn’t a great deal of politically inclined art, from the advent of Conceptualism to the heyday of institutional critique and right up to contemporary docudramatists such as Walid Raad and Emily Jacir, flaunted its proximity to information—taunting and titillating us with “facts” aimed at changing our minds (or merely confirming our beliefs)? And contra Hirschhorn’s claim that “the eye doesn’t need to know,” hasn’t the value of art, since Michel Foucault transformed cultural studies, been linked precisely to its status as knowledge, as discourse? And hasn’t this discourse been recognized as the mold for something promiscuously labeled a subject (an avatar put in place of the complexities of human experience that is so straitened in its capacities, so caricatural in its motivations, that it strikes me as more like a marketing profile than a breathing person)? Yet Hirschhorn still insists that he wants to resist facts, to reach beyond information, and to maintain the centrality of the eye that “just sees.”

What is Thomas Hirschhorn trying to tell us? Does he really mean to say that Das Auge’s tableau of bludgeoned toy seals, its world flags and protest placards in various patterns of red, the horrible photographs of shattered bodies that paper so many of its surfaces, the chic dummies modeling blood-splattered fur on a diagonal runway, and the giant childlike model of an eye presiding over it all are not meant to tell us anything? The answer is YES! Hirschhorn understands that we are simply told too much. Most information, in art as in the media, is prepackaged pabulum: As he declares in the same interview, “There is more and more to analyze today, media, journalism, opinions, and comments want to impose their ideology of information. I do not need to be informed—I need to be confronted with the truth.”²

If there is a politics of art today, it has nothing to do with the bland consumption of information—whether in newspapers, on iPads, or on museum walls. Neither can it be found in the inflated, politically correct “deconstruction” of discourse or the exposure of cartoon subjectivities. Let’s face the fact that most of what we call political art is no more than mildly polemical grist for the market: radical-chic consumption analogous in its (largely unintended) affirmative function to the expensive locavore markets and restaurants that are found in the same cities that serve as capitals of art exhibition and consumption. A truly political art now—if it is possible—has little to do with Adornian anti-art strategies of negation on the one hand or representing explicitly political themes on the other. One may easily glide unperturbed by the yards and yards of unambitious displays—“professional but flat,” a colleague quipped to me—of this year’s Venice Biennale, consuming the fully deracinated “politics” of curator Bice Curiger’s “ILLUMInations” without its having the slightest effect except mild dyspepsia (if, that is, one can stave off the more virulent affliction of boredom).

The specificity of our current moment lies in a degree of image saturation that was unimaginable throughout most of the past century. As we are constantly told, we now consume images 24/7: on our phones, in elevators, in taxis, etc. Under these conditions, modernist tactics of trauma or defamiliarization are no longer effective. While ethical dilemmas regarding the challenges and seductions of spectatorship were central to the entire history of twentieth-century art, it is a result of critical laziness in recent years that Guy Debord’s concept of the spectacle—a surfeit of images, accumulated like capital—is so often posited as a quasi-totalitarian condition of visual domination, both in the art world and in consumer culture at large. Hirschhorn is among the few artists who have succeeded in introducing sufficient complexity—and ambiguity—into the mechanisms of the spectacle to push viewers beyond either blind affirmation or blanket condemnation. He has put in their place new strategies of selection and affect: an epistemology of search. When he says, “I do not need to be informed—I need to be confronted with the truth,” truth for him means making a decision about what to see and how to look.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Crystal of Resistance (detail), 2011, mixed media. Installation view, Swiss pavilion, Venice. From the 54th Venice Biennale. Photo: Kate Lacey.

The kind of confrontation Hirschhorn demands is a form of witnessing. You and I don’t need an artist to tell us for the thousandth time that wearing fur is bad. We need to feel it incumbent on us to decide for ourselves. Witnessing requires us to shift our spectatorial position: to enter the time of image circulation and make a judgment about what we see there. The acts of being present and giving testimony sound deceptively simple, since any visit to an exhibition, no matter how casual, requires physical presence and the expenditure of some modicum of attention, a prerequisite for testimony. But passing by a long sequence of works on, say, the walls of the Arsenale in Venice and ticking them off with an art-historical sound bite (i.e., a “meaning”) does not cross the threshold of presence, let alone witnessing. It merely constitutes consumption, which requires nothing from us (except, when necessary, that we pay). To be present in a deeper sense requires what Boris Groys has identified as a vivid realization of contemporaneity: the status of being “‘with time’ rather than ‘in time,’” or that of being a “comrade of time.”³ Consumption implies closure: We consume what has assumed a form (even if that thing and that form are “immaterial”). Being a comrade of time means that the work unfolds simultaneously with our reception of it. While this is hardly a new idea (it has motivated a great deal of art since Minimalism), it is one that has become harder and harder to realize as it has become easier and easier to commodify or monetize anything from garbage to shares in mortgages anywhere in the world.

The two most talked-about art events in New York of the past couple years—Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present, 2010, in her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2010, at Paula Cooper Gallery (and currently in Venice)—are both paradigms of works that stage vivid situations of contemporaneity (not coincidentally, each was set up in a kind of theater within a museum or gallery). It was extraordinary that so many visitors to MoMA waited in line for hours to gain a place across a table from Abramović in order to meet her gaze as part of The Artist Is Present. What I found more surprising was that crowds with no intention of seeking a seat at the table spent significant lengths of time riveted by the sight of others having this experience. What did they see? No more (and no less) than a naked version of the fundamental creaturely link: a mutual gaze. At any moment this gaze could be broken or generate unpredictable effects (tears, yawns, giggles). Although Abramović was criticized by many in the art world for self-promotion, I see her work differently. It was an uncompromising and undoubtedly exhausting commitment to liveness—at the very moment when liveness seems most under threat by our famously mediated forms of socializing. The Clock, on the other hand, which marks time on a twenty-four-hour cycle through a collage of film clips featuring clocks showing the actual time, creates an oxymoronic form of mediated liveness. Viewers are simultaneously in the time of cinematic narrative (with its formulas of suspense, horror, conflict, and romance) and still rooted in the time of their own unfolding day. I found myself watching The Clock just before a lunch date, glad to be both immersed in the work of art and on time for my appointment. The “escape” function of cinema was bent back into the everyday exigencies of marking time.

Such kinds of contemporaneity fulfill one precondition of witnessing. Aside from presence, however, a further requirement is the positive decision to testify, which is a decision not only about how and what a spectator sees but also a weighing of its veracity, its authority, its ethical consequences, etc. This necessity of taking a stand is what makes witnessing a political form of spectatorship. But I wish to be explicit here: I am not arguing that the onus of creating the conditions for presence and testimony falls entirely (or even preponderantly) on the spectator. The role of artists is not merely to provide content for such experiences but to generate situations that enable witnessing. We are used to consuming countless images in endless streams—it’s easy to become inured to even the most horrific pictures that enter our field of vision. On the other hand, it is an affirmative, political act for an artist to establish an occasion on which witnessing must occur—and this is extremely difficult to do.

Here is where Hirschhorn’s work has been so inventive. Crystal of Resistance, 2011, the artist’s installation in the Swiss pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, offers the latest example of the various types of pressure that he applies to visitors to lead them to confront their ethical position as witnesses. First, all of his environments are purposely and extravagantly overproduced, so one inevitably asks oneself on entering, “Where should I look first?” There is a kind of blindness involved in the horror vacui of Hirschhorn’s works that makes one acutely aware of the difficulty of finding a place for one’s gaze to rest. Consequently, the possibility of “comprehending” (or consuming) the structure of one of his installations is correspondingly remote. In short, one must decide how to navigate them. Second, with Hirschhorn’s recent use of extremely explicit images of war casualties, typically drawn from the Internet, one must also ask oneself whether to look—on account of both squeamishness (they are very painful to see) and delicacy (there is something obscene about peering at these shattered and often partially naked bodies gruesomely turned inside out). Finally, there is the fundamentally political question of one’s personal responsibility for looking. Hirschhorn can lead a spectator to this point, but it is her own responsibility to act on it (or not).

Thomas Hirschhorn, Crystal of Resistance (detail), 2011, mixed media. Installation view, Swiss pavilion, Venice. From the 54th Venice Biennale. Photo: Romain Lopez.

The dense environment of Crystal of Resistance features several sculptural effigies of mobile devices such as smartphones and iPads, as well as a cyclonelike tower of monitors whose screens show images of fingers scrolling through a seemingly endless digital-camera roll of photographic carnage and occasionally zooming in, as if human digits were literally probing the gaping bodies made accessible through technological reproduction. A visitor encountering this tower is pressed to ask herself, What does it mean to “touch” these bodies? Is it OK to have the world on one’s smartphone and adopt “scanning” (the same type of looking fundamental to window-shopping) as one’s principle of global mobility? Is looking enough, or is looking too much? As the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk recently declared, “The reality construction of subjective capitalism is in fact fully built on competitions for visibility.”⁴ Hirschhorn stages such competitions as lures for the spectator.

The most profound species of question prompted by Hirschhorn’s work is how to give meaning to looking. Networks are often imagined as sleek, smooth, and frictionless, while in reality they are full of trash, redundancy, and jury-rigging—just like Hirschhorn’s extravagant environments. As its title indicates, Crystal of Resistance makes use of crystalline principles of construction, characterized by a process of repetition and reflection that is rhizomatic in its irregularity and thus distinct from the geometrically ordered seriality of Minimalism or Conceptual art. As in nature, the crystalline in Hirschhorn’s hands is organic, so pictures and objects combine into formations rather than conforming to an “intelligible” discursive structure as would, say, a photo essay. Hirschhorn operates from the conviction that images follow their own set of “natural” laws. The mechanism of celebrity offers a good analogy. After a certain tipping point of dissemination, images begin to generate more and more reiterations: They become newsworthy in and of themselves. In other words, pictures grow like crystals, proliferating rapidly after their initial nucleation. Consequently, it is not the iconography of crystals that matters in this work, but rather the behavior of crystals—as a model of the origin, replication, and concentration of images. Hirschhorn’s environment, one might say, crystallizes out of the spectacle: Its form is as indigenous to its ecological conditions as stalactites and stalagmites are native to the environment of caves. The artist insists on this primacy of emergent form when he writes, in his statement accompanying the piece, Art is the problem and art can give form to the problem. There’s no solution to figure out—on the contrary—the problem must be confronted. And this is only possible in a panic. Panic is what gives form and this form is art.”

In its initial equation of information with objects, and in its subsequent belief that promulgating information can lead to “figuring out” a solution (even if through subversion or “deconstruction”), Conceptual art has lost its relevance. It and its progeny have tumbled into the status of just another “service product” sold in a knowledge economy. If, as Hirschhorn exhorts us, there is no right answer (or, in other words, no art-historical sound bite with which to categorize an artwork), we must be more alert in our looking and in our attesting to art. Hence the insistence that we must be present in order to make a decision about a formation of images, and that we must then testify to its effects, both personal and political. But first an artist has to lead us to the point of caring—perhaps even put us in a panic. For if art is ever to become genuinely political again, it will have to do so through a politics of witnessing. And this presumes the vivid, visceral assertion (at which Hirschhorn excels) that looking itself is not innocent—it is a commitment, a contract, an embarrassment, an accusation, a turn-on, and an assault, but never just a simple act of consumption.

David Joselit is Carnegie professor of the history of art at Yale University.

NOTES

1. “Gregory Burke Speaks with Thomas Hirschhorn,” in Thomas Hirschhorn: Das Auge (The Eye) (Toronto: Power Plant, 2011), unpaginated.

2. Ibid.

3. Boris Groys, “Comrades of Time,” in What Is Contemporary Art?, ed. Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, and Anton Vidokle (New York: e-flux journal, 2010), 32.

4. Peter Sloterdijk, Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation, trans. Mario Wenning (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 203.