PRINT November 2013

Julian Rose

Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument, 2013, Forest Houses, Bronx, New York. Photo: Chandra Glick. All works by Thomas Hirschhorn © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

THIS PAST MAY, the New York City Department of Buildings issued work permit number 220288230-01-EW-OT to Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monu­ment. The project, located in the central courtyard of the Forest Houses, a New York City Housing Authority–administered complex in the South Bronx, was constructed over the following six weeks out of some forty-five hundred shipping pallets, two hundred sheets of plywood, ten thousand linear feet of lumber, and fifteen miles of PVC tape. A sprawling compound of enclosed pavilions atop a raised platform, the temporary structure was undeniably architectonic. Ask the artist to describe his piece, however, and he will tell you that it was “pure art.”

For Hirschhorn, categorizing something as art means that it exists in a state of exception. “Art is something that reaches beyond habits.” From this perspective, then, it’s easy to see architecture as the polar opposite: In both its ubiquity and its role as the public face of institutional power, it is a manifestation of the status quo, of habit. And yet Gramsci Monument presents a paradox. While clearly out of the ordinary, disrupting the everyday realities of site and display, it is also Hirschhorn’s most architectural work to date. To join the artist in denying this quality would be to miss the ways in which Gramsci Monument bucks the laws of public space and aesthetic experience alike, operating simultaneously as architecture and art, exception and rule.

Gramsci Monument is the culmination of Hirsch­horn’s series of four homages to great thinkers. The evolution of these projects represents a remarkable effort to resurrect both public space and that which has historically defined it: the monument, whether hieratic statue or symbolic space. Hirsch­horn’s first such piece, Spinoza Monument, 1999, hewed to the form of the classical, monolithic memorial. It was cheekily located in the red-light district of Amsterdam and constructed from cardboard, garbage bags, and packing tape, but its primary element was a representational sculpture of Spinoza himself; Hirschhorn’s interaction with the surrounding community was limited to borrowing electrical power from a nearby sex shop. The next year, Hirschhorn chose to locate Deleuze Monument in a public housing development in Avignon, France, and to build it in cooperation with local residents. A figurative sculpture—an enormous cardboard bust of the philosopher, again covered with tape and plastic—anchored this project, too, but Hirschhorn added a low rectangular shed to serve as a provisional library for Deleuze-related material. The structure was vandalized soon after its completion. As if in response, Hirschhorn decided that for Bataille Monument, 2002, made for Documenta 11 and sited in the Friedrich-Wöhler-Siedlung, a housing complex in Kassel, he would not only build the project in collaboration with the community but would also remain present for its duration. There was still a major sculptural component, only now it was abstract—a looming, misshapen, organic form—and the accompanying spaces multiplied to include a library, a snack bar, and a workshop.

Hirschhorn felt in retrospect that Bataille Monument’s abstract sculpture was a distraction for visitors, who mistook it for the entire monument, when the project’s real focus was the complex pattern of use and interaction in the surrounding spaces. And so, as he says, when he began planning the Gramsci Monument almost a decade later, “I realized there was no more need for a sculpture.” It was replaced by an increasingly architectural scale and complexity. Gramsci Monument was by far the largest of the four monuments, occupying a footprint of six thousand square feet, with the widest range of functional spaces: a newspaper office, a radio station, a computer lab, a café, an open-air theater, a workshop/art studio, a library, and a gallery.

By now, this narrative of the sculptural object ceding to some form of social space is a familiar one: It’s the story, not least, of Conceptual art, relational aesthetics, and participatory art over the past five decades. And the monument is the ultimate representation of this contest between the categories of public space and art, architecture and sculpture. It’s no surprise, then, that the tradition of urban sociality and symbolic memory that the monument represents was largely rejected throughout the postwar period. Yet a viable alternative failed to appear. Instead, the interface between culture and public space became narrower and more homogenous, focused on forms of consumption and cultural tourism and serving an increasingly limited constituency, so that by the late 1990s architectural provocateur Rem Koolhaas could credibly claim that “public space is dead.” Even emerging art practices that had tried to extend into public space—Rirkrit Tiravanija’s convivial kitchen interiors, say, or Carsten Höller’s backdoor chutes—were all too easily co-opted. In contrast, Hirschhorn’s monuments have continually bypassed such preexisting institutional zones. They set off at a far remove, both geographically and demographically, from the now-habitual venues for public or participatory art. They forge their own physical infrastructure, relentlessly challenging and expanding our understanding of what constitutes public space itself.

Internet Corner windows at Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument, 2013, Forest Houses, Bronx, New York. Photo: Chandra Glick. All works by Thomas Hirschhorn © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

But if Hirschhorn has been undeniably successful in his efforts to seek out what he calls a “‘non-exclusive’ audience” for his work, these encounters are not without tension. A visitor to the Gramsci Monument might have been tempted to understand it as a kind of grassroots collaboration between community and artist alone, but a review of the role of the Dia Art Foundation, which funded and helped organize the project, quickly dispels such notions. The total budget was approximately half a million dollars, and Dia also assumed legal responsibility, taking out a substantial insurance policy to address concerns about liability expressed by the city’s Housing Authority (the landowner of Forest Houses).

Although Hirschhorn surely deserves praise for mobilizing Dia’s resources in such an original way, troubling questions remain about the role he expected local residents to play. His own rhetoric is less than reassuring. For example, while planning the piece, he wrote, “Gramsci Monument wants to be a universal artwork,” and asserted that this universality would be “a way of fighting” reductive concepts such as “identity” and “culture.” While the artist rightly dismisses simplistic identity politics, the notion of universality is equally problematic. One might have hoped for a slightly more nuanced view from an internationally famous European artist undertaking a project—one bound to raise questions not only about culture and identity but about race, hierarchy, and privilege as well—in one of America’s poorest neighborhoods, where the population is predominantly African American and Latin American.

The residents of Forest Houses did, in fact, voluntarily choose to host Gramsci Monument. Hirschhorn was actually turned away by numerous other housing projects he approached, and his collaboration with the Forest Houses residents depended largely on an open-minded response from Erik Farmer, the president of the residents’ association, and Diane Herbert and Clyde Thompson of the Southeast Bronx Neighborhood Centers. But their decision may also, understandably, have had as much to do with recognition of the material benefits associated with the project as with enthusiasm for the monument itself. Hirschhorn (through Dia) paid the residents involved in constructing and operating the monument, creating almost fifty jobs, many of them full-time.

The economic disadvantages faced by Forest Houses residents, combined with Hirschhorn’s universalist bent and the highly personal and idiosyncratic nature of the project—a monument dedicated to a philosopher of whom Hirchhorn is a self-professed “fan”—might suggest an artist (at best oblivious, at worst patronizing) imposing his own eccentric vision on the community, beginning with the appearance of the monument itself. Gramsci Monument’s rough materiality and ad hoc construction clearly recalled the aesthetic of Hirschhorn’s previous work, guided by an approach he likes to sum up as: “Energy=Yes! Quality=No!” But critics were quick to label Gramsci Monument a shantytown or an eyesore, questioning the ethics and appropriateness of its placement in an already underserved community—as if the ramshackle style implied that the residents did not deserve quality, and emblematized a vast disconnect between the author of this bizarre scheme and those subjected to it.

YET WHEN CONFRONTED with the scale and complexity of Gramsci Monument, Hirschhorn’s signature approach became a kind of extraordinary experiment in communally built architecture. Evincing a canniness born of limited time and scarcity of specialized materials, tools, and training, the monument’s collaborative construction was democratic in its very simplicity: It rejected expectations of what designed space is supposed to look like in favor of a radically pragmatic functionalism. To create the project’s raised platform, Hirschhorn and his crew simply stacked shipping pallets into a superstructure that they then covered on the sides and top with a layer of plywood. The walls were assembled in sections of four feet by eight feet to match the dimensions of an off-the-shelf plywood sheet and to minimize cutting on-site. Windows were just holes haphazardly sawed in the plywood walls, overlaid with acrylic sheets affixed with staples, screws, and packing tape. Roofs were blue tarps thrown over rudimentary wooden frames.

Such a minimally scripted approach meant a continual process of exchange and improvisation. When the initial method of attaching plywood siding to the stacked pallets with screws proved too time-consuming, one resident-builder suggested that the plywood could be much more quickly attached with plastic zip ties, thus inventing one of the project’s more expedient and arresting construction details. In this sense, the monument existed not just as a functional space but as an index of interaction, embodying a kind of spirited collective innovation. And this extemporaneous rigging lent the structure a surreal, almost oneiric quality—perhaps most of all where the platform was penetrated by trees already existing on the building site—that reinforced its status as a place apart, unmoored from the rational spaces of the surrounding complex. One of the residents told Hirschhorn that every time she climbed onto the platform, she felt like she was on a ship.

Interior of the Gramsci Library at Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument, 2013, Forest Houses, Bronx, New York. Photo: Chandra Glick. All works by Thomas Hirschhorn © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

The structure also evolved to meet specific needs. For example, as the theater was being built, everyone realized that it was too small; the stage would be on the elevated platform, with the audience seated on the ground below. This arrangement created an obvious spatial (and inevitably social) hierarchy, so the artist simply ordered more pallets and extended the stage, keeping the audience level with performers. Perhaps most important, though, was Hirschhorn’s activation of these spaces. He programmed a frenetic array of events, some recurring daily (happy hours, children’s art classes, radio shows, philosophy lectures) and others once a week (poetry readings, open mikes, lectures by Gramsci scholars, a community-curated visiting-artist series), all adding up to what Thompson approvingly described as “constant activity, capable of getting the whole community involved.” Indeed, this incessant activity seemed to ensure the engagement not only of the local residents but of the multiple publics who visited the monument throughout the summer, helping to lessen, even if it could never erase, the divisions between visitor and resident.

Gramsci Monument was at its most successful when these experiences exceeded the artist’s control. One day, shortly before the beginning of the school year, a local charity helped to organize the donation of free school supplies to resident children, co-opting the monument unannounced. Asked why the event took place there rather than at the neighborhood community center, one of the organizers simply said: “This is where all the people are.” A week later, a visitor from Occupy Wall Street showed up to talk to Hirschhorn about offering classes in civil disobedience. The artist declined, somewhat quixotically refusing to dictate an involvement in local politics. But that same afternoon, a local activist dropped by the radio station and publicized an event where residents could meet candidates for the upcoming mayoral election at a nearby church, encouraging them to turn the discussion to the New York Police Department’s highly controversial stop-and-frisk tactics, which are rampant in the precinct encompassing the Forest Houses. Such casual and fluid intersections of the practical and critical were redoubled for residents and visitors alike through the constant background activity of the café, the newspaper offices, and the computer lab, not to mention through the steady stream of visitors and residents exploring the monument’s less formal spaces, lingering on stairs or plastic-taped couches.

Far more important than the implementation of any one activity, then, was Hirschhorn’s fundamental insight that public space cannot simply be engineered. After all, Gramsci Monument is located in what is essentially a failed public space: the courtyard of a city housing complex. Both the cruciform brown-brick towers of the Forest Houses and the large green spaces in which they sit are the legacy of a modernist attempt to find a single architectural solution to a complex social challenge, as if housing the urban poor were a problem that could be isolated and resolved simply by finding the right ratio of windows per apartment, units per floor, or tower footprint to surrounding park. But this architecture imploded both symbolically and functionally, to the point that “the projects” has become shorthand for an entire range of social and political problems. It is precisely in opening up a radical alternative to architecture-as-usual, while simultaneously emphasizing architecture’s fundamental capacity to develop social interaction—triggering fluid and interwoven processes of construction, inhabitation, and interaction—that Gramsci Monument reaffirms the possibility of public space.

And yet this affirmation remains elusive. Officially, the work permit for Gramsci Monument belonged to the class “Alteration Type II,” typically granted to repair or refinish jobs in existing spaces, which the Department of Buildings emphasizes must result in “no change in use, egress, or occupancy.” Given the temporary nature of the project, this was the path of least resistance to getting all-important city approval for construction, and the fleeting, sly solution was perfectly in keeping with the transience and flexibility of the work. At the same time, for anyone who witnessed the astonishing range of transformations in use and occupancy that Gramsci Monument brought to the Forest Houses courtyard over the course of the summer, the deadpan certainty of this bureaucratic language is bound to be deflating. As Hirschhorn’s public projects become more spatially and socially complex—more architectural—they will also have to interface more directly with the powers that regulate the spaces they enter. After all, the closest real-life parallel to the spontaneous, community-built model of the Gramsci Monument might just be the shantytown that critics invoked. And even if the freewheeling favela may be bottom-up to the housing projects’ top-down infrastructure, both are, of course, products of the same fundamental structural inequalities. In setting up a framework for unbridled escape, Hirschhorn risks only reinscribing an analogous structure of underlying control. Future works may need to present a challenge that cannot be so easily dismantled.

Julian Rose is a senior editor of Artforum.