PRINT October 2019



Thomas Hirschhorn, Robert Walser—Sculpture: A “Presence and Production” Project in Public Space, 2019, Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. Photos: Enrique Muñoz García.

THIS SUMMER, on the placid waters of Switzerland’s Lake Neuchâtel, the artist Daniel Keller and I gave a talk on “deep adaptation,” an extreme yet increasingly mainstream response to impending climate catastrophe. Titled “New Models Module: Imagining Collapse,” the lecture looked to the far reaches of digital networks (guided by artist Joshua Citarella’s work on Gen Z culture) to convey the spectrum of disparate, radical ideations of post-collapse societies that have been gaining traction online.

Heading home the next day, we changed trains at Biel/Bienne, where just beyond the station’s entrance stood a sprawling structure covered in DIY banners and spray-painted text. At the center, and visible from the station, was a massive sign: ROBERT WALSER ♥ FOR EVER. We had happened upon Thomas Hirschhorn’s latest homage to European intellectuals, the interactive, eighty-six-day-long Robert Walser—Sculpture: A “Presence and Production” Project in Public Space, 2019.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Robert Walser—Sculpture: A “Presence and Production” Project in Public Space, 2019, Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. Photos: Enrique Muñoz García.

To be honest, I hadn’t seen or really even thought about Hirschhorn’s work in some time. Coming to prominence in the late ’90s and early 2000s alongside the projects of Liam Gillick, Philippe Parreno, and Rirkrit Tiravanija, his art had been associated with the erstwhile genre of relational aesthetics. And indeed, his dystopian, science-fair-style presentation of too much information (all of it fact-intensive and free for the taking) fit perfectly with the then-popular notion of good art as that which could serve as a “laboratory” for viewer participation. Yet the Swiss artist has countered this assessment. With activist roots in the leftist French design collective Grapus, he claims he has never aimed merely to “activate” public space, but rather to compel an exchange with his audience through radical inclusion and confrontation, to give of himself so fully that viewers would feel obligated to join in.

Whatever the case, Hirschhorn’s was a banner name for early-twenty-first-century exhibition culture, figuring prominently in Harald Szeemann’s Forty-Eighth Venice Biennale (1999) and in Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 (2002). In part, his visibility stemmed from the mediagenic nature of his work. His installations resemble the wreckage of natural catastrophes from afar and resolve, at closer range, into fractal agglomerations of current news headlines and above-the-fold images. Importantly, Hirschhorn has often sited his projects in economically precarious neighborhoods (e.g., his Bataille Monument, 2002, located within an immigrant-housing development in Kassel and his Musée Précaire Albinet, 2004, which temporarily relocated several works from the Centre Pompidou to a low-income Parisian housing block), bringing attention as well as canonical art and theory to regions beyond established art-world routes. All of this made great fodder for ’00s debate, set as it was against a backdrop of accelerated globalization and the digital colonization of informal economies worldwide.

In the past several years, though, Hirschhorn’s work has somewhat receded from thought, which is curious given how very present he had been and how active he remains.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Robert Walser—Sculpture: A “Presence and Production” Project in Public Space, 2019, Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. Photos: Enrique Muñoz García.

BACK AT THE STATION, Daniel and I set out to explore Robert Walser—Sculpture in the brief hour before our next train. Comprising, in all, some forty departments, Hirschhorn’s latest and largest public work was a literal social platform crafted from plywood and OSB. Big enough to be its own destination, it also included a decentralized fleet of local taxis stocked with Hirschhorn-anointed Walser books; a free book exchange; a bookstore filled with translations of Walser’s novels into non-Romance languages; and a section titled “Apporter le Monde Arabe” (Bringing in the Arab World), its purpose to do just that.

Unsure where to begin, I loaded on my phone, bringing up a skeuomorphic “handwritten” list—THEATER, BAR, VORTRÄGE (lectures), TÄGLICHE VERNISSAGE (daily opening), FORUM, RESIDENCY, and so on. With this sculpture came an entire art-world language pack that, with its emphasis on communality and democratic communication, had been a mainstay of early-’00s art writing before the internet scaled up and this lexicon faded.

Is it odd that we don’t speak of “forums” anymore in the Hirschhornian sense? Not really, I reasoned, because that term now more strongly connotes sub-reddits and chans, which, even if nominally “democratic,” are hardly paragons of enlightenment values or a Habermasian public sphere. Even a “daily Vernissage” now sounds improbable, or from another time, recalling a moment before the middle tier of the gallery world had contracted, when a collective belief in a commonly held art world still felt possible. There was something forced about this language to a 2019 ear.

When I met back up with Daniel, he was standing by the departures board looking at his phone. He read aloud a Guardian headline: “‘Hell Is Coming’: Week-Long Heatwave Begins Across Europe.” How could Hirschhorn’s work, I wondered, compete with the clear and present concerns that now fill the public sphere—both online and off? When would we start to see Big Art’s own “deep adaptation” to a culture whose concerns and common ground are profoundly shifting? I still thoroughly enjoyed Robert Walser—Sculpture and appreciated the intense labor that must have gone into its making. But in 2019 perhaps the goal should no longer be to create a form, as Hirschhorn would have it, that strives above all to court “the other.” Perhaps it should be to build a framework that can accommodate the fragility not only of democracy but of the natural ecosystems on which society in any form is dependent, a framework of which the other seeks, of its own accord, to be meaningfully a part. 

Caroline Busta is a writer based in Berlin.