Thomas Hirschhorn

The ancient Egyptians entombed their pharaohs in rooms filled with the worldly possessions of the deceased. Thomas Hirschhorn’s Chalet Lost History, 2003, is also brimming with objects, including a massive sarcophagus. But who is buried there and why? Obviously someone with a keen, if somewhat perverse, taste for all things from the land of the Nile. You couldn’t walk through the two floors of the gallery without bumping into some display of Egyptiana: a table of miniatures and figurines laid out as if in a vitrine at the Louvre; a section of floor covered with fragments of kitschy ceramic decor copied from broken Egyptian reliefs; a wall of photos showing some of the many sphinxes, obelisks, and other Orientalizing ornaments one can see throughout Paris; or a bookshelf containing dozens of volumes on the Near East.

High art and Orientalism have gone hand in hand ever since Napoléon’s conquests. However, today’s artists are mediocre Egyptologists. Their true inspiration is not archaeology but Géricault, who happily exhibited his Raft of the Medusa in London’s Egyptian Hall, initiating the phenomenon of art as exotic mass entertainment to which Chalet Lost History cannily responds. Despite their dry, specimen-like presentation, the various artifacts gathered here all appear to be nothing more than cheap tourist mementos. The pyramids are no longer the indestructible forms of legend but monuments to excess that drunk students construct out of empty cigarette boxes and beer cans. Eastern hookahs are transformed into makeshift bongs whose upright orientation echoes that of the dildos in the downstairs gallery, while the beauties of the Turkish bath are made over into hard-core porn images stashed not so secretly underneath the mummy case. This is not the usual sterile museum installation but a motley assemblage of debris left over after a debauched late night out, all temporarily held together by means of those waste materials par excellence, packing tape and cardboard.

In this “chalet,” history as the study of real objects and persons is not just lost, it is dead, eaten up, and spit out by the ebb and flow of consumptive desires and pop rituals and, finally, buried in a fluorescent-lit tomb. This is nowhere more apparent than in Hirschhorn’s treatment of photographs and news clippings from the war in Iraq. Unlike the representation of Egypt, the image of Iraq in Chalet Lost History never coalesces into architectural motifs and manufactured bric-a-brac, let alone into debased versions of them. It enters directly onto the information superhighway, represented here by bits of text and photographs spread out across the walls, like so many clips and headlines wired in from the Middle East and destined for the next late-breaking news update. One is not meant to understand these word fragments (taken from a forthcoming manuscript by Hirschhorn’s sometime collaborator, the writer Manuel Joseph) as a kind of magic key unlocking the secrets of the piece. They make little sense except perhaps to say that in contemporary corporate media, words and images can be as meaningless, false, and ultimately as expendable as the faux-bois cardboard panels to which they are here attached.

Paul Galvez