Boston and New York

Thomas Hirschhorn

Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston/Gladstone Gallery, New York

GLOBALIZATION TYPICALLY CONNOTES the free circulation of capital and information across geographical boundaries. Thomas Hirschhorn knows better. His vision of globalization drags information through the mud: Images are humiliated, subject to cheap Xerox reproduction, rough mounting on cardboard, and ostensibly haphazard composition. This representational idiom rebuts the happy world of network connectivity envisioned by Microsoft or Google with a pestilential mess in which pictures engulf the viewer like sludge. Hirschhorn is a fan of Gilles Deleuze, but unlike many of the philosopher’s academic acolytes in the United States who use terms like deterritorialization and reterritorialization abstractly, he enacts such processes formally, causing the streams of images included in two recent exhibitions, “Utopia, Utopia = One World, One War, One Army, One Dress” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston and “Superficial Engagement” at the Gladstone Gallery in New York to form cavernous terrains fit for spelunking. In an educational film produced by the ICA that accompanies “Utopia, Utopia,” the artist comments that the presence of “outgrowths” (tumorlike accretions of packing tape in camouflage patterns on the many mannequins and globes included in the exhibition) can denote the emergence of an idea, a passion, a problem—or a cancer. For me this equation between signification and cancerous outgrowth is more compelling than the equation made in the show’s title, between utopia and the international dissemination of camouflage designs, not only among armies, but, via advertising and fashion, to civilian populations as well. An outgrowth suggests a form of communication, or information, that does not pretend to a transparency of meaning, but rather operates according to the exorbitantly hyper-reproductive logic of tumors. The circulation of images, Hirschhorn suggests, may obstruct messages as easily as it conveys them.

Hirschhorn is one of the few artists I am aware of who is committed to practicing an ethics of images, by which I mean exploring and demonstrating the ways that pictures fashion our relation to one another and establish the experience of a shared world through representations of community or representations that inspire a communal identification. Within this general project his exhibitions in Boston and New York demonstrated two distinct approaches. “Utopia, Utopia,” wherein the theme is the worldwide proliferation of camouflage, arises from the thesis that in displaying a particular abstract motif (by wearing camouflage or buying products emblazoned with it), one joins the One World and One War of a global society. Put crudely, Hirschhorn suggests that fashionistas and pop stars the world over are sartorially “signing up” for the One War brought to us by the likes of George W. Bush when they wear camouflage on the streets of Paris, Los Angeles, or Tokyo. I happen to think that wearing camouflage is distasteful in our current atmosphere of militarism, but I nevertheless find Hirschhorn’s proposition extreme and almost comical in its utopianism. The exhibition displays such a profusion of items carrying camouflage designs, ranging from cigarette lighters to underwear, that the motif begins to lose its potency as a point of identification. And yet this drastic accumulation, and the resulting normalization of camouflage, is a logical consequence of the casual consumption of highly charged signs. How did we arrive at a culture where fashion models wear military drag and suburban executives drive Hummers? Are the fashion-driven cycles of consumption themselves a kind of camouflage, allowing a person to blend in, to fade away, so as to forget about the One War? Hirschhorn seems to answer in the affirmative, suggesting that our sense of community belonging is defined by an abstract military sign system that, like the Internet, has migrated into civilian life.

If “Utopia, Utopia” veered a bit too close to cuteness with its relentless iterations of domesticated camouflage, this was not the case with “Superficial Engagement.” Here, an ethical question regarding images was posed in the starkest possible terms: Unbearable photographs representing the shattered bodies of war casualties mixed with the complex patterns of abstract art. The former were collaged and jumbled together as a kind of topographical base in the life-size dioramas that filled the gallery, while many of the latter, including reproductions mounted on cardboard of abstract art by the mystic Emma Kunz, either descended or ascended, depending on one’s perspective, from the landscape of carnage in formations reminiscent of birds in flight or Bernini-esque bursts of divine light. “Superficial Engagement” stages an opposition between the capacity of images to injure, sicken, or enrage, and the pretensions of art (particularly abstraction) to heal. Must art’s political engagement be superficial in the sense of shallow and futile, Hirschhorn causes us to ask, or is it superficial because it is necessarily rooted in the meaningful, or even mystical, play of surfaces? As difficult as it was to look at the spilled intestines and blasted skulls that Hirschhorn offered up, I felt a sense of relief that finally an artist was taking on the issue of war directly—and right in the heart of cheerful, business-as-usual Chelsea. Although Hirschhorn’s opposition of figurative evisceration and abstract healing risks extreme simplification in its stark dichotomy, his directness is bracing. It gives the lie to our American world of euphemism in which devastating bombardments are advertised as “surgical strikes” and wars are planned by Halliburton.

In their profusion, Hirschhorn’s installations seem intended to defy description—indeed this is a further dimension of his ethical project. His is an art that cannot be translated into words, transformed easily into portable information: It is exuberantly and basely material and particular. So rather than attempt a comprehensive description, I will focus on three significant formal tactics that the two exhibitions share. Despite the untidiness of his aesthetic, Hirschhorn is, as he wrote in a letter to Thierry de Duve in 1994, a formalist—and an inventive one at that. The first remarkable technique that the exhibitions include is the image swarm. Much of Hirschhorn’s work has centered on enclosures of various sorts—kiosks, monuments, vitrines, and, in his 2002 show at Gladstone, “Cavemanman,” a labyrinthine cave. By contrast, “Utopia, Utopia” and “Superficial Engagement” attempt to occupy space by filling it with images from floor to ceiling. Views through the tangle of images were especially stimulating and complex, giving one the sense of following a wormhole through a thick mass of representation. For me, this swarming of pictures is a brilliant manifestation of the virtual space of the network—of the Internet. A swarm is chaotic but not without structure. Hirschhorn’s swarms establish nodes, almost as though pictorial fragments were magnetically drawn to one another. In other words, he creates an “allover” field of pictures, but one organized by concentrations, just as maps of the Internet show nodes or knots of activity at sites that receive the most hits. The experience of viewing such a pictorial landscape is at once distracting and overwhelming. Too much information results in a kind of blockage, a tumor or cancerous outgrowth where communication is suffocated in mute shock.

Hirschhorn’s second notable tactic in these and in some previous shows is the use of mannequins (or mannequin parts) and dolls. These surrogate humans are submitted to two sorts of operations: the addition of varying appendages, and clustering. The eruption of “outgrowths” on human effigies in “Utopia, Utopia” is matched in “Superficial Engagement” by a more chilling application of nails and screws, creating a bristling skin or scarification that explicitly recalls certain African practices of driving nails into wooden figures as the visible sign that a person has taken an oath. In both exhibitions a body’s extrusions indicate a social connection: a tattoo of community belonging. The same end is served by clustering bodies or body parts in very tight configurations. In suggesting a crowd or multitude, clusters of mannequins function as the social analogue to the image swarm. But as in the swarms of pictures, the assemblage of figures is so overwrought—they are pressed together so intensely that imagining communication among them is impossible—that the metaphor of community is rendered inoperative. Through their adhesions, these human effigies are made into images, even fetishes, and images and fetishes cannot form a genuine public, even though it is precisely to such reified identities, to the “dummies” they presume us to be, that politicians address themselves. It is in the realm of such shattered public communication that Hirschhorn produces his third formal tactic—the image slogan.

In his brilliant book Talking Politics: The Substance of Style from Abe to “W” (2003), Michael Silverstein attempts to explain why President Bush’s apparent incapacity to speak coherently in public has functioned not as a drawback but as an asset for him politically. He suggests that Bush’s difficulty with language shows that he’s “really trying” and that this effort creates empathy for him among citizens by establishing an aura of sincerity. But more important, Silverstein argues that persuasive language in the United States, which encompasses both advertising and politics, no longer functions in the grammatically correct units of sentences or paragraphs, but rather appears as charged image fragments, such as “Freedom’s on the march!” Silverstein calls this idiom corporatized language, which he argues is “composed by phrases and words as the units, not by sentences and paragraph-chunks of denotational exposition. It’s a compositional ‘language’—really, a code—of imagery.” Hirschhorn’s installations are packed with such quanta of corporatized language. In “Superficial Engagement” he attached several columns or lists of phrases drawn from the media on gallery walls in combinations that functioned almost like Dadaist poems. One series read in part:


And in “Utopia, Utopia” Hirschhorn extracted phrases from a text he com- missioned from the philosopher Marcus Steinweg and presented them as isolated slogans. The exhibition functioned almost like an elaborate visual footnote to Steinweg’s dense and difficult text, excerpts of which turned up throughout its labyrinthine displays.

In his thematically driven terrains of pictures, image figures, and image texts, Hirschhorn explodes the epistemology of the search engine, and carnage is everywhere. His provocative visual mayhem has more than a whiff of the terrorist about it, especially in “Superficial Engagement.” And yet his art is sometimes a little too engaging, even, at points in the Boston show, cloying, and thus disingenuous. Hirschhorn has been criticized for hypocrisy in using the impoverished materials of cardboard, Xerox, and packing tape to produce a signature style, but I don’t share that view. My one reservation lies in his exorbitant expenditures—not in cash (though it is probable that both exhibitions were expensive to produce) but in images. Perhaps seeing two representational potlatches in quick succession in Boston and New York was too much, or maybe it’s hard to let go of the Duchampian lesson of understatement. In any event, I concede the difficulty of engaging image glut with gestures of restraint. Instead, Hirschhorn has chosen to fight images with images, and his struggle is significant not least because, as an artist, he engages with ethical dilemmas that reach far beyond the art world.

David Joselit is professor of art history at Yale University.

“Utopia, Utopia” travels to the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, Mar. 10–May 13.