Thomas Hirschhorn

Galerie Susanna Kulli

There are moments of sheer horror when language fails us and images are wordlessly burned into our memory. Again and again, Thomas Hirschhorn has incorporated images like these in his installations, creating contexts that allow them to speak. In his most recent work, the series “Ur-Collagen” (Ur-Collages), 2008, he returns to the most basic form of the collage as a constellation of two images. In each of the works, he covers part of a two-page spread from a fashion magazine with a picture from the Internet showing charred and tattered human bodies or remnants of corpses left lying in the street. Scenes the mainstream news media are likely to refrain from publishing are here combined with the elegantly posed, beautifully lit limbs of models showing off accessories. The downloaded images conceal any text in the fashion spread, so that the two visions of bodies communicate wordlessly via gestures and the interplay of color, structure, and light. What at first appears to be a crude contrast between seduction, revulsion, and horror provides a highly potent dose of unsettling reality.

“Hard facts” are what Hirschhorn once spoke of when he arranged a huge number of press photos clipped from newspapers and magazines in his studio. These “Ur-Collages” are themselves “hard facts”: They turn the most straightforward conjunction between two snippets of reality into an unavoidable certainty. Even the strictly regular presentation of these similarly sized landscape-format images in two horizontal rows (with one exception in the back office) underscored the inevitability of confrontation within each individual event. Simply looking produces a moment of recognition. The censorship of perception, after all, lies not only in the collective suppression of certain source images but even more in the way each of us controls what we see. It’s surprising how naturally the simple dualism of these images gives rise to a binary understanding. Reality lies not in one of these bits of printed matter but in the process that links them. What the “Ur-Collages” emphasize is not the fleetingly associative moment of collage making itself, but rather its consequence; they function like a particle accelerator that smashes stereotypical meanings together in a forced collision, releasing new energy.

This time around, Hirschhorn created complexity not from an overwhelming abundance of material but via deliberate reduction to the basics: This is how it is—and therefore everything can be understood quite differently. At the entrance to the show were stacked brochures whose glossy covers simultaneously contained and rejected their matte-printed interiors. Leafing through these, one might notice that Hirschhorn’s manifesto about his “Ur-Collages” includes a reference to the democratic nature of the technique: He notes that “almost everybody, sometime in their lives, has tried to make an image of this world. A collage is something universal and it is an opening toward a non-exclusive public.” The juxtaposition of heterogeneous images is a prelinguistic form of insight that simultaneously brings together multiple registers of references and relationships. Even beyond its popular appeal (or perhaps because of it), the art of collage has a political effect—it helps us to face the unspeakable, not in order to accept it, but in order to act against it.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.