Housing Art

John Haber
in New York City

Thomas Hirschhorn: Gramsci Monument

Thomas Hirschhorn leans to lecturing America, from the standpoint of a European intellectual with a short attention span. He borrows his texts from Postmodernism and elsewhere, and he wants them to comment on imperialism, terrorism, consumer culture, and the hope for change.

They may not have all that much to say to the residents of public housing. With his Gramsci Monument, though, they speak more quietly than before—and with a welcome deference to their surroundings. This time Hirschhorn heads to the Bronx, accompanied by a whole library of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian philosopher. He may show little more than the limits of an art that asks viewers to admire the artist while playing along. He has little to add about inequality in America or philosophy. Yet the people of New York give the work a vitality all their own. Thomas Hirschhorn's Gramsci Monument (Forest Houses, Bronx, 2013)

Sleepover camp

On a Saturday in July, New York City's candidates for mayor discovered public housing. At least the Democrats did, and they were appalled. At the invitation of the Reverend Al Sharpton, they spent the night with tenants in East Harlem, accompanied only by toiletries, perhaps a sleeping roll, and the press corps. They found sympathetic hosts, rampant mold, and a lack of basic services and repairs. But that just left the important question: what would Thomas Hirschhorn do?

Would he bring blue tarp, plywood, two by fours, and duct tape to patch things up himself? Or would he stay outside in the sun, with the things that truly matter, like art class and a history of Italian Communism? As a matter of fact, he already had, with all of the above. The Swiss artist had set up shop three weeks earlier, with the opening of his Gramsci Monument in the Bronx. The surprise is not how casually he takes other people's problems as an excuse to show off. It is how little, for once, the experience turns into a zoo—and how much the tenants embrace it and make it their own.

Sleepover camp for mayoral candidates already sounds like a bad work of art. Think of Marina Abramovic going one on one with visitors to MoMA's atrium or Rirkrit Tiravanija once again dishing out food. Works like these, under the slippery label of relational esthetics, turn acts of generosity into a theme park, with the artist the main attraction. Abramovic has now started a Kickstarter project to raise funds for a museum devoted to herself. Hirschhorn, too, has a penchant for monuments to his ego. He has made empty spectacles out of war, terrorist cells, and the sinking of a cruise liner, with the fashionable French texts to prove it.

Gramsci Monument hardly sounds sensitive to the feelings of anyone but him. The rickety construction at Forest Houses Apartments, north of 163rd Street, all but screams how far it is from affordable housing or, for that matter, affordable art. Antonio Gramsci, whose portrait covers one side like graffiti, hardly promises a solution either. He is one of four philosophers for four incarnations of the project from 1999 to 2013, organized around the terms love, philosophy, esthetics, and politics. Baruch Spinoza in Amsterdam, you see, stands for love and philosophy, Gilles Deleuze in Avignon for philosophy and esthetics, Georges Bataille in Kassel for esthetics and politics, and now Gramsci in Morrisania for politics and love. I guess that makes him John, but which are the other three Beatles?

A founding member of the Italian Communist party, Gramsci died in 1937 at age forty-six, after his release from prison. Like Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt school in Germany, he used Marxism to illuminate the culture around him. His concept of hegemony describes the stifling influence of cultural norms—but also an empowering alternative to a strictly materialist view of history. It speaks to an America consumed with social media, racial profiling, and an image of the Bronx out of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Yet it may not help much with material conditions like rent or mold.

Hirschhorn devotes a library to Gramsci and assorted memorabilia. Painfully optimistic texts blare out from spray-painted banners on surrounding brick towers. Did the Italian really say that "all men are intellectuals"? Yes, but also that "all men do not have the function of intellectuals in society," just as (a footnote adds) "anyone can fry a couple of eggs or mend a jacket," but not everyone is a cook or a tailor. Did he really say "Live Learn Laugh"? Maybe after a night out, but I sure hope not.

Wanted: sincere art

The project supplies grounds for optimism all the same. Hirschhorn circulated a proposal and settled on Forest Houses after the leader of its tenants association asked to read some of Gramsci's writings. He also enlisted tenants to tackle the five-week construction job themselves. Either may sound like a true meeting of the minds or just a humbling competition, but the more time one spends there, the more one feels a shared responsibility. The artist in 2002 obliged one to crawl on one's knees to enter his work, presumably after memorizing the postmodern theory outside. Here the construction reaches up a story, with a walkway, and reading is up to you.

The entire layout works well enough as a community center, not unlike what another show called "Home Delivery." Where Andrea Zittel might have opened a trailer park, it includes a theater, a room for kids to make art, a food counter (three tacos for $5.00), a kiddie pool, a computer room, a lounge, the office for a home-grown newspaper, and a radio station with broadcasts over the Internet. On a sunny afternoon, all were reasonably busy except for the library, with other parents and kids just taking time for themselves. Art class was set for 1:00 (with Hirschhorn among the teachers) and lectures for 3:00 and 5:00. One can certainly wonder who will come twice in an afternoon to hear about Italy in the 1930s. Still, I rather liked that the announcement read Italien, because it meant that someone other than a Chelsea dealer had vetted it.

A few white faces other than my own lingered about, but none was looking for a gift shop. They chatted with the staff on hand, who spoke freely in return, while the elevated subway ran inaudibly and invisibly just blocks away. As I peeked into the radio station, the DJ asked for an interview, but I found myself asking questions. Did this feel his, as opposed to a European's hit and run? Plainly it did, and he felt passionately about the program's question of the day. ("Is the Americans with Disabilities Act working?") He will miss more than his gig when the show comes down.

You may still have your doubts, and you should. The enthusiastic staff was no doubt self-selected, from a community of thirty-four hundred people. And people may need a meeting place like this one, funded by the Dia Foundation, but they need a great deal else as well. The project seems oblivious to those needs, while treating public housing as a tourist attraction. When the interviewer asked where I was from, I felt too embarrassed to add that my father and grandfather were both from the South Bronx. Hirschhorn had ground even my more privileged history into dust.

The day's project newspaper had the stark look of a wanted poster. It also had an indelible image of Trayvon Martin and a plea, in full capitals: Please dont shoot cause I have a hoodie on!!!!!!! Nothing around it felt half as sincere, right down to its seven exclamation points. For a moment, the very idea of Gramsci or a monument had fallen away. And then I remembered that the newspaper would not have existed a month before.

Political art is so promising and so treacherous because it has one foot in the political and one foot in the personal, like indeed another Swiss artist, Heidi Bucher. Gramsci understood that, while the artist dances around either one. When he touches on the political, he becomes dogmatic, and when he touches on the personal, he becomes shallow and ego driven. Still, he has gained by surrendering control for a change to others. Besides, the real political spectacle is not doing much better. The candidates and the cameras moved on from East Harlem, and the press coverage did not often return from personalities to poverty.

Caving in

Like politics, Hirschhorn, too, likes to convey his despair the old-fashioned way, with a media blitz. His dealer actually called one exhibition a few years back an "optical assault." January had not yet ended, but the hyperactive art world had already begun. Unfortunately, conceptual overload has a way of taking over the joint. Few artists want more to hammer home a history lesson, and yet few live so insistently in the present tense. It can make for a muddled assault on politics and history.

Even before the Bronx, I gave Hirschhorn credit for an ugly mess that dares one to linger or to turn away. He had one of the very first takes on the art of 9/11, too, although it did not take long for the spectacle to win out over the experience. For Cavemanman in 2002, one entered a makeshift terrorist "cave" of cardboard boxes, furnished with everything the proper intellectual needs to conduct a proper jihad. In place of the Afghan border, one navigated a major gallery. Instead of the Koran, one had the standard postmodern French texts, the kind that describe reality as little more than constructed images. I found the self-reflexivity amusing and the crawl itself—or rather, watching the person in front of me forced to crawl—rather fun.

Still, I left puzzled whether the artist had anything much in mind. Had the texts on deadly politics as mere carnival become a self-fulfilling prophecy—and one limited to the galleries at that? Hirschhorn's Superficial Engagement in 2006 made the toll of violence even more explicit, but it earned its title all too well. Its chaotic accumulation of objects, images, and text includes banners, geometric patterns, grainy color prints of bloody faces, mannequins pierced by enormous nails, and goodness knows what else. The installation avoids serious concern for materials or meaning, unlike Alison Saar's spike-ridden wood figures that echo Third World cultures or Antony Gormley with steel spikes to create a human body. Hirschhorn cares more about the good old Romantic sublime, that state of awe on the border between terror and beauty.

Six years later, the artist again singled out a disaster, but as a cross between history painting and mass entertainment. The very subject of Concordia Concordia is a casino turned upside down and abandoned beneath the sea. A cruise liner, Costa Concordia, had run aground off the coast of Italy in January 2012. And while everyone involved was arguing over blame, Hirschhorn could not get enough of the damage. He took his camera beneath the waters to find the shapes and colors of Las Vegas thrown every which way, most notably at the picture plane and the viewer. To rub it in, the photographs come with an equally large reproduction of art's best-known shipwreck, The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault.

Hirschhorn raises serious questions about the course of empire, however vaguely. I thought of the dearth of American ground forces near his cave, the uncertainty of a terrorist threat to the art world despite pre-election alerts, and the hints of urban European distance from American wars. His claim of an art "beyond history" sounds evasive nonetheless. It also spells out how poorly he deals with actual history, including human responsibility for human lives. He gets to blame people for their bad taste while reveling in it. As he put it, "I wanted to do something big."

And so he did at Forest Houses, but for once the size outran even his ego, and the winners were the people and the art. "Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning," Howard Cosell announced during the 1977 World Series, taking pleasure and pride in his own fears. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, Thomas Wolfe used the borough as a backdrop to black posturing and liberal white excess. Yes, Hirschhorn still has his vanity on display, even in a combination of street art, performance, and community relations. One might call Gramsci Monument the vanity of the bonfires. Yet the Bronx is no longer burning, and it humanizes his art.

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Thomas Hirschhorn ran at Barbara Gladstone through December 21, 2002, February 11, 2006, and October 20, 2012. His "Gramsci Monument" ran in Forest Houses Apartments, off Tinton Avenue in the Bronx between 163rd and 165th Streets, from July 1 through September 15, 2013.


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