Thomas Hirschhorn: Doing Art Politically: What does it mean?

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Hirschhorn, Thomas. "Doing Art Politically: What does it mean?."
Lecture, the Royal Academy, London, November 5, 2008.

Key Words: politics, the other, form, multi-tack significance, decision-making as form, self-objectification

Other Words: mannequin, surfaces, the specter of evaluation, the metaphor of "going behind"

Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn is best known for his large installations marked by a handmade aesthetic. His two and three-dimensional collages combine banal materials including tape, photocopies, low-quality images, toy animals and other familiar “stuff”. Hirschhorn discussed his recent installation at The Succession (Vienna, Summer 2008) at the Royal Academy (London, November 2005). Reflections on “form,” “Other(s),” and “multi-tack significance” mapped Hischhorn's distinction between "doing art politically" and "doing political art".

Form: The question of form, argues Hirschhorn, is always the most important for an artist: It's here an artwork's political significance is determined. At stake in this signification are two concerns in particular: “Where does the artist stand (in relation to his or her subject)?” and “What does the artist want?”. Artists address these questions through how their artworks "comes together". In the case of The Eye, this includes five aspects: (1) the materials (tape, photocopies, etc.); (2) the tool (similar to a motif; in this instance, an eye); (3) the dynamic (the colour red); (4) the technique (collage); (5) the premise (an eye that only sees red); and the goal (a new "sense" with which to create a "new" world).

Hirschhorn differentiates "form" and "aesthetics". To express it schematically: If form = the parts and the whole and how they interrelate, aesthetics = the manifestation of these relations and the sensory-emotional value they invoke. Consequently, an artwork's aesthetics is event-like in structure, shifting through its making, presentation and reception.

Interestingly, Hirschhorn claims he's often disappointed in the aesthetics of his work, lamenting for instance, the tape's shabby appearance. Nevertheless, he stays "true" to his formal decisions, an act of fidelity akin to sticking with the political position his artwork aims to embody.

There's something reassuring about Hirschhorn’s formula. Making decisions and following through... A developmental trajectory where the lines of affect are clear, at least on the surface. This working process bespeaks Hirschhorn's individual control: The terms for his engagement are self-determined in advance.

For better or for worse, collaborative working doesn't work this way. Group decision making is messy; the outcomes are unstable. Subject to interpretation, they slip and fix for both the individual and the group... Rough consensus may forge shared understanding, but it has limits. It can't, for instance, easily accommodate individuals who change their mind.... Under rough consensus, collaborators may voice their positions when decisions are first made. But unless the outcomes are reviewed, there is no mechanism for registering how positions change.

For Hischhorn, form is the political implications of the artist's decision. In my experience of collaboration, form is shaped by the politics of the decision-making process itself. In other words, decision-making is a form in its own right--But does this make it art?

Other: Hirschhorn says he not only makes work for an Other...but also imagines himself as an Other for his work. (Self as superaddressee?) This is not say he makes work for himself. His self as Other implies a process of self-objectification, of distancing of oneself from one’s self to create space for different experience(s).

Hirschhorn did not discuss making artwork for himself as a specific other (nor, for that matter, any other Other). Nevertheless, it's interesting to speculate about who this Other or Others might be (Hirschhorn's muse?). My sense: this Other is Modernist through an through - a generic figure whose very humanity resides in his universality. Hirschhorn's work is nothing if not anti-relativist. Good and bad, yes and no, true and false: He embraces binaries to oscillate rather than vacillate between them, perhaps for moralizing effect.

This may be unfair. Hirschhorn says he does not view the Other as a monolithic category. There are the Art World Others (critics, curators, etc.) and while aware and respectful of their assessment of his artwork, something he terms the “spectre of evaluation” (after all, these people are just doing their jobs), he does not work for them; he does not pander to their interests and expectations. Or at least this is his claim. Instead, it makes artworks for a non-specialized audience...these are his ideal addressees.

Multi-tack Significance: This is not a term Hirschhorn uses. But he implied as much when he talked about the ways in which he chooses objects that invite multiple readings, objects that resonate with various kinds of cultural significance. Consider, for example, his propensity for mannequins. (1) They look like people, they are sculptures of “us”, and he enjoys the instance of misrecognition/recognition they invite upon encounter. (2) They are used to both sell and protest. Although not common practice in my experience, Hirschhorn claims mannequins often don signs around their necks as a kind of protest by proxy. (3) They have a long legacy in the history of avant-garde art; the Surrealists, for example, often used mannequins in their work. Witness Dali's Rainy Taxi.

What's striking about Hirschhorn’s multi-tack significance is the way he summons all these references simultaneously. He does this to create friction between the various aspects of his artworks - the colour, the scale, the texture, etc.

Making Art Politically vs. Making Political Art: For Hirschhorn, this distinction seems to reside largely in the artist’s decision-making process, in what kind of form he determines his content will take. While failing to address this distinction at length, he emphasized the artist’s responsibility to go behind the surface of theory, practice and images, especially iconic images, and attempt to empty them out of their specific significance.

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MB: The complexity of collaborative decision making connects to Antonio Negri's discussion of the Spinozist presupposition of the body (or, for Negri, "the multitude") as something that can never be fully understood. "You cannot know how much a body can." (as quoted in "Approximations: Towards an Ontological Definition of the Multitude" [This makes me think of Godard's quote that "It takes two to make an image"...]). Hence working collaboratively involves immersion in unknowing, an experience that invites interpretations... On the one hand, collaborators may find the constant negotiation discombobulating; on the other, they may take solace in--and even enjoy--consciously operating in this way. Trite but true: Change is the only certainty, and especially so in collaborative working. (November 9, 2008)