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Clinging to the Wreckage

Thomas Hirschhorn sees past the sunny surface of life on a cruise ship—and in the art world.

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Think of the apocalyptic final scene in Zabriskie Point, where the blown-up remnants of an exploded home fill the optic field from edge to edge. Now picture it in 3-D. What you’d see is a little bit like Concordia, Concordia, Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation at Gladstone Gallery. (Not that he’d call it that: “I hate the word installation,” he’s said. “I use the term display.”) Whatever you label it, it’s meant to overload—what painter Kazimir Malevich described as the collision of “the world of meat and the world of iron.” Put that idea together with Francis Bacon’s flayed popes, and you’ve got a sense of Concordia, Concordia: a tour de force, intransigently denying and almost suicidal, a structured form of chaos and annihilation.

In 2005, I concocted the phrase “Clusterfuck Aesthetics” to describe the massive agglomerations and constructions of found and made stuff, the sprawling ­Dada-inflected sculptural termite mounds, material madhouses, and visually discombobulating Gesamtkunstwerks, or “total artworks,” that were and are proliferating in galleries. Hirschhorn is the living master of this testosterone-driven form, following in the footsteps of the great Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Beuys, Robert Smithson, Eva Hesse, and Judy Pfaff. This one is huge, all but obliterating the space of the gallery. (Another Hirschhorn bugbear: “I despise luxurious, stripped-bare spaces with clear, elegant lines.”)

Unlike most Hirschhorn artworks, this one is not something you can walk into and around. Just inside the entrance, your passage is blocked by mounds of stuff. You look from only one vantage point. You’re at the start of either an episode of Hoarders or a hypertrophic atavistic version of Étant donnés, Marcel Duchamp’s “installation” seen only by peering through a hole in a pair of barn doors. Hirschhorn blows those doors off: Within the gallery is a gigantic tipped-over room, festooned like a glitzy wrecked bar mitzvah or ballroom. Piles of handmade and found stuff are everywhere. Tables are attached to one wall; a tacky, sparkly light fixture juts out of the other. Soon you get that the wall with the fixture was a ceiling and the one with tables was the floor. Books cascade from tangles of packing tape (a Hirschhorn signature material). Everywhere are fluorescent fixtures, foam life preservers, carpet, clocks, chairs, flat-screen TVs, plates, a tipped-over baby-grand piano. Atop one wall is a large model of a ship falling out of a glass case. Here, I really miss the chance to mingle with it all, the up-close infinitude of sifting through contrasting materials, textures, space, and all fetishistic weirdness. But the thing still zings.

The title refers to the tragic fiasco of the Costa Concordia, the immense cruise ship that capsized off Italy in January, killing 32 people. Hirschhorn writes, “I was struck by this apocalyptic upside-down vision of the banal and cheap ‘nice, fake, and cozy’ interior.” He says he wants to confront “self-produced disaster in its incredible normality … I want to do a Big work to show that the saying ‘Too Big to Fail’ no longer makes any sense. On the contrary, when something is Too Big, it must Fail—this is what I want to give Form to.” And whoa, does he ever.

There are two sociohistorical skeleton keys to the work. One is didactic: a scattered pile, near the entrance, of pages from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Given that cruise ships are islands of bourgeois excess, that’s a little bit on-the-nose. Subtler and better is the large reproduction of Théodore Géricault’s tremendous nineteenth-century masterpiece of abjection, death, and destruction, The Raft of the Medusa. Like Concordia, Concordia, this painting depicts a real-life shipwreck, showing survivors, some dead, others dying, one staring out zombielike, perhaps having already eaten one of his comrades to stay alive. All are desperate for a way out of this hell. This nineteenth-century event called an entire social order into question. Hirschhorn is saying, “We’re these people! The game’s up!”

Concordia, Concordia, is a monument or gravestone to the fact that there have never been this many people on Earth at once; no economic, ethical, or religious systems have ever been this large. It’s a rendition of hyperconsumption, failed states, militarization, and 1,000 conflicting casus belli. As Edward O. Wilson writes, “We have created a Star Wars civilization with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” But Concordia isn’t only about global self-obliteration, habitat destruction, and overpopulation. It’s a double-edged metaphor for the top-heavy operational apparatus of the worldwide art system, of a hundred art fairs and international biennials, galleries growing larger as artists work in smaller spaces, and skyrocketing prices during a worldwide economic contraction. The art world’s reflexes are shot and its systems so predetermined that they’re driving us; we’re no longer driving them. They’re less susceptible to paradox, discovery, ambiguity, and all the exquisite deviations and orphic oddness that brought us to art in the first place.

Yet Concordia makes us ponder the massive expense and effort that must go into its making, dismantling, storage, and reinstallation someday in a public or private space. In other words, art like this, and the world that supports it, may itself be too big not to fail. Concordia tells us what we already know: A crystal is cracked. It is time for mutinies, forging new topographies and plotting other courses.

Concordia, Concordia
By Thomas Hirschhorn.
Gladstone Gallery.
Through October 20.


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