The Gulch Between Knowledge and Experience: Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument

Kari Rittenbach

Reviews / 17.11.2014
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Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument, 2013, Forest Houses, the Bronx, New York. All images photograph: Romain Lopez. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation

Following from his earlier Spinoza Monument (1999, realised in the red light district of Amsterdam), Deleuze Monument (2000, at the Cité Champfleury on the outskirts of Avignon) and Bataille Monument (2002, at the Friedrich Wöhler housing complex in Kassel for Documenta 11), Thomas Hirschhorn culminated his series of ‘precarious monuments’1 to a personal pantheon of philosophical heroes last year with Gramsci Monument, a temporary installation commissioned by Dia Art Foundation and sited on the Forest Houses estate in the South Bronx in New York City throughout the summer of 2013.2 Gramsci Monument thus came to fruition more than a decade after the first three temporary instalments and long after Hirschhorn’s reputation as an obstinately critical artist – and one who transcends the categorical limitations of relational aesthetics, under which he was originally lumped in the mid-1990s – had been academically cemented.

Building on the junk-aesthetic of his flimsy altars and kiosks, the larger-scale, impermanent monuments have accrued some additional pedagogical and community function, beyond any whimsical titular tribute, to greater enhance their sticking power in potentially unenthusiastic non-art contexts. Fully programmed by the artist, a team of community members and Dia-affiliated art workers, the Gramsci Monument hosted daily lectures by philosopher Marcus Steinweg (a long-time friend of Hirschhorn) and seminars on Gramsci, poetry, culture, politics and art by figures ranging from literary theorist Gayatri Spivak to curator Okwui Enwezor, historian Robin D.G. Kelley, dramaturge and critic Frank Wilderson and philosopher Christine Buci-Glucksmann. Hirschhorn himself taught a four-hour-long art class each Friday; an open-microphone session was held each Sunday; the Dia Art Foundation’s Yasmil Raymond supervised weekly day trips (to the Yankee Stadium, Dia:Beacon, the Bronx Museum of Arts, etc.); Phil Beder produced a radio station of daily programmes hosted by local DJs; and a daily newspaper was edited and published by Saquan Scott and Lakesha Bryant.

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Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument, 2013, Gramsci Archive and Library, Forest Houses, the Bronx, New York

In Gramsci Monument Hirschhorn’s excessive model of production can be both difficult to experience and, significantly, difficult to critique given its many manically moving parts and simultaneous engagement of certain taboo concepts (class, race and other markers of socioeconomic inequality; general apathy in the face of same), which seem at odds with the artist’s insistent emphasis on formalism in writing and discussing his work, rather than any social or philosophical content. However it is worth noting that the issues Hirschhorn trudges through (to whatever ambiguous end) certainly affect the rarefied art system itself, with more serious political consequences further afield.3 Absent any purpose besides offering raw ‘experience’ to those involved, then, the artist frames his attention to the ‘othered’ communities in which his monuments are situated – in every case among marginalised groups, and often in the midst of housing projects – as a neutral provocation.4 (It is hard to imagine this universalist perspective being granted to an artist with an ‘other’ ethnic, cultural or gender background, whose motivations might be seen as skewed through the particular lens of identity.5) Further, Hirschhorn’s claim paradoxically demands that participants, visitors and critics personally orient themselves relative to the terms of his intensive project, and reviews and critical accounts of the Gramsci Monument are inevitably marked by anecdotal reports that divulge an author’s particular views on and proximity to inner city experience.6 This is interesting to the extent that it forces the broaching of indelicate topics in both mainstream and niche art criticism, demonstrating that specialised cultural discourse still suffers from biases of racial and class privilege.7 It also destroys the notion of any consensus within the art community as to how contemporary social interventionist practice should look, or otherwise be evaluated. Claire Bishop’s 2006 argument against an ethical art criticism in ‘The Social Turn’ sought to absolve artists (and critics) from grappling with the full scope of cultural politics – even when they themselves engineer particularly challenging, or worse, superficial encounters.8 Yet excluding the ethical from the aesthetic hazards flattening what could be productively counter-hegemonic forces into a mere style of social practice (and does not always prevent exploitation). By operating along a non-equivalent social terrain and not exclusively within the bourgeois art system, Gramsci Monument ultimately proves the fiction of critical objectivity. The question of whom Hirschhorn’s ‘autonomous’ work serves is therefore matched by the question of who can possibly speak to it. As Glenn Ligon could not help but attest in Artforum, it ‘was admittedly hard to just “visit” the Monument the way one might visit, say, Dia:Beacon, for the site brought home the fact that we live within radically unequal zones of privilege and access in relationship to art’.9

This is interesting to the extent that it forces the broaching of indelicate topics in both mainstream and niche art criticism, demonstrating that specialised cultural discourse still suffers from biases of racial and class privilege.

Much of the New York art press rallied to the defence: Gramsci Monument paid its hired workers (Forest Houses residents) at a rate above the New York State minimum wage; the quotidian construction of plywood, Perspex and packing tape (common to other Hirschhorn monuments and installations) made the pavilion and its variously functioning chambers unpretentious and approachable; objects on loan from the Casa Museo di Antonio Gramsci in Sardinia and the Fondazione Istituto Gramsci in Rome lent historical gravitas; in the literary spirit of Gramsci, the thinker’s collected writings, borrowed from the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, Queens College, could be perused in the library alongside back issues of In Touch magazine and other printed matter; the raw materials, electronic equipment and leftover supplies would be donated to community members when the summer ended; etc.

In contrast with the early dismantlement of Deleuze Monument (due to poorly secured equipment and vandalism), the Gramsci Monument was so well managed and so well funded that its encroachment into the South Bronx was without incident, and arguably, innocuous.10 The structure did not dominate the entirety of the open space at Forest Houses, no particular requirements were made on resident participation other than from those paid in its employ, in some cases events suggested by the community itself were realised (for example, a talk by Ligon, commemorative tributes to the late Trayvon Martin) or easily coincided with ongoing events (a barbecue for the housing complex’s ‘Family Weekend’, campaigning by local borough politicians, unlicensed merchants peddling plastic sunglasses and barrettes), and the lively radio broadcast was not too loud (but could have played more Latin music proportional to rap11). To be sure the monument’s planned material obsolescence was always already saddled with certain benefits to secure its chances of being built on the home turf of the non-exclusive audience, whose particular cultural demographics and prior experiences were not terribly useful subject matter for Hirschhorn, other than serving as a foil to himself (and an art audience).12 If the installation achieved some mildly positive social manifestations, by deterring illicit activity (due to increased police presence, or simply to the higher volume of heterogeneous traffic) or providing local children with a structured and well-apportioned outlet for play (including free internet access), these factors were incidental and primarily cast into relief prior conditions of scarcity.13

This (rhetorical) question of cultural hegemony is actually at stake in Gramsci’s strand of Marxist thought, and remains unanswered – perhaps purposefully so – in the pop-up project.

The seemingly radical gesture of Hirschhorn’s capital redistribution simply affords the stable conditions for ‘confronting reality’14 by orchestrating the person-to-person encounters that constitute his experiential art. But by serving as a conduit for considerable resources to be indirectly channelled where they would not otherwise be, Hirschhorn also accidentally assumes a sort of liberal-messianic role that parodies the needs-satisfaction objectives of the welfare state: art can do this! Could productive politics, progressive taxation, diversity initiatives or public education possibly do it better? This (rhetorical) question of cultural hegemony is actually at stake in Gramsci’s strand of Marxist thought, and remains unanswered – perhaps purposefully so – in the pop-up project. That the philanthropic structure of Dia, the underwriting institution, was mirrored in the summertime provision of amenities (private funding can afford the best, so long as it remains available) was a poignant coincidence.15 Indeed while Hirschhorn’s Monument funded many surplus activities beyond its construction and maintenance – such as its shifting decoration (muslin banners and placards refreshed daily), talks programme, electricity and security – its concentrated show of spectacular energy most readily served the reputation of its author and his institutional partner, thereby reinforcing the cultural primacy of the art establishment.16 The lauded ‘presence’ of the more or less collaborative production quickly dissipates into an unshared ‘past’.

At the same time, the Monument typifies a certain anxiety over the representation of ‘art’ in contemporary public life that is not exactly clarified by its vaguely political posture, nor dissonant critical reception.17 However tenuous, the link to radical Marxist philosophy that Gramsci Monument cultivates outside an academic context (and on a visible urban scale) makes a compelling argument for the relevance of contemporary art beyond its crossover into entertainment culture.18 Because US artists and intellectuals are regularly accused of elitism, Hirschhorn’s populist assertion that ‘everyone is an artist, everyone is an intellectual’ is appealing – insofar as it is not only symbolically performed.

Thomas+Hirschhorn%2C+Gramsci+Monument%2C+2013%2C+Running+Event%C2%A0%3A%C2%A0%C2%A0Fosta%2C+From+Us+to+All%2C+Forest+Houses%2C+Bronx%2C+New+York.+Photograph%3A+Romain+Lopez.+Courtesy+Dia+Art+Foundation
Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument, 2013, Running Event : Fosta, From Us to All, Forest Houses, the Bronx, New York

It might be pertinent here to read the Monument’s aggressive sociological collage through Gramsci’s theorisation of political consensus, and the necessary class alliance between the proletariat and other exploited (or subaltern) groups for ‘a common struggle against the oppression of capital’.19 Whether Hirschhorn can be understood to take part in these struggles – or rather, embody their continued failure – is a productive point of tension. Noting that both the state and civil society rely on consensus-coercion for rule, Gramsci argued that ‘the fundamental principles of civil rights, or the “rights of man”, normally associated with liberalism may very well be universal, but in the liberal state, these rights are secured and protected in a form that privileges the bourgeoisie and perpetuates its socioeconomic dominance.’ Challenging hegemony is a discursive process; it must be ‘always contested, always historically contingent and always unfinished’.20 Mobilising such a politics could have far reaching implications for the class privileges of the cultural sphere. In New York City, where the stratification of wealth is acute and the emphasis on philanthropy in the fine arts reinforces established institutions at the expense of smaller (more diverse, more anarchic) ones, plain discussion of structural transformation in the market-driven art system is certainly needed. Hirschhorn’s inadvertent mode of ‘sculptural philanthropy’ fell short of raising such questions about the status and distribution of contemporary art in the US. The artist himself chose to dodge the hard core of the matter with fervent platitudes: ‘My decision to do Gramsci Monument does not come from an understanding of the philosopher Antonio Gramsci, rather it comes from my understanding of art and my belief that art can transform.’21 By disowning the conceptual-intellectual ends of the work, Hirschhorn ultimately reneges on the urgency of ‘thinking Gramsci today’,22 or simply leaves this task for others.

The poet and critic Fred Moten, who presented one of the Monument’s weekly lectures, has written with greater scepticism and nuance on the encounter with the ‘real’ that Hirschhorn so idealises:

Is knowledge of freedom always knowledge of the experience of freedom even when that knowledge precedes experience?23

Revisiting Gramsci in the twenty-first century should remind us that the ‘activity of reflection’24 itself remains subject to structural factors. And, in seeking to draw post-medium art and political life closer into authentic consort, we are at pains not to confuse the two.

Footnotes
  1. This is Hirschhorn’s term. See, for example, Francesco Bonami, ‘Gramsci in the ’Hood – Why Italy’s Marxist Icon Is Being Honored in the Bronx’, La Stampa, 11 July 2013, also available at http://www.lastampa.it/2013/07/11/esteri/lastampa-in-english/gramsci-in-the-hood-why-italys-marxist-icon-is-being-honored-in-the-bronx-ZD75wxIXeCuUOSnG94Bt6L/pagina.html.

  2. Completed in 1956, the near 80,000-square-metre complex has 15 buildings which are 9, 10 and 14-storeys high with 1,349 apartments housing some 3,376 residents.

  3. Such issues indelibly colour discussions of pop cultural appropriation as well as domestic matters like health care, education, employment and public safety. See Jim Salter and David A. Lieb, 'No Charges in Ferguson Case; Chaos Fills Streets', ABC News, 25 November 2014, available at http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/uncertainty-fuels-speculation-ferguson-decision-27127432.

  4. ‘Work in public space can be neither a success nor a failure. Instead, it is about the experience, about exposing oneself, about enduring and working out an experience.’ Lisa Lee and Hal Foster (ed.), Critical Laboratory: The Writings of Thomas Hirschhorn, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013, p.238.

  5. I’m reminded here of recent group exhibitions in Germany loosely organised around themes of gender or race discrimination within the contemporary art world, and the particular responses of critics to these shows, who demanded that the artists take a harder (less ambiguous) line with respect to their own identity politics at the risk of having their expressions (of dissatisfaction) misunderstood. See Pablo Larios, ‘Door Between Either And Or – Part 1’, frieze d/e, issue 11, September–October 2013, available at http://frieze-magazin.de/archiv/kritik/door-between-either-and-or-part-1/?lang=en and Philip Ekardt, ‘Committed Occidentalists’, Texte zur Kunst, 26 September 2014, available at https://www.textezurkunst.de/articles/commited-occidentalists.

  6. See for example, Barry Schwabsky, ‘More of Less’, The Nation, 23 September 2013: ‘But the trek [to the South Bronx] is at least as consequential as heading to the Great Salt Lake in Utah or the plateau in New Mexico where famous earthworks by Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria are located’ (pp. 34–35). Unlike rural Utah and New Mexico however, Forest Houses is regularly serviced by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Agency, lines 2 and 5.

  7. A point reiterated in the fallout from the 2014 Whitney Biennial’s Donelle Woolford scandal. See, for example, Coco Fusco, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back,’ The Brooklyn Rail, 6 May 2014, available at http://www.brooklynrail.org/2014/05/art/one-step-forward-two-steps-back-thoughts-about-the-donelle-woolford-debate.

  8. Bishop narrowly conceives ‘the ethical’ as specifically anti-capitalist or Christian, fallaciously disregarding its utilitarian, relativist or Aristotelian dimensions. Ethics and aesthetics are interrelated in their concern with value; and historically art has been judged in light of both (i.e. the writings of the Marquis de Sade). See Claire Bishop, ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents’, Artforum, vol.44, no.6, February 2006, available at http://artforum.com/inprint/issue=200602&id=10274.

  9. Glenn Ligon, ‘Thomas is a Trip’, Artforum, vol.52, no.13, November 2013, p.228.

  10. See Anna Dezeuze’s discussion of the Deleuze Monument de-installation in relation to the notion of precariousness in A. Dezeuze, Thomas Hirschhorn: Deleuze Monument, London: Afterall Books, 2014.

  11. Santos Perez, ‘Feedback: The Climax of the Antonio Gramsci Monument’, The Gramsci Monument Newspaper, 30 August 2013, p.13.

  12. By invoking Gramsci’s thrilling statement, ‘Every human being is an intellectual’, as a tagline for his Monument, Hirschhorn skirted discussion of social inequity, and the differences that continue to drive it. Interpreted as an act of generosity, this ‘blindness’ to the demographic of the audience he romanticises repeats a common trope of US liberal establishment politics that suppresses the articulation of historical and contemporary minority experiences, which are seen as tangential to the overall progress of assimilation.

  13. NYCHA, already suffering from sequestration and decades of disinvestment, garnered criticism in late 2012 for its belated response to residents in city boroughs affected by Hurricane Sandy (some of whom were left without heat and hot water for more than two weeks).

  14. Hirschhorn interviewed by Matthew Schum, ‘The Spectre of Evaluation’, Flash Art, no.278, May–June 2011, available at http://www.flashartonline.com/interno.php?pagina=articolo_det&id_art=696&det=ok&title=THOMAS-HIRSHHORN.

  15. With major support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Gramsci Monument was the first public art project funded by Dia since 1996. See Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, ‘Art House’, Artforum.com [blog], 15 July 2013, available at http://artforum.com/diary/id=41969.

  16. Hirschhorn’s installation can be read through Miwon Kwon’s critique of the conflation of artistic practice with the gift economy: ‘Giving things away is tied up with ego-consolidation; abdication of one’s authority asserts one’s superiority. This is a point that many critics (especially those who champion ‘interactive’ and participatory art generally, such as museum educators, public art sponsors, and internet enthusiasts) continue to miss.’ See M. Kwon, ‘Exchange Rate: On Obligation and Reciprocity in Some Art of the 1960s and After’, in Work Ethic, Baltimore and University Park, PA: Baltimore Museum of Art and Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003, p.92. By contrast, the critic Ben Davis interprets the work as a monument to the absence of community services in the South Bronx, an assessment made problematic by the active interim replacement of one financially beneficiary scheme (the state) for another (private philanthropy). See B. Davis, ‘Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument Transcends its own Conceit’, Blouin Artinfo [online magazine], 5 September 2013, available at http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/953907/thomas-hirschhorns-gramsci-monument-transcends-its-own-conceit.

  17. Hirschhorn’s unique invocation of ‘public’ to describe the green expanses of lawn in between the cross-hatched tower blocks of Forest Houses is distinctively loaded; ‘public’ in the constellation of government-funded ‘public housing projects’ in the US, which, significantly, lacks political consensus regarding social welfare, is not an impartial term.

  18. The discourse around Marxism in the US is also highly politicised, which lent a subversive edge to the selection of Hirschhorn’s nominal honouree. As Ara H. Merjian has noted: ‘[L]ate American capitalist culture has managed to smother class consciousness far more effectively than Italian Fascism ever did…’ See A.H. Merjian, ‘Thomas Hirschhorn’, frieze, no.159, November–December 2013, available at http://www.frieze.com/issue/print_back/thomas-hirschhorn/

  19. Perry Anderson, ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’, New Left Review, vol.1, no.100, November–December 1976, available at http://newleftreview.org/I/100/perry-anderson-the-antinomies-of-antonio-gramsci.

  20. Mark C. J. Stoddart, ‘Ideology, Hegemony, Discourse: A Critical Review of Theories of Knowledge and Power’, Social Thought & Research, vol.28, 2007, p.202.

  21. ‘Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument’ (press release), New York: Dia Art Foundation, 1 July 2013, available at http://www.diaart.org/press_releases/main/237.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Fred Moten, ‘Knowledge of Freedom’, The New Centennial Review, vol.4, no.2, 2004, p.303.

  24. Thomas Hirschhorn, ‘Monuments’ (2003) in Critical Laboratory, op. cit., p.46.