Thomas Hirschhorn on Robert Walser

Via Daniel Creahan for Art Observed

Those of you who live in NYC have probably already heard about the Gramsci Monument that Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn built in the Bronx this summer. If you haven’t, this is your heads-up that it will only be standing for another five days, and I urge you to go visit while there’s still time. The Monument is a sort of plywood village on stilts built into a grove of trees on the grounds of the Forest Houses housing project. The monument looks like a cross between an ark and a treehouse, and resonates in my head with images that have been knocking around in there since I read The Swiss Family Robinson as a child. It also somewhat resembles the utopian village that sprang up at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan in the fall of 2011, though Hirschhorn’s penchant for constructing plywood villages significantly predates Occupy. The Gramsci Monument is the fourth of his series of projects inspired by his favorite philosophers; earlier ones were devoted to Spinoza (Amsterdam, 1999), Deleuze (Avignon, 2000) and Bataille (Kassel, 2002). He is also a sculptor, specializing in estranged objects held together with brown plastic packing tape – like the uncanny, sad but oddly beautiful exploded mannequins I saw on display last year at the Austrian Cultural Forum. This packing tape also appears to be holding many parts of the Gramsci Monument together, though I suspect there are nails underneath the tape, since the plywood platforms and the bridge anchoring the two halves of the monument feel pretty sturdy. At the Gramsci Monument though, the work of art isn’t so much the place and the construction itself as it is the sum of the interactions that take place there, and to this extent it is a highly collaborative work.

Plenty of tape in the art room

While scouting locations for the monument, Hirschhorn looked for local residents who would be willing to collaborate with him, and he actively involved the community in the project, not only as paid laborers who worked side by side with him nailing the 2x4s together, but as participants in the monument’s day-to-day operations and programming. A local art teacher is in charge of the art room where there seems always to be a little gaggle of elementary-school-aged kids building and painting things; local DJs broadcast the Gramsci Monument programming on 91.9 FM in the NYC area (or streamed live on the website); residents of the Forest Houses participate in the programs as moderators for poetry readings, guest lectures, or the daily philosophy lecture presented by German philosopher Marcus Steinweg, and as actors in the Marxist-flavored play “Gramsci Theater” (also by Steinweg) performed weekly. Admittedly, most of the programming appears to be things Hirschhorn himself thought up, but the residents I saw spending time at the monument seemed to be enjoying it. And I think it’s great that an artist doing a project like this would insist on local labor to create jobs – at least temporarily – in the community where he’s setting up shop.

Set for the play “Gramsci Theater”

Admittedly the collaboration produced some odd tensions. At one point I heard Hirschhorn regaling an audience with a story of how the NYPD arrived one evening in an armed posse, saying that leaving the monument up overnight violated some law; they were intending to dismantle it. Hirschhorn talked them down with John-Wayne-style bravura. And to hear him tell it, he seems to think his local collaborators might have done the same if they only had the self-confidence. I’m thinking his collaborators must have neglected to initiate him into the finer points of police/community relations in the Bronx (either that or he wasn’t listening). At other points I found myself wishing Hirschhorn had pulled rank a bit more, e.g. when a moderator/DJ used his bully pulpit to harass all the attractive young women in the audience – individually, which took a while – and to aggressively shill commemorative t-shirts (too ugly to have been designed by Hirschhorn) whose sale he said would benefit the “Forest Houses alumni association” (?).

A reading by poet Tonya Foster

But all these various personalities (and the odd capitalist incursion into a decidedly Marxist project) are supposed to come together and clash – that also, I think is part of the design, as much as the trees that stick up into some of the rooms that comprise the Monument because the platforms were built around them. There’s a great treehouse library full of books by and about Gramsci, Marxist thought, etc.; a little museum where the hand-carved wooden spoons and forks Gramsci used in prison are on display, along with his comb and his “shoe protectors” (?); a bar serving hot dogs and rice and beans; an office where the daily newspaper is produced; a computer room (invariably filled with kids playing online games); a radio station that provides a constant soundtrack to conversations at the monument (hip hop, for the most part); a wall with profiles of the many locals who have served as “resident of the day” since the Monument opened (15 minutes of fame); and the whole thing is covered with murals and graffiti by many hands. It’s all pretty gorgeous and exciting. And what with the readings, the daily philosophy lecture (delivered by Steinweg without notes but with, I think, some forethought), and the various organized and disorganized discussions, it really is a place where ideas and their practical application are actually being discussed in the public sphere, which is one of the things that made Occupy Wall Street so appealing in its day. I do recommend you come check it out while there’s still a chance.

And if you happen to know how to go back in time to the year 1999 and can take me with you, let’s please head to the main building of the University of Zurich’s Irchel campus, where Hirschhorn created his “Robert Walser Kiosk,” a cardboard enclosure of modest proportions (and held together with packing tape, of course) with which he paid tribute to his great literary countryman (whom, as I’m sure most readers of this blog already know, I am passionate about
translating as well as reading). The pictures of it sure do look beautiful. I had a chance to chat with Hirschhorn about Walser when I visited the Gramsci Monument (did I remember to say he himself is there all day every day as part of the project?), and he talked to me about how moved he is by Walser’s modesty, his interest in the insignificant and small, and his keen understanding of power relations. And indeed, I think the study of Walser’s works was an excellent education for this particular artist. I hope you’ll take advantage of this opportunity to see his work. Information on the program for the last few days of the Monument, along with subway directions, can be found here.

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