Rays of light shine through a tattered cloth and illuminate a palette of brown, grey and white. Cardboard, tape, bits of paper and old industrial parts are strewn along the walls and litter the gallery floor. In an age of swift gentrification and drone warfare the dilapidated room resembles a contemporary ruin.
‘In-Between’, showing at the South London Gallery, is the latest installment from Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn. Hirschhorn is popularly known for his large-scale collections of things that compose monuments devoted to philosophers such as Georges Bataille, Antonio Gramsci and Baruch Spinoza. Hirschhorn’s piles of stuff have come to be associated with a popular aesthetic now used by many contemporary artists, an aesthetic that fills white cube galleries to capacity and bombards the viewer with its sheer quantity of materials. However, what differentiates Hirschhorn’s ‘In-Between’ is his interest in destruction. Hirschhorn sees the contemporary ruin as a transitional space of potential. Emerging from the rubble is the potential for a new beginning, a concept … a hope.
Navigating the piles of debris, hope is hard to find. The solemn mood solidified by the prominent text, ‘Destruction is difficult; indeed it is as difficult as creation’ that is scrolled across a hanging tarp across the back of the room. The quote is taken from Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s ‘Prison Notebook’ written during his imprisonment by the Italian Fascist regime in the 1920s. The tarp swaying like a revolutionary flag in the deteriorating room suggests the literal embodiment of the philosopher’s vision and presents easy parallels to the history of destructive art in London: Gustav Metzger’s ‘Destruction in Art Symposium’ (1966) and the ongoing gentrification of south London.
Scanning the room, one realises, however, that most of the material was not collected but carefully made by the artist; a superficiality that separates Hirschhorn from past art historical and philosophical references. The rubble is constructed of cardboard and the specific shade of grey has been chosen and painted. As the hand of the artist is revealed, the destroyed room becomes a sculpture, not a mere re-enactment of destruction. Hirschhorn states that the inspiration for this sculpture does not reference a specific event but was inspired by the mass images of destruction found on the web. By disavowing context, Hirschhorn advocates distrust in information, media and education systems and, instead, places importance on materials and surfaces. For it is through his formal choices that Hirschhorn believes he is a political artist. The choice in form, he states, indicates a position.
It is a surreal experience walking through a room constructed to look like it is falling apart, inspired by a media world of floating images and made by a political artist pre-occupied with form. Post-apocalyptic, post-capitalist and utopian are all terms that have been used to describe Hirschhorn’s orchestrated symphony of faux destruction. However, it is Hirschhorn’s hope, as indicated in the artist statement, that these images of destruction, neutralised and manipulated through their circulation, can be transformed by exposing the repressed memories of our society.
Whose memory is Hirschhorn referring to, however? Without context, we project our own experiences onto the artwork. Returning to Gramsci’s ‘Prison Notebook’, the philosopher states, ‘…All men are intellectuals…’ Perhaps, then, it is in our own intellectual musings that the hope buried in the rubble lies.