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Thomas Hirschhorn Interview: Eye Contacts

Thomas Hirschhorn is a passionate man. One tends to expect, of artists in general, and certainly of artists of his calibre and level of theoretical engagement, a certain cerebral froideur. But no; the man is much like his art: bombastic, gestural, expansive. He talks with the fervour of a preacher, and it doesn’t matter to whom he is speaking. At his presentation at the Power Plant’s related lecture, he criss-crossed the stage, leaving the spotlit podium blank as he unpacked his sprawling installation at the gallery: Das Auge, or The Eye, consisting of a room rammed with red objects (flags, banners, gory news photos, images of clubbed seals, mannequins modelling blood-soaked fur coats) and a giant eye overlooking it all that can only see the colour red. He talked about form, ethics and art-making with a zealous enthusiasm.

When I interviewed him the next morning, he was still installing. I arrived early, and chanced upon him giving the Power Plant’s installation team their morning pep talk. Sure enough, he spoke with them exactly as had spoken to his audience the night before: arms flailing, vehemently discoursing on light wattage and object placement, like Lenin stirring up a revolutionary crowd. Once they had been given their marching orders, we sat underneath his giant eye to talk about his new work; seated not two feet away from me, his ardour still flowed at full force.

Lecture: Thomas Hirschhorn on Das Auge (The Eye) / 24 February 2011 from The Power Plant on Vimeo.

Sholem Krishtalka: I wanted to start with the most obvious element of the installation, which is the use of red. I noticed at your talk you spoke at great length about red as the dynamic of the installation, but you seemed hesitant to ascribe meaning or signification to it. And it strikes me that the exhibition wouldn’t work if it were another colour. So I was wondering if you could talk about red-as-meaning.

Thomas Hirschhorn: I was not hesitant; I was trying to avoid this question. Because you’re completely right. It’s not about the signification of the red, absolutely not, although it’s very important, of course. When you think of colour, what could be the colour that is active, dynamic, that is powerful, that is all-over (so to speak), that is so differently used and meaningful? There is no other but red.

And this is not a decision of mine; it just is. And this is why it’s red: because there’s no other possibility. Of course, red is the colour that links everything together, and there are reasons for this. And I tried, in my work here, to give form to these reasons, but also to things that perhaps are even behind these reasons. So the decision to go with the colour red is evident; I didn’t even have to think about it. And perhaps that’s why I can’t fully explain it after the fact.

SK: There are a lot of strange and interesting paradoxes in the installation. And red takes on a moral and political dimension here. I wondered if you could talk about that moral and political dimension.

TH: First of all, during the talk, I tried to say that the main thing is the form. The eye gives the form, and not the colour red. So the decision lies in the eye. The red is the logical connector of all the elements in the work; that’s why I call it the dynamic. Perhaps that word is not so precise, perhaps you could say “activity”; but it’s a logical connection, it comes from the eye. What is interesting is that this creates problematics: political, moral, etc.; open fields of discourse. And I’m interested in these, of course. But I don’t want to organize them. I don’t want to give them a judgment or a hierarchy or a direction. I don’t want make economies of these things, or to instrumentalize them. I want to keep them dynamic. I want to keep the dynamic of the conscience, of the truth, of something larger than these open fields or questions that are, after all, for me, not the big questions.

That’s also why to me, there is one word that is more important than morals or politics, and that’s ethics. The making of this installation is, to me, an ethical decision. And that’s why the ethical, and not the moral, is on the same level as the form. The moral is a problematic. It interests me also, of course, as a problematic. The political or the aesthetic are also problematics. They can be positive or negative, but they’re problematics, and I’m interested in these problematical fields.

Again, the red is, to me, an ethical decision; it is the logic that comes out of the form, out of the eye. And you know I refuse to justify this on some kind of ophthalmological level [laughs]. Red does have a very important function in the biological construction of the eye. How can I explain it? It’s just as it is. What is new, what I try to contribute is to make these connections, and to make no distinction between the red blood of a dead human body and the red blood of a seal. This lack of distinction is not moral or political. This is an ethical decision, because this implies these problematics.

SK: So speaking of this question of distinctions between things, where do the politics, morality and ethics lie for you? Are they in the work, behind the work, in the creation of the work? Where do you situate the politics and the morality and the ethics?

TH: The ethics is in the form. The eye is the thing that links objects and pictures together, that’s interested in the truth of these objects. The moral question arises when you take pictures out of the world, out of their context, out of their informational explication.

The political question or problematic arises when you use banners; the banners of the red cross, for example. Then you are confronted, of course, with the question and the history of these symbols. But the ethical reasoning behind this, the justification, is only because it’s red. This is the difference. When a problematical field opens, it’s not because of political reasons—this is not the starting point. This problematic, this openness of meaning or interpretation, is only possible because there is something that’s absolute, that has to do with truth, with the question of form, with the ethical question of the artist: how to work, how to engage with the work. This same problematic of aesthetic comes up when I use pictures or aesthetics in the same manner of creating a work as non-artists. So there is also the risk, always, that someone says that this is just a recuperation of something else. This, in turn, is opening the problematic field of aesthetics; but it only happens because first, I made an ethical decision and a formal decision and an artistic decision.

SK: I’ve always been captivated and puzzled by the notion of political art, and I’d read somewhere that you don’t want to make political art, but you want to make art politically. And I found that really an interesting solution. Is that still the case?

TH: Yes, of course, and I must say, it’s not my invention. I adapted it from Jean-Luc Godard who said, “it’s not about making political films, it’s about making films politically.” What does it mean? It’s so important. It means to decide on a material, to work with a material that, I hope, can imply meaning because it’s not a plus-value material; it’s an everyday material. To create, with the work, a platform through which people can, in different manners—with the space, with the material, with the number of elements here, with the light—engage or feel implicated.

This is, for me, the political question. To do work which is overcrowded is a political question. A political question is also to say, “I want to deal with a space that’s not ideal, perhaps; perhaps too small.” So these are, for me, the ways to make art politically.

Making art politically is to hold out a kind of ridiculousness in the world; like this idea of linking all these red things—this is a bit ridiculous. This is what I think working politically means: to go through with these things, to hold out this ridiculousness, because I believe, and I hope also, that this has the chance to connect with what I call the non-exclusive audience, an audience that has nothing to do with art, who is not interested in art, who comes in and perhaps finds here a question or a problematic or a problem, even. And I don’t give the answer, but I can engage them on a level whereby they’re not excluded. And that is, for me, working politically.

My way of making my work by hand, this also is a political decision. When I have to work big, on a large scale, I always do it myself, in my studio; there’s not an industry behind me. The way to use text—these are political questions I like to try and resolve.

So yes, to answer your question more briefly, I am still interested in doing my work politically, and this installation is, I hope, one of the examples. By the way, I absolutely agree with you: I never say I am a political artist; this kind of lazy categorization, I never use it. A politically engaged artist; what does this mean? An artist is completely engaged with their work. I’m not more engaged than another artist. I am completely engaged in my work, as every artist is.

SK: To come back to the idea of a non-exclusive audience: is it ever a concern that a non-exclusive audience member might take the most obvious or the most propagandistic meaning from the work? Because you can come into the work and see a very specific message and not engage with any kind of broader meaning that is implicit in the form, but just see content. Is that a concern, this kind of miscommunication, that the content supersedes the form?

TH: The form is the most important. The form is essential. The form includes the content; I don’t make these distinctions. But to respond to your question, I believe in the power of each member of the non-exclusive audience to get the point, to get it completely. Because this misunderstanding, this misinterpretation, as an artist, you have to deal with this all the time. Even with the very well informed, or with art lovers, it’s the same. This is the point, this is what I believe, what I’m working for: that somebody who has nothing do with art comes here, and what I want (I can only be responsible for what I want) is that he can get involved as completely as somebody who is completely informed, who knows my work. It’s not about making less or more content available to a specific public. To me, this is clear from the beginning. And this is why I say the content is not the problem, the form is the problem.

SK: In your talk, you spoke about the distinction between innocence and non-innocence; in the installation you have all of these things that are embedded with various degrees of meaning or of confrontation: a blown-up face, a bleeding seal, a flag. So you move from these very emotionally loaded images to abstract nationalistic diagrams. The eye sees it all, and this is one the paradoxes I was talking about: because the eye only sees red, it doesn’t see ethics or morality, it only sees the red. So there’s then a direct equivalence between the blood of a human, the blood of a seal, the red of a flag; they all assume this same neutral value of redness. So red is the dynamic, red is the logical connector, red assumes various moral dimensions, and then, within the filter of the eye, red is simply red. It’s just a bit of optical information.

TH: It’s not optical, but I see what you mean. It’s not optical because it’s not about the biological function of an eye, it’s about a decision to see, and that’s why I think there is no morality, but there is ethics. It’s a decision; it’s not a natural way of ordering things, it’s a decision to link these things together. When I talked about the innocent or the non-innocent, what strikes me there is that there are degrees of innocence and non-innocence, of course. And that’s why I want to link them together, and that’s why I hope this can create something new.

So it’s not about innocent or non-innocent, good or bad, it’s about we, or me, accepting that when I try to make the good decisions, I am not innocent. And that’s a question of degree. And the whole mechanism of everyday questions, every-moment questions—what do I do, do I buy this, do I support this, do I not support this, do I want this or not?—all become a question of degree.

And I cannot take refuge behind being on the good side or on the bad side. That’s why I think there is an ethic in this proposition that the eye sees and links everything red together. To me, I understand that you can think, perhaps, this kind of proposition: in the end, everything is equal. But this is not what I think it’s about. But of course, in order to touch that idea of everything not being equal, I have to go through a whole series of complexities, paradoxes, incommensurability, causes, and that’s how I want to confront the work. And that’s how I want to give form to this. You have to go through this; you can refuse it, you can easily say after seeing the show, “OK, it’s all the same.” I don’t tell to an audience how to think or which side to choose.

SK: The addition of the mezzanine brings that notion of distinction and inequality closer to the fore. As you walk through it, you’re a part of the installation, and then as you walk up the mezzanine, you’re above everything. You’re in the space of the eye, you are the eye, or at least you have an equivalent viewing space. But an eye is just an eye, it just sees, it doesn’t process. But I look over this scene, and my eyes are attached to my brain, and I make certain emotional connections, and I judge. Whereas a seeing organ in-and-of-itself only sees, it doesn’t judge.

TH: I didn’t want to construct the mezzanine to create this privileged position. I really did it just to create more space, to have somewhere to put the eye [laughs]. But as I said in my talk, of course, to add a mezzanine after gives another point of view, and I’m interested in that, even when it creates confusion. I give enough elements for the viewer to understand that the point of the installation isn’t about going to the mezzanine; you don’t have to go, you don’t get more when you’re up here than when you’re downstairs.

But perhaps in thinking about what you say—this idea of overlooking—there is always the risk that the installation could be misunderstood. But for me, this was not my intention, and I was trying to think around an aesthetic question: how can I resolve the problems of having less space when I need more? So I have this fake mezzanine.

To me, it’s not to point out a stronger position of the eye. But I felt that this made the installation more clear; I didn’t have to put the eye here, and at the beginning I didn’t want to. But then I thought, because I said yes to the mezzanine, I had to go forward and put the eye here also. It’s my decision, and I have to pay for it.

SK: One last question, then. Where do you, as the creator and as the viewer of your own work, where do you place your identification? Do you identify with the eye, or do you identify with one of the faces on the seats? There’s a whole lot of watching and spectatorship going on. Where do you place yourself within that?

TH: That’s an interesting question. I’m happy you asked me. Really, truly, I hope you believe me, I identify with everything, with every small thing, because I chose to put it here. I chose it because I saw it, because I thought it was necessary to include, I chose it because I love it. So I can’t say I identify with the eye, or the banner. Really, I love—when I say love, it’s not a selfish love—but I love it because I decided to include it, because I chose it. I’m in all of this.

I think the question is interesting because it’s a question of the artist’s position. But for me, it’s in each material decision. This what I call giving form; it’s from me, so I have to completely agree with each of the elements.

“Thomas Hirschhorn: Das Auge (The Eye)” continues at the Power Plant to May 29

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