For nearly two decades, the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn has been filling art spaces and annexing pedestrian sites with what he likes to call “displays.” Using accumulations of trashy materials, he improvises sculptures around a variety of sub-architectural forms, such as kiosks, monuments, information booths, shrines and airports.
Jumbo Spoons and Big Cake, now in the collection of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, was initially created for the Art Institute of Chicago in 2000, around the time the architect Jean Nouvel described the contemporary world in terms of an “increasing domination of matter, with matter itself being increasingly reduced to its simplest expression.”
Hirschhorn’s room-sized installation suggests a schoolroom science-fair display, and follows the pedagogical aesthetic formulated by Joseph Beuys. We are confronted with disposable materials such as cardboard, photocopied journalistic photographs and texts, books whose titles invoke the social sciences, TV sets and packing tape. The arrangement is everywhere punctuated by mirrors and fragments of broken mirrors. The cake of the title has been sliced into segments; flimsy chains and improvised conduits link them to the work’s other principal element: giant spoons fashioned from aluminum-foil food wrap. There is a souvenir aspect to the spoons and references to individuals and entities the artist associates with failed utopia, such as Nietzsche, Rosa Luxemburg and Malevich, and to a dizzying array of events, places and products, such as the Apollo moon landing, Rolex watches, the arms industry and so on.
This material excess is pitched against the work’s ostensible subject—the world of globalized corporate capitalism and its media self-representation. Here, excess signals the impossibility of genuine involvement with the materials, and this leads us toward recognizing the illusion within the work and its deliberate decontextualization of its constituent elements.
Hirschhorn attempts to claim autonomy for art by way of a paradox: substituting an explicitly false work where a genuine work is expected, he arrives at a genuine work. By a “false work” I mean something we could describe using the German term “ersatz,” meaning an inferior, falsified substitute or replacement. If current conditions would eschew tactile sculptural space in favour of spectacle and information, then why not stage a work that overtly announces that it is only masquerading as a sculptural artwork?
There is a contradiction within Hirschhorn’s work concerning the issue of the aura, which inevitably arises when disposable materials become signature materials, attached to the celebrity status now so much a part of art-world success. Neither Hirschhorn’s art-brut approach nor his rejection of sublimity nor his strategic reversals can resist the institutional wrapping of his work as Art. This is the problem with reversal as a strategy: a reversal is itself easily reversed. Jumbo Spoons and Big Cake does, however, question the operations of artistic materiality in a world of digital abstraction.