Friday, May 04, 2007

The Trail of Question Marks…?

The latest puzzle in Berlin is no longer what to build on Schlossplatz or when the next piece of the Hauptbahnhof’s roof will come whistling off. Rather, it is what to make of Thomas Hirschhorn’s new installation “Stand-alone,” which opened last Friday in Arndt & Partner gallery. With fireplaces vomiting broken furniture, obsessively repetitive wall graffiti, “mega-form” cardboard tubes stamped with gruesome “war porn” images, as well as mutilated computers and tape-wrapped armchairs, the art confounds the viewer and overwhelms the senses. Thrill-seekers, forget the return of Tresor: walking into Hirschhorn’s installation is just as psychedelic as Alice’s trip down the Rabbit Hole. Perhaps more.

Hirschhorn condenses the stimulus of everyday reality into a few cramped rooms while removing our usually helpful filters and controls. The result is visual onslaught combining commentaries on contemporary media saturation, violence in Iraq and collective consciousness, and consumer acquisition. All at once. Or so I argue in my review for white hot, written only after sorting through a thick tangle of impressions and images.

Indeed, Hirschhorn’s jam-packed collage technique has left some viewers scratching their heads, including a writer who couldn’t make heads or tails of his spring 2006 installation “Utopia, Utopia = One World, One War, One Army, One Dress”: “at first sight…I was knocked out...[so] rather than a review, this will be a gathering of my first impressions.” She was, however, able to conclude that the work was a “bold affirmation of art as communication.” Another reviewer for Art in America required several thousand words to address Hirschhorn’s loquacious clutter, yet found it to be an impressive “exhibition that engulfed one with its mix of burgeoning chaos and hyper precision.”

Of course, there are also critics who recoil at Hirschhorn’s bombastically overwhelming approach. The New York Sun lambasted his 2006 “Superficial Engagement” installation at Gladstone Gallery in New York as an “adolescent crap-fest” with a “puerile addiction to the macabre and scatological.” Ouch. Another New York reviewer of a Hirschhorn cut-and-paste extravaganza “left puzzled whether the artist had anything much in mind,” a complaint echoed in the San Francisco Chronicle’s discussion of “Utopia, Utopia,” which faulted the artist’s “staccato, redundant, fragmentary and possibly self-contradictory presentation” for presenting issues worth thinking about and then undercutting itself with the obsessively collected bits of visual noise. The reviewer concluded, “One departs not stimulated to think further about such questions but merely relieved that someone else has apparently taken them on.”

So may be the case with Berlin’s very own Der Tagesspiegel, whose short review resorts to simply listing the gallery’s contents, inventory-style, rather than tackle the task of interpretation Hirschhorn may (or may not) be challenging us to. Whether he makes viewers think or numbs them with his overload, one thing is certain—his work has a happy home in Arndt & Partner. Although represented locally in abbreviated form in this spring’s “Into Me/ Out of Me” exhibit at Kunst-Werke Institute of Contemporary Art, Hirschhorn’s hyper-stimulated style has real breathing room this time around and is being enthusiastically received.

A pre-opening talk at Humboldt University last Thursday was so full of sweaty bodies that the moderator ran out multiple times to fetch Hirschhorn fresh water. Hirschhorn played along gamely, speaking about his trajectory as an artist—which only recently resulted in the overstuffed installation format—and taking an hour’s worth of questions afterwards. He was also an affable presence at his opening, shooting the bull with whomever wondered up to mutter words of admiration, and likewise enthusiastic at a overflowing gallery talk the following day. He surveyed his methods and motivations with statements like “Material as philosophy, that interests me!” or “I don’t want to make arte povera. I want to make poor art!” or even “I don’t want to eliminate anything. I just want to show what is going on in the world.” That should help puzzled viewers, somewhat, but for those who missed it, there is always the map of his thought process provided at the entrance to “Stand-alone.” Hirschhorn is trying the best to talk, share, and show—and it would be a shame to miss it.

"Stand-alone" is at Arndt & Partner until 7 July, Zimmerstr 90-91, Phone +49 30 280 8123.