Interview SCULPTURE MAGAZINE February 2022

Robert Preece: What would you describe as your main concerns with your artwork over recent years? Has it changed since the 2000s?

Thomas Hirschhorn: My mission to make art did not change since I started my work more than 35 years ago, and this is still not a long enough experience. I want and always wanted to create my own term of art. It must be a precarious and critical art. An art which, in its precariousness, criticizes and can be criticized. With my work I want to touch a ‘Non-Exclusive Public’, this has always been a guideline, and I created new ones such as ‘Energy = Yes! Quality = No!’, ‘Presence and Production’ or ‘Non-shared Responsability of Autorship’ and ‘Non-progamamtion’. My concern – in doing my work and in asserting my position – has not changed : why should it, since I am still trying to strenghten and clarify it ?

RP: I read that you don’t consider your artworks to be “installations”. Why is the term problematic? And how strongly do you feel about this?

TH: I do not know where the term “Installations” comes from, but to me it’s a lazy, arty, unclear term, only made to catalog. Nobody unfamiliar with the actual contemporary art-doxa can understand it. It’s an exclusive term, therefore I reject it. “Sculpture” – I am a sculptor – is the term I use and love: everybody understands what a sculpture is, and sculpting is something people have been doing for thousands of years. In general I try to use my own terms, I try not to use terms of others. Philosophers are inventing their own terms and I – as an artist – admire this enormously. Therefore I want to insist with the term ‘sculpting’. As philosophers who are sculpting concepts, I love sculpting, but I am sculpting forms. I can learn from Philosophy and philosophers and try to use my own terms – as well – in relation to Art, in relation to my work and to myself. This is what I want to do: to give terms to my work which make sense to me, perhaps only to me, but to me first, because – as an artist – I have the possibility to do it, I can invent and insist with my own terms.

RP: How do you think your graphic design background has affected your work, either as an influence or a reaction to it? What range of graphics were you studying, influenced by, and working on? (If possible, the answer could go into detail as if for 2nd or 3rd graphics students with strong graphic design history.)

TH: I studied graphic design at the Kunstgewerbeschule Zürich from 1978 to 1983, an art school of the original Bauhaus-tradition, which means all classes were dedicated to applied arts as the graphic design-class I studied in for five years. Other classes were fashion design, photography, textile design, etc… My heroes where then the Russian Suprematists and revolutionnary artists and designers: Malevitch, Guro, Matyushin, Exter, Lissitzky, Popova, Maïakovski, Gontscharova, Rodchenko, Rosanova, Tatlin. And what became decisive and essential for me was the discovery, through exhibitions I saw at the Kunsthaus Zürich during my studies, of the truly revolutionnary artworks of Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys. My first art-love was shared between Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys.

RP: Can we imagine that your favorite philosophers are talking amongst themselves reviewing your recent work? What might they say? [this aims to be a fun question.]

TH: I never ask myself what they would say! What would Antonio Gramsci, Baruch Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze, Georges Bataille and Simone Weil say. This makes no sense to me – not only because they are all already dead, but also because the point is not me – Thomas Hirschhorn – but us – all of us living today!  The real question to ask is: “What do I have to say?” Why do I love their lives and works? Why do I think their works are important today? What makes them relevant today? And which form can I give in order to make clear my love to them? Furthermore – I am not constructing my work on Philosophy, theory or thoughts from others – per chance there are sometimes moments and spaces of similar dynamics. It is important to understand that my need for philosophy is the need for philosophy in my daily life. Beside this, I am ready for those rare and graceful moments of friendship between Art and Philosophy.

RP: What are a couple of special moments that you recall right now witnessing the participatory nature of your latest artworks? And does it always go well?

TH: The most memorable moments to me in a ‘Presence and Production’-work are the moments of Grace. Moments of Grace are the few moments when a situation of encounter, dialogue, confrontation with somebody else happened. Such unexpected, unplanned moments give an incredible feeling of happiness. Those empowering ‘Moments of Grace’ affirm that the eternity of a precarious, time-limited and fragile work of art comes from its intensity. The intensity created by its gracefulness is the proof that the object character or the materiality is not needed to achieve eternity. Moments of Grace can also be moments where things do not go well. Grace stands clearly beyond success or failure. Also in Failure there can be Grace. To touch Grace I need to be awake, sensitive and I have to pay attention. I need to be ready and accept that Grace cannot be measured or fixed, I need to accept that Grace is not to document and cannot stand for any result. My last ‘Presence- and Production’-artwork was a one-month workshop entitled “Energy = Yes! Quality = No! (Critical Workshop)” –  at Bombas Gens Art Center in Valencia. To do this workshop was a beautiful experience with moments of Grace. Graceful was to see what people, not only artists, are creating and graceful is to experience what people, not only artists, are ready to share with others and graceful is to learn how people, not only artists, are able to judge a work.                         

RP: Over recent years, which artwork was the most challenging for you to develop and present, and why?

TH: It is definitely the “Robert Walser-Sculpture”, in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland, 2019. Because of the difficulty we encountered to get authorization for the location where I wanted to build the work (the place in front of the main train station). I had to postpone the project for one year. The really special-challenge was to keep the city residents (more than 200 persons) I had met during the 2-years-fieldwork – who had agreed to work in co-operations, all ‘on board’ during this year of postponing. I had on one hand to keep on fighting for the entire space I needed for my work, and on the other hand to accept and respond to doubts residents could have – due to the postponing – that the work might finally never happen. 

RP: What were you thinking about when developing and shaping Mürrischer Schnee in relation to the site?

TH: For a group-exhibition in public space during winter in the town of Gstaad with the title “Between Heaven and Hell” I wanted to bring in and confront the problematics and the so-called today’s ‘global-risks’ (global warming, financial crisis, end of ressources, wars, corruption, terrorism, inequalities, pandemia, etc.) with the question: “What is worth living for?”. “Mürrischer Schnee” wanted to question the values and the claim of values such as the meaning of life, life-standard, responsibility, justice, health, etc. I wanted to lay-out what can help, what can constitute the issue and what can give hope: Love of Art, Love of Poetry and Love of Philosophy. I wanted to build with snow a critical ‘theme-park’ in the outstanding and beautiful landscape of Gstaad. The aim was to build this precarious sculpture in the plastically very challenging material of snow. It was the first time I was working with snow – an incredibly changing material. To do “Mürrischer Schnee” – and to rebuild it for 6 weeks every day exactly the same in the little village of ‘Lauenen’ – near Gstaad – was a beautiful and truly enriching experience to me.

RP: What was the process with Abschlag (2014) in St. Petersburg, Russia?

TH: Kaspar König, the curator of ‘Manifesta10’ proposed me to intervene in the freshly renovated and covered court-yard of the ‘General Staff-Building’ of the Hermitage Museum. This space, in its post-architectonical proposition between ‘old’ and ‘real’, between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and between ‘fake’ and ‘real’ led me to think of a ‘reversed Potemkin village’ of a collapsed Russian apartment building. “Abschlag” is made with the aesthetic of the ‘Potemkin village’ and not with ‘Ruin-aesthetics’. The ‘Potemkin village’ refers to Governor Potemkin who, in 1787, built fake villages along the Crimea peninsula before the visit of his ruler the Czarina, in order to hide the area’s real situation. The goal of the ‘Potemkin village’, which functioned then as much as today, is to show a better situation than it really is, and to be precise, “Abschlag” is a ‘reversed Potemkin village’. This means that it shows a situation at its worst, as a ruin, a cut-off, a collapse, and not as it should be: at best. The goal of the ‘reversed Potemkin village’ is to show and make visible – through destruction – the hidden links, masked connections and unseen assemblage. I have in mind the words of Antonio Gramsci: “Destruction is difficult, indeed it is as difficult as construction” (Prison Notebook no.9). The building facade – of a total height of 15 meters – built with cardboard was ‘cut off’, the wall collapsed, the skin of the building was destroyed (the Title “Abschlag”comes from there), which allowed to see inside the appartments. Hanging on the walls of the now visible appartment-rooms I exhibited five original artworks on loan from the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg, of some of my beloved Russian artists: One painting of Malevitch and two paintings of Rosanova and Filonov. I wanted to pay tribute to the glorious past revolutionnary Russian art.

RP: How do you go about “making”? Do you work with a lot of initial sketches? About how many people are involved in the making, and what do they do?

TH: There is – for an artist – no distinction between ‘thinking’ and ‘making’. It’s one movement,  it’s one dynamic, it’s one moment – even when this moment is a long one. This is – I think – the beauty, and the absolute in doing artwork.  To produce means to understand Art as an assertion, as a statement, as an act of emancipation, and as something that I authorize myself to do. Concerning me, I want to ‘give form’, therefore the making or the doing is only one step in the crucial mission: Giving Form! Form is the most important and essential question in art because it questions: How can I take a position? How can I give a form to this position? And how can this form create a Truth? A universal Truth? Form is what gives ethic and clarity in the incommensurable, complex and chaotic world we are living in, today. The problem is to give a form, my own form, something belonging to me only, which only I see and understand as such, something only I can give. I want to do an artwork in exaggeration and preciseness, a work which – in its charge and density – stands for a new form. I use the term “give form” because it means giving from my own, giving form is not “doing” or “making” a form. There are different numbers of persons involved in the process of giving form to an artwork, sometimes more, sometimes less depending on the scale of the work.

RP: How do you typically go about sourcing materials in various places?

TH:  My materials are more or less always the same: Precarious materials, materials which are available, cheap materials, materials not usually used for making art, non-intimidating materials and materials without a ‘plus-value’. Those materials are not difficult to source and can be found everywhere, all around the word, they are universal. The decision for ‘my’ materials is a very important one and – as all artists – I have to pay the price for this decision, because it is essential, crucial and because it’s a political decision. And I do ‘fieldwork’ for large projects in public space. Doing ‘fieldwork’ is a constitutive part of my work in public space, especially with works in co-operation with residents as the “Gramsci Monument” for example. I try – on the ‘field’ or on the street – to encounter the other, the residents, those non-interested in art, the passer-by. ‘Fieldwork’ is a very important part of ‘Presence and Production’-artworks because without the agreement of residents nothing can be done. Doing ‘Fieldwork’ is a longterm non-visible process with its surprises, its luck, its failures, its successes and its mystery. A well-done ‘fieldwork’ is the condition for building a ‘hard-core audience’ for a work in public space.

RP: How do you see your work today in relation to the state of things around you?

TH: I want – in doing my work of art – to insist on the very importance of Art, and also Philosophy and Poetry in our world, our own and unique world. I see my work as a try to stand up, as a try to be active – I am an activist of my own work -, as a try to get in relation with the world and – from the very beginning of my work as artist – as a try to emancipate myself. I want to be in relation with the world surrounding me. I want to relate with the world in giving form, my form. I want to confront the world’s incomprehensibility and uncertainty, not in bringing peace or quietness, but in working within the chaos and within the unclarity of the world. My work of art is therefore the tool to engage, to create a relation with the world. I want to do something charged that reaches beauty in its necessity, in its emergency and its intensity. Something beautiful arises if there is an engagement and if the mystery contained in this engagement remains. It is the autonomy and the absoluteness of the artwork which gives it its beauty. My work of art is the tool to confront the time I am living in and my work is the tool to be in touch with reality, the reality of the world and my reality. As I tried to do with one of my last personal-exhibitions, “The Purple Line” at ‘Maxxi’, in Rome.

RP: Thomas, referring to my first year-long module in philosophy, ancient to Modern, are we here, or do we think we are here? And faith, or reason…?

TH: “Faith” of course! Faith in art! Encouraged and empowered by – as a radical and singular example Simone Weil – I have faith in the power of art, the power to tranform each human being, from one to one.