The Paradox of an Archive: The Anarchival-Archival Art of Thomas Hirschhorn

Ana Balona de Oliveira

I have never been afraid of contradictions because we are here to generate them, not smooth them away. I feel that there is a certain energy in contradictions.

Thomas Hirschhorn

Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn (born in 1957) has developed a distinctive artistic practice since the mid-1980s, when he decided to move to Paris and quit a professional career as a graphic designer. His artistic project is closely intertwined with social and political critique, philosophical enquiry, historical recollection and the acknowledgment of art as an active field of discussion, and the artist as coherently responsible for his artistic choices and committed to the mission of artistically changing reality through his personal artistic path. Because of this artistic engagement in the sense of a will 'to confront reality' through art, Hirschhorn affirms 'that he does not make political art; he makes art politically'.1 In other words, he intends to create nonexclusive spaces of critique of the social and economical forces of control and open art to philosophy, history and literature, so that a counter-culture or an 'aesthetics of resistance' is 'made relevant to an amnesiac society dominated by culture industries and sports spectacles'.2 However, in a parodying way, the artist uses materials, structures, and procedures that resemble those of the consumer culture, thus creating 'a grotesquerie of our immersive commodity-media-entertainment environment'.3

In order to articulate this deconstruction of totalizing mass-cultural forces, Hirschhorn has explored a constructive strategy of alternative archive making, by building archival structures such as altars, kiosks, and monuments devoted to his beloved artists, writers, and philosophers, and accumulating enormous amounts of visual and textual information in his displays. He has also built networks of abstract forms 'that often traverse an entire exhibition, linking diverse images and objects', and series of 'hypertrophic objects' that magnify the typical capitalist commodity fetish.4 This 'archival impulse', to quote Hal Foster, will be discussed here, namely in relation to the notions of historical and present, public and private, high art and mass culture, information and devotion, the museum and the public space, construction and transgression, connection and disconnection, utopia and non-utopia, in an attempt to show how difficult it is to stably place this paradoxical archival practice. A special attention will be given to an exhibition of Hirschhorn's works, Anschool II, which took place in the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, from November 2005 till April 2006, since this exhibition (together with Anschool in the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht in 2005) was itself an archive of Hirschhorn's earlier and later works, put together for the first time, and provides an insight into the archival paradox of Hirschhorn's art.5

Hal Foster sees archival artists as particularly concerned with making 'historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present' by working 'on the found image, object, and text' and choosing 'the installation format as they do so'.6 In fact, Hirschhorn seems to prefer the term 'display' to refer to his archival sculptural constructions, in order to emphasize his distinctive position in relation to both the post-Minimalist sculptural practices concerned with site-specificity and institutional critique, and the mere spectacular or decorative art.7 Hirschhorn says:

Although people keep saying, 'Those are installations', I don't make installations ... I make my kind of work because I don't want people to be able to step back from it. I want people to be inside my work, and I want spectators to be a part of this world surrounding them in this moment. Then they have to deal with it. That is why it looks the way it does.8

The refusal of the 'installation' is, therefore, connected to a strategy of 'sculptural desublimation', which reflects the way Hirschhorn sees reality and the role of art in relation to it.9 Hirschhorn explains:

I work with and create forms that reflect how I experience the world, how I am forced to confront reality, and how I understand the age in which I am living. For me, that means first of all to not create any spaces where one can stand back and maintain distance. Second, it means not to set up any kinds of hierarchies. Third, it means to break through one-dimensional relationships, to try to split up centered vantage points, and to make singular viewpoints impossible ... it is for these reasons that the connections are so important for me. They don't necessarily have to be real connections. 10

Influenced by Joseph Beuys's concept of social sculpture as well as his sculptural radical use of ordinary materials, and the Pop Art of Andy Warhol in its aesthetics of dialogic immediacy and subtle social criticality, Hirschhorn aimed at building sculptural spaces that would include the public by engaging them in active discussion and reflection, rather than total and plain communication, which involves a sense of hierarchic relation between those who possess the information or knowledge and those who passively receive it.11 Instead, the artist has sought for 'spectatorial participation' through 'sculptural tactility'.12 Therefore, he builds his artistic archives in a way that disrupt the concept of archive as a place of hierarchic order, a closed domicile where the precious knowledge of the origins is guarded by those endowed with the power to conserve it and interpret it — or as Jacques Derrida suggests by recalling the etymology of the term, a place of both 'commencement' and 'commandment', of 'domiciliation', a 'place of election where law and singularity intersect in privilege'.13 On the contrary, Hirschhorn claims to dialectically follow Beuys and Warhol's path through his own 'form of radical democratization', accomplished namely through his "attack, a conscious one, on architecture or on art in buildings, or on art in public space. Or on 'immortal art' ".14

By saying this, Hirschhorn is making explicit his choice for ephemeral art, made from weak and at the same time energetic, thus in a way resistant, structures and materials, and dismissing any quality criteria attached to materials and procedures, be it in the museum displays or those in the public space. In this context, Hirschhorn often uses the expression 'quality no, energy yes! '.15 This notion of 'poor art' has to do with the artist's interest in ordinary materials such as cardboard and foil, and simple forms of everyday life, generated by all kinds of people - familiar, popular, democratic, devotional forms with which he builds his private archives, in an attempt to make them approachable by everyone, rather than solely by the art world experts.16

Hirschhorn has developed a 'very precise typology' of ephemeral works, in a continuous paradox between 'precision' of intentions and 'excess' of form.17 His main sculptural types are 'direct sculptures', 'altars', 'monuments', 'kiosks', 'enlarged objects' and 'abstract forms'.18 He has made five direct sculptures in galleries, as models for monuments resembling those real ones that have been appropriated by the community through the inscription of messages, such as graffiti, thus acquiring a complete different meaning from the original. His four altars, devoted to Otto Freundlich, Piet Mondrian (Fig. 1), Ingeborg Bachmann and Raymond Carver, are fragile structures placed in the public space that commemorate retrieved historical figures to whom Hirschhorn devotes his affection. He builds these structures with ordinary adulation objects, such as 'kitschy mementoes, votive candles, and other emotive signs of the fan'.19 His monuments are more complex structures in the public space, for they directly involve the participation of the local residents of the area in which they are built. Hirschhorn has made three of four, devoted to the philosophers Spinoza, Deleuze, and Bataille, the fourth being planned for Gramsci. They are placed in non-monumental sites: the Spinoza Monument (Fig. 2) was erected in Amsterdam's red-light district, the Deleuze Monument (Fig. 3) in an Avignon's North African neighbourhood, and the Bataille Monument (Fig. 4) in a Kassel's housing project inhabited by a Turkish community. To quote Foster and Hirschhorn himself, these '(dis)placements' aim at a 'temporary refunctioning of the monument from a univocal structure ... to a counter-hegemonic archive', which, through a 'nonexclusive stance', permits 'to generate friendship and social interaction' and 'to learn something about' those philosophers.20 Hirschhorn has also built eight kiosks, 'more informational than devotional', which were temporarily placed in the Institute of Brain Research and Molecular Biology of the University of Zurich, and were devoted to Freundlich, Bachmann, Fernand Léger, Emil Nolde, Meret Oppenheim (Fig. 5), Liubov Popova, Emmanuel Bove, and Robert Walser — artists and writers disclosed in a scientific location.21 The artist has also magnified typical consumer-culture objects, through a strategy of desublimation of the capitalist fetish, such as the luxurious Swiss watch. Benjamin Buchloh confirms that this 'enlargement does not monumentalize the trivial object anymore, but forces it back into the banality from which it originated'.22 Meandering through Hirschhorn's objects, abstract forms made of aluminium foil seem to establish strange connections and endless ramifications, thus invading the museum space in a way that seems to grotesquely mimic the 'advanced reification' of the present times.23 Both these two types of objects can be seen in Pilatus Transformator (Fig. 6).

At this stage, it is important to note that, when Hirschhorn speaks of attacking art in buildings, again this does not mean an immediate approximation to the concerns and practices of those generations of artists from the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, which were focused on the questioning of the art world institutions, such as the museum, the gallery, the private collector.24 He explicitly admits not having 'considered this question of institutional critique at all' for reasons apparently connected to his professional path — when he was a young graphic design student, the museum was the fundamental intermediary between himself and those artists who have become his 'teachers', and later on he was still 'caught up in the very idea of being an artist, or not being an artist'.25 Although Hirschhorn expresses a will to challenge the museum, which is undoubtedly manifest in his radical choices for marginal public spaces, he also challenges it from the inside, in his also radical occupations of the museum and gallery spaces. Foster gives an insight into this position, which he ascribes to archival artists in general, considering that archival art is 'distinct from art focused on the museum' and the 'artist-as-archivist', as opposed to the 'artist-as-curator', is 'not as concerned with critiques of representational totality and institutional integrity'.26 In this respect, Buchloh mentions that a 'removal of boundaries occurs between public and private space, and also between art space and ordinary space' in Hirschhorn's practice.27 In fact, in contrast with Foster's position, he seems to pay more attention to Hirschhorn's transgressive sites, in a way acknowledging the artist's subtly assumed preference not only for the more inclusive challenge of stepping outside the museum onto the public space, but also for a radically marginal kind of public space, such as the street or the peripheral housing project.28

It is interesting to note how Buchloh, in tracing a genealogy of Hirschhorn's practice in his 'Cargo and Cult', permanently uses terms such as 'reradicalizing', 'rediscovery', 'rereading', 'repositioning' as meaning much more than 'merely resuscitating', thus interpreting Hirschhorn's reinterpretations of the artistic practices of preceding generations as highly transgressive, for those reinterpretations seem to always radically take previous transgressions further in ways never imagined or seen before.29 In fact, Buchloh begins his genealogical reflection by arguing that despite Hirschhorn's critical stance in relation to the "tradition or genre of 'installation' ", the artist's displays actually 'engage a series of questions that have preoccupied the most complex sculptural projects of the recent past'.30 However, the art-historical connections that Buchloh establishes permit to conclude that Hirschhorn dialectically rediscovers the past in a non-repetitive way, thereby producing radically transgressive novelty.31 A dialectic transgressive impulse also seems to be acknowledged by Buchloh in Hirschhorn's confrontation with the present times. Concepts such as 'disfiguration', 'dismemberment', 'deconstruction', 'disintegration', 'destitution', and prefixes like 'anti' and 'non' (used by Hirschhorn himself) give evidence of Buchloh's view on Hirschhorn's archives — they appear definitely deconstructive in the way they mimic reality.32 All sense of utopian construction is apparently absent, since Hirschhorn parodies both the utopian belief of the capitalist consumer culture of the 1950s and its present failure by way of 'grotesque juxtapositions of commodity objects', and the socialist utopian constructions by 'conjuring lethal memories of the not-too-distant past when utopian aspirations had deteriorated to the military parades of the May Day celebrations in Red Square'.33 Hirschhorn's words with which Buchloh introduces his text might confirm this view: 'My exhibition is not about hope, or about creating points of stabilization'.34

Foster tends to read Hirschhorn differently by highlighting the 'institutive' more than the 'destructive', the 'legislative' more than the 'transgressive', although recognising the dialectical presence of both these 'opposed drives at work in the concept of the archive', as described by Derrida in Archive Fever.35 In fact, Foster admits that this kind of archival art is 'recalcitrantly material, fragmentary' and does not present 'a will to totalize so much as a will to relate', since it seems to be 'concerned less with absolute origins than with obscure traces', 'unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects ... that might offer points of departure again'.36 In this sense, he even suggests that the expression 'anarchival impulse' would describe these archives more adequately.37 However, in describing Hirschhorn's archives presented in the form of a 'capitalist garbage bucket', Foster glimpses hope and a desire to find those points of departure from which to build an alternative social and cultural reality.38 He says:

Yet he (Hirschhorn) insists that, even within this prison pail, radical figures might be recovered and libidinal charges rewired — that this 'phenomenology of advanced reification' might still yield an intimation of utopian possibility, or at least a desire for systematic transformation, however damaged or distorted it might be.39

Foster distinguishes archival art from both the allegorical and the anomic impulses as described by Craig Owens and Buchloh respectively, by highlighting in the former a 'will to connect', which appears stronger than that to subvert, even if subversion is also there.40 Hirschhorn's ramifications of connection and disconnection would therefore evolve in a dialectic of disconnected, alternative, not necessarily real connections, yet permanently ruled by a 'quasi-archival logic' that permits 'to connect what cannot be connected'.41 In this sense, Foster risks to consider archival art as a somewhat paranoiac 'practice of forced connections and bad combinations'.42 Uncertain of this, he seems apparently quite certain of the 'utopian ambition' of archival art, which in his view aims at building 'the no-place of a utopia' in 'the no-place of the archive'.43

So, where does Hirschhorn's practice stand? Away from hope and points of stabilization, according to Buchloh? Or, according to Foster, propelled by the desire for a new departure? In fact, both Buchloh and Foster seem not to be sure of these conclusions. This is due in part to the continuous dialectic of simplicity and complexity perceived not only in Hirschhorn's art, but also in his speech about his art. In spite of his will to 'make as many as possible feel included', Hirschhorn often becomes hermetic in his repetitive slogan-like language, obtaining therefore the opposite effect of not being understood in his intentions, apparently even by the art world experts.44 One starts to wonder whether this paradoxical stance is not that which is intended.

The impossibility of stabilizing Hirschhorn's archives in some kind of definition is stressed by the fact that both Buchloh and Foster seem to reverse their first conclusions. In fact, when Buchloh interviews Hirschhorn in 2005, four years after his analysis in 'Cargo and Cult' in 2001, he seems disappointed with Hirschhorn's apparent utopian naivety in relation to the possibilities of art in changing reality. Also, he suddenly realises that criticality and subversion of the 'prevailing notions of public sculpture' are not so prominently at the core of Hirschhorn's intentions.45 Buchloh notices his utopian ambition mostly when discussing the Bataille Monument (Fig. 4).46 In fact, is it not utopian the assumption that the Turkish community's 'alienated living and working conditions could be improved with relative ease, through spontaneous acts of understanding, reading, communication, and exchange'? Is it not utopian to consider that, 'under such conditions', it is possible 'to generate communication and understanding with aesthetics tools alone'? Hirschhorn solves this problematic discussion by significantly saying: 'Nothing is impossible with art'.47 Buchloh seems bewildered by Hirschhorn's permanent contradictions:

When you say that you truly believe in the possibilities of art, then I start to wonder where the intensely subversive, antiaesthetic dimension of your work originates? Your work generates a continuous dialectic between aesthetic and antiaesthetic impulses, emphasizing disintegration as much as construction. ... Does your belief in art comprise this critical antiaesthetic, or is that merely a contradiction? 48

According to the artist there is no contradiction. However, there seems to be, for although assuming to subversively engage in a critique of high art, he admits that his work is 'not a matter of antiaesthetics', but rather of connecting people.49 Does Hirschhorn truly believe in the dialectical synthesis of his contradictions? For he has also said: 'I have never been afraid of contradictions because we are here to generate them, not smooth them away. I feel that there is a certain energy in contradictions'.50

In an opposite direction, Foster also acknowledges the unredeemable paradoxical nature of Hirschhorn's archives. Although Foster's text on archival art is titled 'An Archival Impulse', he betrays his doubts quite in the beginning between brackets: "(perhaps 'anarchival impulse' is the more appropriate phrase)".51 He recognises that Hirschhorn's utopian ambitions are always already 'damaged or distorted', 'partial and provisional', imbued with 'difficulty' and 'absurdity'.52 In a discreet footnote related to the work of another archival artist, Tacita Dean, whose archive Foster describes as a 'Failed Futuristic Vision', he writes, quoting Hirschhorn:

'Failed futuristic visions' provide a principle of dis/ connection in Hirschhorn too: 'I opened possible doorways between them', he remarks of the disparate subjects honoured in Jumbo Spoons and Big Cake. 'The links are the failures, the failures of utopias ... [A] utopia never works. It is not supposed to. When it works, it is a utopia no longer'.53

Another example of his stepping back from his first assumptions is found in a footnote where Foster briefly discusses Derrida's notion of archive. According to Derrida, in the archive there is an impulse to destroy as much as to conserve, in a permanently paradoxical tension. By subtly allowing for an approximation between the archival impulse and Derrida's use of the notion of death drive, Foster admits that 'perhaps, like the Library of Alexandria, any archive is founded on disaster (or its threat), pledged against a ruin that it cannot forestall ... And sometimes this paradoxical energy of destruction can also be sensed in the work at issue here'.54

Utopian or non-utopian, constructive or deconstructive, affirmative or subversive, institutive or destructive — it is hard to say which of these opposites comes first when describing Hirschhorn's archival art. The paradox remains unredeemed almost as if this bewilderment was Hirschhorn's main intention. Or perhaps this means, on the contrary, some kind of failure in the accomplishment of his intentions. In fact, these two possibilities also seem unredeemable in the form of a paradox of success and failure. In this respect, it is interesting to note how Hirschhorn repeats, consciously or unconsciously, the paradoxical stance of his 'teachers' Warhol and Beuys.55 Both began their artistic path with well-intentioned goals, but ended up not accomplishing these, or at least not being understood in their accomplishment. 56 Hirschhorn seems to admire these individualities for their idealistic intentions rather than their actual accomplishments, which were often contradictory: 'I also admire these artists precisely because they were so radical and so fully engaged in their work, if perhaps wrongly so'.57 Through his also seductive and well-intentioned work, Hirschhorn is perhaps unconsciously seeking for his audience's devotion despite his failures and contradictions, in the same way he 'loves' his 'teachers' despite theirs.58 Moreover, Hirschhorn seems to paradoxically fail in his anti-hierarchic stance by posing the notion of the artist's mission, which points to an idealistic and individualizing conception of the artist as endowed with a special mission in society, whether subversive or affirmative. 59 This also emerges in the emphasis given to his devotional love for his mentors through the highly individualizing process of idolizing. Furthermore, he seems to re-establish the typically hierarchical relation between student and teacher, which he cannot avoid to put in motion when dealing with his own public. Even if we think of his mentors and Hirschhorn himself as non-academic teachers, the truth is he has met them, and his public can also meet him, in one of the most academic places — the museum.

In this context of Hirschhorn's paradoxical archival art, it would be useful to briefly focus on the exhibition Anschool II (Fig. 7), where Hirschhorn gathered earlier and later works for the first time, thereby building an archive of his archives.60 Gathering works made between 1992 and 2005, such as Blaue Tombola (1994), Foucault Map (2004), La Croix (1992), Pilatus Transformator (1997) (Fig. 6), and Hotel Democracy (2003), Hirschhorn claims not to be doing a chronological retrospective, rather an attempt to show the 'inner logic' of his work.61 To this end, he has chosen to build this archive through the logic of the Anschool or non-school, in an effort to subvert " the tendency to create a 'school' ", thereby rejecting 'academism', 'formation', 'chronology', and 'hierarchy'.62 In order to avoid easy communication and distanced overview, in other words engage the spectator in the activity of reflecting on his artistic position, he has combined 'precision in relation to the will' of his work and 'excess in relation to the form'.63 The result is an exhibition that transforms the museum space into that which might look like a school, furnished with chairs, tables, stools, globe maps, TV sets, slide projectors, and printed texts. This is what Hirschhorn calls the 'hardware', whereas his works are the 'software', and a chaotic amount of documentation on his work is the 'pedagogical material'.64 Hirschhorn deconstructs the school by building a non-school that resembles a school, at the same time subverting the idea of chronological archive by means of 'anarchival' (one could also say anarchist) archive making.65 Moreover, he plays with these notions typically connected with hierarchic conservation and transmission of knowledge, such as archive and school, within the museum, another typical place of hierarchic order and academism, which he also intends to subvert (but where an anarchist would probably not want to exhibit). However, by building an alternative school is Hirschhorn not affirmatively proposing something new, rather than just deconstructing reality? Does this new kind of school not offer the possibility of a new 'point of departure'? 66 In fact, school is the place where the future of generations is prepared with hope. Hirschhorn might be aiming at building the 'no-place of a utopia' in the no-place of the school, through the method of the archive.67 However, despite Hirschhorn's precision of will, the unsolvable paradox of extreme hope and awareness of failure is sensed in his words: 'I want to do what one cannot do with his own work'.68 Indeed, Hirschhorn faces the paradox of 'failed futuristic visions'.69

Between affirmation and subversion, 'construction' and 'excavation', utopia and non-utopia, Hirschhorn's archival-anarchival art points out the paradoxical nature of the archive in its 'mutations of connection and disconnection'. 70 In fact, this archival artistic project, as any other archive, seems to move between institution and destruction, Eros and Thanatos, for, as Derrida wrote, 'the archive always works, and a priori, against itself'.71 Hirschhorn's art lives and dies, or succeeds and fails, in this unredeemable paradox.72


Anschool II, Thomas Hirschhorn, Porto: Serralves Museum, 2005.

Archer, Michael, Art Since 1960, London: Thames & Hudson, 2002.

Buchloh, Benjamin, 'Cargo and Cult: The Displays of Thomas Hirschhorn', Artforum (November 2001).

Buchloh, Benjamin, 'An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn', October 113 (Summer 2005).

Crimp, Douglas, On The Museum's Ruins, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993.

Crimp, Douglas, 'Prominence Given, Authority Taken: An Interview with Louise Lawler by Douglas Crimp', in Louise Lawler: An Arrangement of Pictures, New York: Assouline, 2000.

Derrida, Jacques, 'Signature, Event, Context', in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Derrida, Jacques, Éperons, les styles de Nietzsche, Paris: Flammarion, 1978.

Derrida, Jacques, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Deutsche, Rosalyn, 'Inadequacy' in Silvia Kolbowski: inadequate ... Like ... Power, Vienna and Cologne: Secession and Walter Koenig Books, 2004.

Foster, Hal (Ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Port Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983.

Foster, Hal, 'Subversive Signs', in Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, Seattle: Bay Press, 1985.

Foster, Hal, 'Who's afraid of the Neo-Avant-Garde?', in The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press/October Books, 1996.

Foster, Hal, 'An Archival Impulse', October 110 (Fall 2004).

Foucault, Michel, 'What is an Author?', originally published in Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie, 1969.

Freud, Sigmund, 'Fetishism' (1927), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 21, trans. and ed. James Strachey, London: Hogarth Press, 1964.

Grosenick, Uta, Riemschneider, Burkhard (Eds.), Art Now, Cologne: Taschen, 2002.

Hirschhorn, Thomas, Buchloh, Benjamin H. D., Gingeras, Alison M., Basualdo, Carlos, Thomas Hirschhorn, London: Phaidon, 2004.

Kolbowski, Silvia, 'an inadequate history of conceptual art', October 92 (Spring 2000).

Krauss, Rosalind, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985.

Krauss, Rosalind, 'Louise Lawler: Souvenir Memories', in Bachelors, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1999.

Owens, Craig, 'The Allegorical Impulse: Notes toward a Theory of Postmodernism', October 12 and 13 (Spring and Summer 1980).

Owens, Craig, 'The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism', in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Pollock, Griselda, 'The Politics of Theory: Generations and Geographies, Feminist Theory and the Histories of Art History', Genders 17 (Fall 1993).

Rondeau, James, Ghez, Suzanne (Eds.), Jumbo Spoons and Big Cake, Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2000.

Steinberg, Leo, 'Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public' (1962), in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.


Thomas Hirschhorn, Mondrian Altar, 1997, safety tape, cardboard, prints, ballpoint pen, marker pen, aluminium foil, transparent plastic foil, adhesive tape, candles, plates, balloons, fabric, clothes pegs, artificial and real flowers, books, rope, packages, toys. 'ETE 97', Centre Genevois de Gravure Contemporaine, Geneva. (Photo: Thomas Hirschhorn, London: Phaidon, 2004.)

Thomas Hirschhorn, Spinoza Monument, 1999, safety tape, wood, cardboard, paper, photocopies, marker pen, transparent plastic foil, adhesive tape, books, artificial flowers, fabric, electric wire, neon lights, integrated video 'Midnight Walkers & City Sleepers'. W 139, St. Annenstraat, Project, Amsterdam. (Photo: Thomas Hirschhorn, London: Phaidon, 2004.)

Thomas Hirschhorn, Deleuze Monument, 2000, 'La Beauté', Avignon. Collection Fonds Régional d'Art Contemporain Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, Marseille, France. (Photo: Thomas Hirschhorn, London: Phaidon, 2004.)

Thomas Hirschhorn, Bataille Monument, 2002, mixed media. Documenta 11, Kassel. (Photo: Thomas Hirschhorn, London: Phaidon, 2004.)

Thomas Hirschhorn, Meret Oppenheim-Kiosk, 2000, wood, cardboard, paper, prints, photocopies, ballpoint pen, marker pen, adhesive tape, books, synthetic furs, table, chair, desk lamp, neon lights, tape recorder, integrated video. Universität Zürich-Irchel, Zurich. (Photo: Thomas Hirschhorn, London: Phaidon, 2004.)

Thomas Hirschhorn, Pilatus Transformator, 1997, trestle tables, wood, cardboard, paper, prints, marker pen, spray paint, aluminium foil, gold foil, transparent plastic foil, adhesive tape, dustbin, integrated video 'Provisorium I'. Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht, 1999. Collection Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht. (Photo: Thomas Hirschhorn, London: Phaidon, 2004.)

Thomas Hirschhorn, Anschool, exhibition view, Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht, 2005. (Photo: Romain Lopez.)


  1. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 'An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn', October 113 (Summer 2005), p. 94; Anschool II, Thomas Hirschhorn, Exhibition Guide, Serralves Museum, Porto, 2005-06.

  2. Hal Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', October 110 (Fall 2004), p. 10.

  3. Ibid., pp. 10-11.

  4. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 'Cargo and Cult: The Displays of Thomas Hirschhorn', Artforum (November 2001), p. 173.

  5. Anschool II, Thomas Hirschhorn, Serralves Museum, Porto, 2005-06.

  6. Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', p. 4. In this respect, Buchloh says to Hirschhorn: 'Your work suddenly transported the spectator back into history, back, more precisely, to the political history of art. Yet you do not simply pay homage to figures of the past; you seem to want to facilitate a form of historical recollection in a present that no longer has any desire for historical memory, that even actively tries to suppress and eradicate it as much as possible' (Buchloh, 'An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn', p. 82). He thus considers Hirschhorn's work to have an 'explicitly historical', 'mnemonic' dimension, through which the artist engages in a 'critical reflection of history (in sculpture, of all places)' (ibid., p. 90).

  7. Buchloh, 'Cargo and Cult', p. 109. Buchloh discusses this difference between installation and display in an attempt to clarify how the concept of sculpture can still apply to Hirschhorn's practice: 'It has proved difficult to imagine what sculpture could be at the beginning of the new century. Indeed, the concept and category appear strained in the expanded field of Thomas Hirschhorn's displays, ephemeral and unstable constructions of cardboard and foil. The artist insists on the term 'display' to distinguish his work explicitly from a putative tradition or genre of 'installation'- the contemporary doxa of sculptural production and the target of his taxonomic gesture.'

  8. Buchloh, 'An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn', p. 95.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid., p. 94.

  11. Hirschhorn considers that Beuys 'revolutionized the idea of sculpture by introducing materials like felt, fat, and the conducting materials such as copper that had never been used before' in an 'attack on the rigidity of traditional sculptural materials', and 'opened the question of sculptural function with his idea of social sculpture' in a 'continuous appeal to the public' by 'constantly talking, approaching people, carrying on conversations', thus not seeing 'art as something sacred but as a contribution to the ongoing discussion' (ibid., pp. 77-8, pp. 80-1). As to Warhol, Hirschhorn recognises that 'although he conformed to the time in which he lived, his expression was highly critical', while at the same time 'perfectly simple, clear' because 'he gave forms to things and shoved them in the public's face' (ibid., pp. 77-8). This genealogical and devotional relationship between Hirschhorn and Warhol and Beuys will be problematically discussed below.

  12. Buchloh, 'Cargo and Cult', p. 173.

  13. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 1-3.

  14. Buchloh, 'An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn', p. 78, p. 82. In this sense, Hirschhorn intends to build private archives that are totally open to the public, as opposed to typical public archives that are closed and hierarchically guarded. In this respect, Foster says: ' these private archives do question public ones: they can be seen as perverse orders that aim to disturb the symbolic order at large' (Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', p. 21).

  15. Buchloh, 'An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn', p. 92.

  16. Ibid., p. 95. Hirschhorn comments that he is 'personally very susceptible to these forms, for example these little altars that are generated outside and inside by all kinds of fans', seeing in them 'an explosive force', because 'although it is a weak notion', he says, 'it is something that resists', that possesses 'a kind of resistance despite our mass culture's actual lack of resistance'. Moreover, he adds that 'they still give evidence of something that we are losing, a relation or an object that is perceived with love' (ibid. p. 98).

  17. Ibid., p. 84. The notions of 'precision of will' and 'excess of form' will be discussed in the context of the exhibition Anschool II (Anschool II, Thomas Hirschhorn, Exhibition Catalogue (Artist's Book), Serralves Museum, Porto, 2005-06).

  18. See Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', pp. 7-11, and Buchloh, 'An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn', pp. 84-5 and p. 95, for a more precise description of this typology.

  19. Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', p. 8.

  20. Ibid., p. 9; Buchloh, 'An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn', p. 87.

  21. Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', p. 8.

  22. Buchloh, 'An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn', p. 95. Louise Lawler's expression 'prominence given, authority taken' could be applied here, although it emerged from a different artistic practice and reflection, and in a different historical moment. In this respect, see 'Prominence Given, Authority Taken: An Interview with Louise Lawler by Douglas Crimp', in Louise Lawler: An Arrangement of Pictures (New York: Assouline, 2000); Douglas Crimp, On the Museums Ruins (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993); Craig Owens, 'The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism', in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Hal Foster, 'Subversive Signs', in Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (Seattle: Bay Press, 1985), and Rosalind Krauss, 'Louise Lawler: Souvenir Memories', in Bachelors (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999).

  23. Buchloh, 'Cargo and Cult', p. 172.

  24. See Hal Foster, 'Subversive Signs' (1985), pp. 99-115, for an understanding of the evolution of the institutional critique, from the first conceptualist generation of artists such as Daniel Buren, Michael Asher, Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Marcel Broodthaers, Lawrence Weiner, John Baldessari and Joseph Kosuth, more solely concerned with the critique of the museum, to the second postmodernist generation of artists such as Martha Rosler, Sherrie Levine, Dara Birnbaum, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Allan McCollum, Jenny Holzer and Krzysztof Wodcizko, 'legatees of conceptual art' who have extended the institutional critique 'beyond conditions of production and exhibition' in order to 'stress the economic manipulation of the art object — its circulation and consumption as a commodity-sign — more than its physical determination by its frame', and acknowledged that 'functions like the arrangement of pictures in galleries, museums, offices, homes, and forms like press releases and exhibition invitations which, thought to be trivial to the matter of art, in fact do much to position it, to determine its place, reception, meaning' (ibid., pp. 103-4). Although working in a different moment and direction, Hirschhorn has certainly learned from this second generation the relevance of 'a crossing — of institutions of art and political economy' (ibid., p. 99), as well as of a position in which 'the artist becomes a manipulator of signs more than a producer of art objects, and the viewer an active reader of messages rather than a passive contemplator of the aesthetic or consumer of the spectacular' (ibid., p. 100). Again in his own way, Hirschhorn also recognises 'the status of art as a social sign entangled with other signs in systems productive of value, power and prestige' (ibid.), and therefore claims to make an effort to artistically confront the world he lives in, by working against notions of hierarchy, quality and high-art and in favour of the nonexclusive and resistant energy of the ephemeral. Moreover, in his 'Archival Impulse' (2004), Foster separates archival art, where he places Hirschhorn's practice, from both the postmodernist allegorical impulse and Richter's anomic impulse, yet adding that 'in some respects it assumes both conditions' (Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', p. 4).

  25. Buchloh, 'An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn', p. 77, pp. 79-80.

  26. Foster says: "That the museum has been ruined as a coherent system in a public sphere is generally assumed, not triumphally proclaimed or melancholically pondered, and some of these artists suggest other kinds of ordering — within the museum and without. In this respect the orientation of archival art is often more 'institutive' than 'destructive', more 'legislative', than 'transgressive' "(Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', p. 5). Hirschhorn himself explains his position, which although not contradicting Foster's view, subtly admits a preference for the marginal public space: 'I have produced a lot of exhibitions in museums and galleries, but also in public spaces. What interests me, after all, is precisely not to distinguish between public space and the museum or some other private space. What interests me is that it is always the same potential public, only the proportion is different. For in the museum there are people who afterward go out onto the street. People who go into a museum are, let us say, fundamentally interested in art, perhaps, or perhaps have some time for art. By contrast, on the street, my work confronts the anonymous passerby, people who are not necessarily preoccupied with art. And that interests me. But I don't say there is a public — I'm not an advertising man, after all. I don't say that this is a target public or that is a target public. That would be totally wrong. But I would like to create conditions with the materials, the way I create the work, and the theme, of course, which make as many as possible feel included. Or that no one, in any case, feels excluded. And that inclusion is also my intention for my new project here in Paris. It is called the Musée Précaire Albinet. I want to make a museum, a precarious or temporary museum, with young people and the residents of a housing project in the périphérie near where I live' (Buchloh, 'An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn', pp. 98-9).

  27. Buchloh, 'An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn', p. 98.

  28. Buchloh says: 'Hirschhorn positions his 'work' within a number of existing public sites (e.g., his altars are always placed in the street; other displays show up as surprises in the staircases or courtyards of low-income housing projects), anticipating a rather different type of 'participation'. The alien presence of his 'sculptural' objects in these spaces of the most abject everyday is bound to generate encounters that differ drastically from those permitted by traditionally protective frames and institutional spaces' (Buchloh, 'Cargo and Cult', p. 114). In this context, Buchloh speaks of the 'paradox of planned vandalism', whether this might occur by addition in the altars or removal in the case of the pavilions (ibid., p. 114). He sees in both these sculptural structures 'a radical participatory potential: the altars solicit a positive vandalism by allowing for a random addition of objects, while the pavilions permit a type of vandalizing participation in which crucial elements may be removed at any time; in fact, the scantily built pseudo-architectural structure may itself be eventually annihilated' (ibid., p. 110).

  29. Ibid., p. 114.

  30. Ibid., p. 109.

  31. Buchloh questions Hirschhorn about the 'apparent contradiction' of choosing Warhol and Beuys as his main 'teachers', to which the artist answers: 'Warhol is for me by no means the apparent opposite of Beuys'. He explains this by adding: 'what impresses me about both of these figures — as human beings — is their extreme engagement with their art', 'I also admire these artists precisely because they were so radical and so fully engaged in their work, if perhaps wrongly so'. In this respect, Buchloh sees in Hirschhorn's work a 'remarkable synthesis' between 'these two opposing strategies' in that which he calls a 'dialectic of cult and consumption', which is 'further radicalized and still more secularized' by the artist, namely 'with a newly invigorated critical radicality' (Buchloh, 'An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn', pp. 77-8). (However, Buchloh also problematically questions this genealogical and devotional relationship between Hirschhorn and Warhol and Beuys, a problematic that will be discussed below.) Buchloh also ascribes to Hirschhorn a 'third position' dialectically productive of novelty, in his simultaneous rediscovery of both Kurt Schwitters and Alexandr Rodchenko: 'Just as in the earlier opposition between Warhol and Beuys, you inhabit a third position, one that creates both travesty and subversion while simultaneously inducing historical reflection' (ibid., p. 90). Besides, although seeing Hirschhorn as a legatee of some post-Minimal sculptural practices related to the pavilion structure (Buchloh, 'Cargo and Cult' p. 109, p. 113), Buchloh considers that Hirschhorn's work also consists of 'an incredibly radical attack on what, at that point in the late 1970s, was the most advanced sculptural orthodoxy, namely site-specificity', because he 'undermined all of that by using materials that were seemingly interchangeable, that did not necessarily have to be preserved', and 'opened the production of sculpture to other realms of experience that post-Minimalist sculpture had totally shut out, namely the realm of the everyday and the memory of history' ( Buchloh, 'An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn', p. 80 ). Foster also mentions that the archival impulse 'is hardly new', yet he adds that 'an archival impulse with a distinctive character of its own is again pervasive — enough so to be considered a tendency in its own right' (Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', p. 3). For an understanding of this concept of non-repetitive historical return, see Foster, 'Who's Afraid of the Neo-Avant-Garde?', in The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996), pp. 1-33, and Michel Foucault, 'What is an Author?' (originally published in Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie, 1969), pp. 101-120. See also Griselda Pollock, 'The Politics of Theory: Generations and Geographies, Feminist Theory and the Histories of Art History', Genders 17 (Fall 1993), for a feminist discussion of the concept of non-linear History. Jacques Derrida is also insightful when discussing the concept of citationality, according to which 'every sign, linguistic or nonlinguistic, spoken or written ... can be cited, put between quotation marks; thereby it can break with every given context, and engender infinitely new contexts in an absolutely nonsaturable fashion', in 'Signature, Event, Context', Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), p. 320.

  32. Buchloh, 'Cargo and Cult', p. 173. In fact, Buchloh uses this most significant expression: 'a delinquent mimesis and a hebephrenic semblance of disintegration and destitution' (ibid.).

  33. Ibid.

  34. Ibid., p. 109.

  35. Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', p. 5. See Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, pp. 1-23, for a more in-depth view on the paradoxical nature of the archive.

  36. Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', p. 5, p. 21.

  37. Ibid., p. 5. This 'anarchival impulse' in the sense of a search for 'obscure traces' rather than 'absolute origins' may be sensed in Silvia Kolbowski's an inadequate history of conceptual art (New York, 1999). In this respect, see Silvia Kolbowski, 'an inadequate history of conceptual art', in October 92 (Spring 2000). For an insight into the concept of archival or historical 'inadequacy' and that of 'ethics of failure', see Rosalyn Deutsche, 'Inadequacy', in Silvia Kolbowski: inadequate ... Like ... Power (Vienna and Cologne: Secession and Walter Koenig Books, 2004).

  38. Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', p. 11.

  39. Ibid.

  40. Ibid., p. 21. See Craig Owens, 'The Allegorical Impulse: Notes toward a Theory of Postmodernism', October 12 and 13 (Spring and Summer 1980) and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 'Gerhard Richter's Atlas: The Anomic Archive', October 88 (Spring 1999) for an understanding of these allegorical and anomic impulses.

  41. Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', p. 5, p. 10, p. 21.

  42. Ibid., p. 21. Foster continues: 'For Freud, the paranoiac projects meaning onto a world ominously drained of the same (systematic philosophers, he liked to imply, are closet paranoiacs). Might archival art emerge out of a similar sense of a failure in cultural memory? For why else connect so feverishly if things did not appear so frightfully disconnected in the first place?' (ibid., pp. 21-2). In fact, one of the most systematic philosophers, Hegel, developed the concept of synthesis of thesis and antithesis - the Aufhebung -, which redeems every forced connection or bad combination, every contradiction or paradox. Hirschhorn seems to be in between Hegel and Nietzsche, for despite his will to connect what cannot be connected, he is not able to redeem his contradictions, and probably does not want to. This will be discussed below.

  43. Ibid., p. 22.

  44. Buchloh, 'An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn', p. 99.

  45. Ibid., p. 94.

  46. When talking of the placement of this work in a housing project inhabited by a Turkish community, Hirschhorn says, in a 'rather utopian assumption': 'I am the artist, and when I work in an open space I decide where to place my work. It interests me that my work has to defend itself in any surroundings, in any sector, and fight for its autonomy' (ibid., pp. 86-7). That which Buchloh considers utopian, Hirschhorn sees as 'radical, non exclusive stance' (ibid., p. 87).

  47. Ibid. Hirschhorn says: 'that is what I want: reflection about my work, art in general, the passage of time, the world, reality' (ibid., p. 88). His speech seems to show that his intentions are affirmative and actively constructive rather than critical or cynical, since art appears related to activity, discussion, and engagement rather than artistic subversion.

  48. Ibid. Buchloh mentions that Hirschhorn's sculptural strategy 'appears as an incredible assault, a slap in the face of all modernist and postmodernist sculpture' (ibid.).

  49. Ibid., p. 89. Hirschhorn re-establishes the contradiction when he says that he does not work 'against' anybody and his sculptural strategy is 'not in combat' with others, while once again admitting to 'engage in a critical dialogue with prevailing notions of public sculpture'(ibid. p. 94).

  50. Ibid., 90. Although Hirschhorn is here acknowledging contradictions, these words betray a sense of mastery and control in the process of generating them. However, it might be the case that Hirschhorn is somewhat lost in the web of contradictions he has produced. In this respect, see Jacques Derrida, Éperons, les styles de Nietzsche (Paris: Flammarion, 1978).

  51. Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', p. 5.

  52. Ibid., p. 11, p. 21.

  53. Ibid., pp. 15-16.

  54. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, pp. 11-12; Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', p. 5. In another footnote, Foster ascribes to Hirschhorn's 'manic displays' a 'paradoxical state of continual de- and re-territorialization' (ibid., p. 11). He also describes archival art as 'manic ... as well as childish', and Hirschhorn as "the figure of the adolescent as 'dysfunctional adult' " (ibid., p. 21). Moreover, he applies the Freudian concept of 'anal stage' to this art, by describing it as a 'symbolic slippage in which creative definitions and entropic indifferences struggle with one another' (ibid). For Foster, Hirschhorn 'has indeed adopted a mad persona' (ibid.).

  55. Buchloh, 'An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn, p. 77.

  56. Buchloh says: 'Both artists were initially engaged in a form of radical democratization ... Warhol ended up where he began, as a producer of advertising. Fetishism and seduction, advertising and design (which in the end became merely a new style in Warhol) ... As for Beuys, I would say that his promises of 'art by all' were increasingly undermined precisely by his cultic stance. It was essentially a total deification of a single artist, and no longer had anything at all to do with the radically democratic intent with which he started out' (ibid., p. 78).

  57. Ibid.

  58. Buchloh addresses these failures, namely 'a failure to communicate', by considering that, for example, the Bataille Monument (Fig. 4) 'pretended to communicate with a local audience in a way that could actually never happen' (ibid., pp. 86-7).

  59. When asked about Beuys's shamanism by Buchloh, Hirschhorn considered it to be 'highly interesting as an artistic tactic', although he did not admit adopting 'the role of the artist as shaman' (ibid., p. 77).

  60. Anschool II, Thomas Hirschhorn, Serralves Museum, Porto, 2005-06. João Fernandes, the Museum Director, curated this exhibition.

  61. Anschool II, Thomas Hirschhorn, Exhibition Catalogue (Artist's Book), Serralves Museum, Porto, 2005-06. Hirschhorn's will to 'connect what cannot be connected' or his anarchival-archival impulse is at the core of this archival exhibition (Foster, 'An Archival Impulse, p. 11, p. 21). Also, it is important to note that the Exhibition Catalogue was in fact an Artist's Book in the form of a pamphlet that visitors could take for free and reproduce, and where the artist gathered documentation about his work, again in an effort to make his private archives easily accessible.

  62. Anschool II, Thomas Hirschhorn, Exhibition Catalogue (Artist's Book), Serralves Museum, Porto, 2005-06.

  63. Ibid. This combination between precision of will and excess of form manifests once again the 'will to connect what cannot be connected' (Foster, 'An Archival Impulse, p. 11, p. 21).

  64. Anschool II, Thomas Hirschhorn, Exhibition Catalogue (Artist's Book), Serralves Museum, Porto, 2005-06.

  65. Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', p. 5.

  66. Ibid.

  67. Ibid., p. 22.

  68. Anschool II, Thomas Hirschhorn, Exhibition Catalogue (Artist's Book), Serralves Museum, Porto, 2005-06 (italics added). This paradox can also be perceived in the text of the Exhibition Guide, where Hirschhorn's work is described in these both ways: 'This position does not claim a solution for the world's problems, but rather the creating of an open space for reflection and debate' and 'Hirschhorn presents utopia and commitment in the transformation of social reality through an artistic project in which art is a tool for facing the world' (Anschool II, Thomas Hirschhorn, Exhibition Guide, Serralves Museum, Porto, 2005-06).

  69. Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', p. 15.

  70. Ibid., p. 22, p. 6.

  71. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, pp. 11-12. Derrida explains this paradox: 'if there is no archive without consignation in an external place which assures the possibility of memorization, of repetition, of reproduction, or of reimpression, then we must also remember that repetition itself, the logic of repetition, indeed the repetition compulsion, remains, according to Freud, indissociable from the death drive. And thus from destruction. Consequence: right on that which permits and conditions archivization, we will never find anything other than that which exposes to destruction, and in truth menaces with destruction, introducing, a priori, forgetfulness and the archiviolithic into the heart of the monument'.

  72. Hirschhorn's contradictions seem to have something of Nietzsche's paradoxical stance between a nihilist destruction of the present and an affirmative creation of the future. Nietzsche has also genealogically reread the past, in order to retrieve forgotten events and figures, thereby deconstructing the main discourses of History. Moreover, he developed a hermetic style based on the metaphor and aphorism, thus producing an often contradictory writing, whose meaning he perhaps did not totally master. In this respect, Derrida uses the concept of indécidabilité in Jacques Derrida, Éperons, les styles de Nietzsche (Paris: Flammarion, 1978), p. 84. In deconstructing the notion of total mastery in the process of writing, Derrida describes Nietzsche as somewhat lost in the web of his text as a spider might be in the web that it has produced (ibid., p.82). So might be Hirschhorn - somewhat lost in the web of his connections and disconnections, not totally mastering their meanings and effects. Besides, Nietzsche is probably the philosopher more frequently attached to an image of 'mad persona', expression that Foster applies to Hirschhorn (Foster, 'An Archival Impulse', p. 21).