Precarious Workout

Thinking with Simone Weil and Thomas Hirschhorn, precariousness and fragmentation emerge as forces that reshape ideas of power, monuments, and art’s role in our troubled present.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Community of Fragments, installation view, Kunstforeningen Gl. Strand, Copenhagen, 2021. Photo: David Stjernholm.

At Kunstforeningen Gl. Strand, Thomas Hirschhorn’s exhibition Community of Fragments has been installed and ready to open for several weeks now. To the dismay of many, the Danish government’s reopening plans have been ignoring cultural institutions for too long, and whilst large retailers have been recently allowed to open, museum doors remain shut. Getting desperate about how to entertain my children on a rainy weekend in mid-March, I am struck by the absurdity that I could bring them to visit IKEA, but not an art exhibition. The situation would be ludicrous if it weren’t tragic. Struggling to find a rationale behind these political decisions, we can safely conclude that this kind of ‘forgetfulness’ sheds light on the place art is assigned in this society’s scale of values.  

By contrast, during a chat following a closed-door visit of his exhibition, Hirschhorn and I concocted the theory that art is so crucial for our society it would even help our response to a pandemic. The argument is simplistic, but it amused us: if art, at its best, pushes the public into unfamiliar territories, this exercise in complexity can come in handy when confronted by a phenomenon like COVID-19, whose scale and consequences are hard to grasp. Precariousness, a concept dear to Hirschhorn, and one to which he has returned throughout the years, has assumed frightfully real existential contours during the past twelve months, taking most of us aback. Perhaps, if governments saw the experience of art as a “rehearsal in precariousness,” the critical role that art plays in society would become clearer. Would governments then leave museums open as necessary goods?

Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument, 2013 School Supplies Distribution by Forest Resident Association Forest Houses, The Bronx, New York. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation. Photo: Romain Lopez.

Despite the argument’s playful tones, I take the idea of working out our precariousness muscles very seriously. Precarious is also the space of Hirschhorn’s total installation at Gl. Strand: a maze-like cave of pinewood, cardboard sheets and packing tape – materials as familiar to the artist as pigments to a painter. The image of an abandoned mine inspires the immersive installation; a ‘secret’ space disconnected from everyday life and temporality, a place that offers refuge but is also ready to collapse, as is attested by some of the walls that crumble into big cardboard stones, and by the cardboard beams that are meant to support this perilous structure of an imaginary underground.

Even though it is easy to let our current socially-disconnected life colour our reading of the exhibition’s title, Community of Fragments has originally nothing to do with social restrictions. The title was decided two years ago, when Hirschhorn first started working on the project, and is connected to the theme of the ruin, another recurrent trope in the artist’s practice. It is inspired by archaeological findings, where small fragments can change whole historical interpretations. The ‘fragment’ idea took greater significance when the artist fell in love with Simone Weil’s writings. In the tradition of many mystics, her thoughts are often composed in short passages and aphorisms; hers is a fragmented body of work that resists overarching narratives. 

The exhibition is dedicated to Weil, whose fragmentary thoughts Hirschhorn cuts up further. Quotes are scattered around the display in the form of wall writings and small paper printouts; sometimes, they are even arranged as tiny stone-shaped elements. Her books are available to read in areas of the show that, in typical Hirschhorn style, are arranged like small living rooms and conversation spots. I share the love for Weil’s luminous texts; soaked in a love that shines through vast spiritual insight, her adamantine words are so absolute that they can be, in Hirschhorn’s words, cruel. I am captivated by the focus on fragmentation that this exhibition brings forth. It has led me to wonder: Is there a form of resistance in the weakness we usually associate with the fragment? What would become of power if we were to think about it starting from the image of a pile of debris instead of glorious monumental architecture? 

Boarded up statues in London, June 2020. Photo: Giulia Astesani.

Hirschhorn’s practice has been addressing the concept of ‘monument’ for over two decades. Since 1999, he has created four temporary monuments, each dedicated to a philosopher he loves (Baruch Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze, Georges Bataille, and Antonio Gramsci). All of these works were erected in destitute neighbourhoods with cheap materials marked by a sense of impermanence, such as plywood, plastic sheets, cardboard, and packing tape. These works are a critique of the idea of the monument as we know it, with its aura of eternal power hovering above the public’s heads. Far from this, the main quality that defines Hirschhorn’s monuments is impermanence, closely followed only by love. Rather than grandiose architecture imposed on public space by political powers, the closest inspirations for Hirschhorn’s rethinking of the monument are roadside memorials: a horizontal and fallible view on commemoration.

In the late spring of 2020, during Black Lives Matter protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, protesters attacked colonial statues and sometimes succeeded in throwing them off their pedestals, as in the case of the bronze version of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, whose removal from public sight was long overdue. Local administrations across the UK and the US hurried to defend the statues, enclosing them in temporary protective structures guarded by police. Outrage against the attacks was poured out blindly by media commentators. What would become of a society who wishes to forget history, they cried, oblivious that history is also a narrative of forgetfulness. It seems that the kind of art placed in public spaces to symbolically perpetuate white supremacist power structures is granted a higher position in the same scale of values that closes museums during long months of lockdown – when many of us are losing our minds over the intellectual numbness caused by the next apocalyptic Netflix series. 

Gramsci, who, like Weil, left behind a fragmented body of work famously said, “destruction is difficult; indeed, it is as difficult as creation.” This quote has been the conceptual headline for several of Hirschhorn’s projects over the years, including the Gl. Strand exhibition. 

Gramsci’s words couldn’t be more timely and pertinent to reading last year’s attacks on colonial statues. Meant as a way to target the hegemonic structures that those monuments represent, thedestructive gestures were, for the most part, misunderstood and condemned as vandalism. However, the images of statues covered in graffiti, their plinths ‘ornamented’ by slogan-sprayed cardboard plaques, not only bear an aesthetic resemblance to elements of Hirschhorn’s practice, they also get pretty close to his poetic idea of public art as a transformative experience. 

In Gravity and Grace (published posthumously in 1947), Simone Weil writes of “decreation.” Contrary to destruction, which makes “something created pass into nothingness,” decreation is “making something created pass into the uncreated.” The act of decreating involves surrendering to a void, the same void presupposed by the act of creation through a labour of love. What if we were to shift the discourse around iconoclasm towards decreation rather than destruction? The concept would support a reading of the monument not as a monolithic eternal truth but as a negotiable form, subject to alteration (and decreation) through time. If we followed this lead, we would perhaps find ourselves not far from philosopher Paul B. Preciado’s imaginary multitude of empty pedestals ready to be used as temporary stages for bodies different from those celebrated by colonial heteronormative historiographies. 

If we took the exercise of training in precariousness seriously, would we safeguard our society against intellectual and political fascism? Would this exercise help us redefine our ideas of strength and power, and make room for what seeps in from the margins, the fragments and the ruins of this world? I allow myself to imagine that we would no longer be so concerned with what is (inevitably) collapsing, but rather eager to see what the void left behind can accommodate in its silent potential to reformulate cultural and political values. 

Protest slogans on London pavement – following police violence against the women attending the vigil for Sarah Everard (killed by a MET police officer in March 2021). Photo: Giulia Astesani.