Thomas Hirschhorn:The Distance between Pixelation and Truth

By Gu Qianfan, Translated by Ke Lingxiang, Image Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery


Thomas Hirschhorn: De-Pixelation

Gladstone Gallery, New York

28 October 2017 - 13 January 2018


The Swiss artist, Thomas Hirschhorn’s solo exhibition at the Gladstone Gallery in New York, De-Pixelation (28 October 2017 - 13 January 2018), is indeed frightening. Take the Pixel - Collage n°113 (2017) hung on the wall opposite the entrance as an example: this work is about 12.7 metres in width and 6.1 metres in height, covered with a transparent plastic film and occupying the whole wall. The right half of the collage is composed of pink, flesh-coloured, and off-white pixels, while its left half is a dead man lying supine on the ground with several flies resting on his blood-stained face. On the other walls respectively are four similar, large collages and a series of small collages displayed side by side. All of them keep the scenes of violence shot in those conflict areas. These collages of dead bodies, of mutilated legs or injured arms, and of blood and guts confront the spectator in a stark manner. Nevertheless, if we narrow our eyes, the various pixelated parts of the collages look like those advertising photos for some brands in a fashion magazine.

Is the mosaic put in a wrong place? For most people, this may be their first response to Hirschhorn’s collages. Fashion advertising photos and those documentary ones of wars often appear in the same magazine, on the same website, and on the same television channel, but we have a habit of seeing them in an inverse manner: the stars and models, with their attractive bodies, shining skin, and smiling faces, are allied with luxury goods and they are the symbol of beauty; while the victims are anonymous and their tragedies are often blurred due to pixelation, which can still frighten us so that we do our best to keep away from them. We accept such a visual language as we believe that the use of mosaic is our respect for humanitarianism. However, Hirschhorn holds another view, pointing out that “the authoritarian will use pixelation in order to hide, ‘protect', not show, or make something not visible”. In Hirschhorn’s eyes, such an use of pixelation plays the role of control which has become popular in the mass media since the September 11 attacks so as to avoid the moral charge of wars. In consequence, the purpose of pixelation is in the name of “protection” to keep the spectator from the disturbing images but impel them to accept a whitewashed illusion so that they have always been kept a distance with the truth. All this leads Hirschhorn to declare in his statements that “I want, I can, I need and I must use my own eyes to see everything in our world, as act of emancipation”.

Hirschhorn has created his Pixel-Collage series for more than two years, with a total of 121 works. This solo exhibition at the Gladstone Gallery in New York can be seen as a summary of this series. Apart from the collages,the exhibition also presents some archival materials of the artist’s creation, in which we can see Hirschhorn’s sincere and frank interpretation and deconstruction of his own art. Hirschhorn conceives the device of hypophora in his statements: that is, he answers his own questions such as “Why do I think what I think?” and “Why do I use the tool or the instrument I use?”. Hirschhorn explains that the reasons for his creation of collages are because “a collage is resistant; it escapes control, even the control of the one who made it”; because “[t]o make a collage always has something to do with headlessness”, which is similar to a picture of victims, or such a picture with no head may be used by terrorists as an extreme tool of propaganda; and because “[a] collage is something universal, and it is an opening toward a non-exclusive public”. Hirschhorn’s words help the spectator have a deeper perception of his sensational images. The “protection” of the transparent plastic film to the collage suggests an absurd irony as the nature of the film can cause the reflection of light, which seems to mimic the exquisite feature of an unopened package of goods. The traces of sticking all have been kept in the collages so that the works have irregular rims. The images of victims sometimes seem something spilled out of the part that has been inserted into the collage and they are similar to the models in the fashion advertisements, who are first shot in front of some green screen, then cut out from the original pictures, and finally inserted into another picture with a seemingly real background.

the exhibition also presents some archival materials of the artist’s creation, in which we can see Hirschhorn’s sincere and frank interpretation and deconstruction of his own art. Hirschhorn conceives the device of hypophora in his statements: that is, he answers his own questions such as “Why do I think what I think?” and “Why do I use the tool or the instrument I use?”. Hirschhorn explains that the reasons for his creation of collages are because “a collage is resistant; it escapes control, even the control of the one who made it”; because “[t]o make a collage always has something to do with headlessness”, which is similar to a picture of victims, or such a picture with no head may be used by terrorists as an extreme tool of propaganda; and because “[a] collage is something universal, and it is an opening toward a non-exclusive public”. Hirschhorn’s words help the spectator have a deeper perception of his sensational images. The “protection” of the transparent plastic film to the collage suggests an absurd irony as the nature of the film can cause the reflection of light, which seems to mimic the exquisite feature of an unopened package of goods. The traces of sticking all have been kept in the collages so that the works have irregular rims. The images of victims sometimes seem something spilled out of the part that has been inserted into the collage and they are similar to the models in the fashion advertisements, who are first shot in front of some green screen, then cut out from the original pictures, and finally inserted into another picture with a seemingly real background.

During his two-year creation, Hirschhorn’s request for exhibition has often been refused. It is not surprising to see such a situation, and at the same time, it is a very remarkable act of such a commercial gallery to fulfil Hirschhorn’s wish. Hirschhorn’s struggle is reminiscent of that of the American abstract expressionist artist, Mark Rothko (1903-1970): Rothko was invited to paint the murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in 1959. What the artist who later committed suicide in 1970 was then thinking was to create “something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room”. At that time, the United States had been involved in the Vietnam War for several years, but for those who dined at luxury restaurants, the casualties on the other side of the world were merely cold information in the daily newspapers. What Rothko was unable to bear was this whitewashed peace resulting from such factors as capitalist economy, class differentiation, and political interests. In his paintings, Rothko used more and more scarlet and black colours in order to express his protest against this false peace. What is more, he still could not overcome the feeling that his own works were used as ornaments in such a society. In the end, he returned the payment and donated the best of his paintings to the Tate.

If, and only if Hirschhorn were in Rothko’s shoes, his Pixel-Collage series might indeed “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch”. Hirschhorn compels the spectator to re-face those images of tragedies from which we are used to turn our eyes away. We are blind because of pixelation and we live a comfortable and calm life which needs no thinking or action so that we fail to think of what Hirschhorn aims to convey in his art: “Nothing is un-showable. The only thing which cannot be shown is what has no form. […] In order to confront the world, to struggle with it, with its chaos, its hyper-complexity, its incommensurability, I need to confront reality without distance.”

 

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Pixel - Collage n° 110 prints, tape and transparent sheet, 592 x 502 cm, 2017


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Pixel - Collage n° 106 prints, tape and transparent sheet, 20.5 x 40.5 cm, 2017



1 “the authoritarian will to use pixelation in order to hide, ‘protect’, not show, or make something not visible” 2 “I want, I can, I need and I must use my own eyes to see everything in our world”

3 “Why do I think what I think?”

4 “Why do I use the tool or the instrument I use?”

5 “A collage is resistant; it escapes control, even of its author.”

“Making a collage always has something to do with heedlessness.”

6 “[…]As much as they create sympathy, I wrote, photography shrivels sympathy. […]

What is the evidence that photographs have a diminishing impact, that our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force of photographs of atrocities?”

7 to create “something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room”