The last big work by Thomas Hirschhorn that I saw was Crystal of Resistance, displayed two years ago at the Swiss Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. Hirschhorn created an immersive environment in which, as I wrote at the time, “information overload becomes a concrete corporeal sensation, yet individual details never stop arresting your gaze.” His latest effort, Gramsci Monument—either “commissioned” by the Dia Art Foundation, according to the organization’s website, or “produced” by it, according to the Gramsci Monument website, whatever the distinction signifies—is very different, and has been created for a radically different context. Although I haven’t yet been able to go to this year’s Venice Biennale, I’ve been there much more often than I have to the South Bronx, which is where Hirschhorn’s new piece has been constructed on the grounds of Forest Houses, a high-rise project that since the 1950s has been home to more than 3,000 people. Gramsci Monument will be there through September 15, after which the used materials it was built from will be redistributed locally.
Among the things art can do is change perception by changing the context in which perception takes place. Think of Marcel Duchamps’s gesture, made nearly 100 years ago, of transporting a porcelain urinal from a plumbing supply store to an art exhibition and signing it “R. Mutt.” But perception can be altered by more than seeing familiar objects in new contexts; transporting the perceiver beyond the walls of the museum or the gallery can work just as well. And so for myself (though this might not be true for other visitors to Gramsci Monument), taking the No. 5 train to Forest Houses was significant. I don’t want to make too much of this, and I certainly don’t intend to claim that giving people who would normally never set foot in a housing project a reason to find their way to one is a big deal, or even Hirschhorn’s primary intention. But the trek is at least as consequential as heading to the Great Salt Lake in Utah or the plateau in New Mexico where famous earthworks by Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria are located. And at a time when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing that the best way to protect the residents of such projects is to fingerprint them all, it just might be a civic responsibility to see for oneself what it’s like. For the residents themselves, suddenly seeing their home being seen through the eyes of strangers might be enlightening, too. As the philosopher Gayatri Spivak put it in a talk on Gramsci given at the Monument, “Nothing will last if a collectivity looks only at itself.”
Hirschhorn’s monument to Antonio Gramsci, the great writer, political theorist and co-founder of the Italian Communist Party, is the fourth and last in a sequence of works situated in housing projects. The series began with a Spinoza Monument in Amsterdam in 1999 and continued with a Deleuze Monument in Avignon in 2000 and a Bataille Monument in Kassel, Germany, in 2002, part of Documenta 11. Though not exactly a site-specific work, Gramsci Monument seems to have been made as a piece of art whose primary audience is not assumed to be the art world or its acolytes. It hasn’t been located in a housing project the way artworks are housed in museums, private homes or public plazas. Even so, it’s not exclusively for the residents of Forest Houses either, but rather potentially for anyone—no prequalification necessary. Most good artworks are created on the same egalitarian basis, but Gramsci Monument is different in making a special point of the potential equality of all viewers. As Hirschhorn once said of his work, “The production must be able to address an uninterested audience.”
That Gramsci Monument is far from Chelsea or MoMA is only one of the signs of Hirschhorn’s egalitarian ethos. Simply by building his work in “the projects,” he reminds us of how the very word “project” has become fetishized in the art world—no museum can lack a project room, and every artist wants his or her work recognized, not simply as an assortment of mere things but as the expression of a genuine project—as well as maligned when it comes to designing places for people to live in common. As a culture, we don’t really believe that housing is or should be a “project,” or that living in common qualifies as one; for most of us, a housing project can only be imagined as a last resort.