Hirschhorn creates monumental works from the basest of materials. Cardboard, foil, paper and plastic are bound together with tape, in an apparently casual fashion, to form works that are all the more powerful for their obvious instability. In Drift Topography, a ring of US soldiers surround and stand guard over a densely built-up, fenced-in territory. The soldiers themselves, and the weapons they brandish, are larger than life-sized cardboard cutouts. The landscape they guard is equally unstable – a city built from boxes, card, cotton wool and aluminum foil. Vast quantities of generic brown packing-tape hold the whole structure together. Political and historically significant books line the makeshift streets, alongside rows of plastic petrol cans. Paper billboards bear Arabic script enlarged from newspapers, and the bold text of truncated headlines – ‘war’, ‘power’, ‘humanitarian’, ‘globalization’ – are plastered over every surface, echoing the overuse of such terms by the press to the extent of virtual meaninglessness. Over it all, gigantic mushrooms rise out of the centre of the system, evoking nuclear clouds as much as thriving mutant fungi.
Previously, Hirschhorn has fashioned similarly ephemeral materials into interactive environments, including playgrounds, museums and make-shift monuments to his favourite philosophers. While the materials from which Hirschhorn constructs his works lack physical substance, his topics, by contrast, could not be weightier. Originally trained as a graphic designer, Hirschhorn shifted his attention to developing his artistic practice, as he felt it offered greater opportunity for political engagement. “I like full-time thinking,” he has said. “I’m interested in non-moralist, logical, political thinking. I’m interested in ethical questions.” (Thomas Hirschhorn, ‘Four Statements, February 2000’ in Public Art: A Reader, ed. Florian Matzner, Hatje Cantz, 2004, p.247-252, p.251) Drift Topography clearly refers to recent world events, responding to issues surrounding the war in Iraq that started in March 2003. However, while Hirschhorn engages with such political issues, his work is not didactic; he does not present a political message. Rather he tries to represent the complexities of social and political situations. In this way, he makes it harder to come to any simple understanding of the situation, suggesting that if the world is complex and conflicted, any easily reached position is simplistic and false.
In the past, much political art has aspired to monumental proportions and durability, often seeking to publicly assert one account of an event as an abiding truth. In contrast, the complex conceptual quality of Hirschhorn’s work is matched by its character – sprawling and temporary rather than solid and monumental. Despite its complexity, Drift Topography is essentially ephemeral. Not only are the materials inherently unstable, but the structure itself threatens to collapse as it sags under its own weight. As the components deteriorate, the work is further imbued with the process of decay and unsustainability. Hirschhorn has explained that his use of precarious materials conveys “the idea that the monument will disappear, but what shall remain are the thoughts and reflections.” (ibid, p.252) In his work, complex, personal, provisional and ever-changing ideas offer an alternative to the permanency and didacticism of a classical monument.
‘Thomas Hirschhorn interviewed by Iris Mickein’ in Common Wealth, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London, 2003, pp.50-63
Alison M. Gingeras, Carlos Basualdo & Benjamin Buchloh, Thomas Hirschhorn, London, 2004