Thomas Hirschhorn

I want to express the complexity and contradiction of the world into a single collage. I want to express the world that I am living in, not the whole world as the entire world but as a fragmented world. —Thomas Hirschhorn, 2006

A six-metre-high and 250-metre-long purple wall covered with the “Pixel-Collage” series by Thomas Hirschhorn cuts the museum in two. This form of a delimitative display seems to be in vogue, calling the Anne Imhof show at Palais de Tokyo in Paris to mind. Why should visitors move freely through the museum space when the world is defined by unsuberable barriers? The installation at MAXXI’s Gallery 3, “The Purple Line,” creates a physical experience that directly involves the viewers with the images they cannot escape, following the wall that is winding through the building. The wall seemingly stretches into infinity and the flood of pictures does not end. Occasionally the space between the works and the viewer becomes so very narrow that the images dissolve in front of your eyes. On the other side is the huge collaged throne on a pedestal accessible via stairs, playing inevitably with distance and proximity.

A huge dark red puddle on the dusty ground, the mutilated head of a dead man, a motionless woman’s charred legs, a lifeless boy held by a man, the wounded bluish face of a dead man, or human excrement scattered on the dirt are combined with pixelated women in glamorous poses on the metres-high collages. The pixels are large and not prints but individually cut squares of paper distributed among the outlines of the female figures. The collages are fixed with tape and wrapped in transparent plastic like pieces of evidence in a murder case or stored furniture. Hirschhorn is known for his explicit images of violence, destruction and death. This show, the artist and curators argue, can, however, easily be misunderstood: it is actually about censorship.

Thomas Hirschhorn, De- Pixelation, 2017, Gladstone Gallery, New York. Photo: David Regen. © Thomas Hirschhorn by SIAE 2021. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York.

Documentary photos and snapshots of war scenes, murders, massacres and violent conflicts gathered from the Web are contrasted with fashion advertising pictures from magazines. Instead of the mutilated bodies, the fashion photos are pixelated, and what is usually visible stays hidden while the brutalities lie open like an untreated wound. Looking at both, fashion photos and war scenes, involves voyeurism and raises insurmountable opposites. While fashion photos make us dream of a perfect world and our own reality becomes grey and mundane, the view of dead bodies in a dusty battlefield makes us feel safe and pleased with what we have. Whom does this show address? The audience of a place like the MAXXI is far away from this kind of brutality. Hirschhorn writes that the problem of our conception of the world is “hypersensitivity, which is instead self-protection, numbness, exclusion of the other and often leads to censorship.” It follows a certain strategy that destroyed bodies are not visible in the news; it makes “war acceptable and its effects consumerable.” However, the artist is seeking truth and visual transparency in his collages, showing what is usually hidden in order to surrender the hypersensitivity and to make people position themselves against violence, murder and war.

Both the bodies and the models are cut out and randomly combined. While the war victims are taken out of a real context, the models are staged differently; their magnetism is camouflaged between scenes that could not be further away from the false promises they make. Both the models and the war victims are anonymous, a mere projection surface of “other living conditions.”

The dead people cannot decide about the way their bodies are being displayed and yet there is nothing to hide them, nobody to treat them with respect. Instead they become the centre of attention, surrounded by emotionless mannequins mimicking the uninvolved viewers. Models, in contrast, actively decide to be staged. But the dead bodies, stuck between the pixelated parts of the models, are deprived of their natural surroundings, their history as a living person.

What would survivors say to the lesson Hirschhorn intends to teach the viewers and the media world? What would mothers, brothers, friends say if they saw their loved ones on these images? Does anyone have the right to present them this way? No people, only corpses are being visualized in the “Pixel-Collage.” The sites seem far away; the persons are unidentified, unknown, as if they had no ID, no home, no history—no voice.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Pixel-Collage n°14, 2016, 33 x 45 centimetres. Photo: Florian Kleinefenn. © Thomas Hirschhorn by SIAE 2021. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris.

While the average visitor reads fashion magazines and dreams about beauty and success, men, women and children are hiding in trenches, hoping to survive. Where one part of the world watches the filtered news from the distance of an uninvolved viewer, people are being persecuted, tortured and murdered every day. Are the show’s visitors, by looking at the wounded and dead bodies, truly engaging against war and its justification and propaganda the way the artist demands?

The show wants to be a political war piece, a portrait of humanity, collective trauma, guilt and complicity; a work that holds a mirror up to mankind, saying: looking at these images makes you a witness of this terror and a guilty voyeur at the same time, guilty for being safe in an unequal fragmented world. It wants to be a portrait of the world with all its contradictions, atrocities and immoralities. However, the contrast in the show’s content with its architectural play of distance and proximity displays a misunderstanding of the fact that there is more than dichotomy to the world. Can the fragmented world really be expressed by combining high fashion and war—illustrating the complexities of the fact that everything is linked by recognizing that every individual is a victim or perpetrator, loser or winner, person or unidentifiable body? ❚

“The Purple Line” was exhibited at the MAXXI Gallery 3, Rome, from October 20, 2021, to March 6, 2022.

Teresa Retzer is a writer and curator based in Berlin and Munich. She currently works for Haus der Kunst in Munich and Artists at Risk (AR)—a non-profit organization for human rights and the arts. She previously worked in the curatorial department of the ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe. Her focus lies in media and contemporary art. She has been published by Mousse Magazine, Art Review and Kunstforum International.