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Warring impulses
Thomas Hirschhorn’s combat zones; Paul Chan’s rise and fall
Thomas Hirschhorn
"Utopia, Utopia = One World, One War, One Army, One Dress"

Paul Chan
"1st Light"
Institute of Contemporary Art, 955 Boylston Street, Boston | through January 16

Related Links

The Institute of Contemporary Art's official Web site

The magnitude and the density of Thomas Hirschhorn’s new exhibit at the ICA — the space has been so filled with objects from ceiling to floor that visitors must squeeze through narrow passages in single file — create a kind of awe no matter what else you may think of the show. Living-room furniture, mannequins, six-foot candelabras of crudely fashioned wood, walls of sneakers, walls of globes, rubber ducks, countless photographs, panes of glass, toys, dolls, multiple television monitors playing silenced music videos, two 20-foot forms resembling the fuselage of an airplane, large, painted biomorphic shapes hanging from the ceiling by industrial chains — this is just a fraction of the cornucopia that crowds the stairs and walls and floors.

And then there’s the tape. The banisters are covered in tape; the panes of glass that form a row of stalls as you enter the first floor have been repaired by tape. Tape holds the candelabras to the floor; tape adheres to the rubber ducks on one dais, makes its way onto wall maps and styrofoam torsos, envelops the monitors where the mute music videos play, inches across the emergency exit, extends from the ceiling lights, wraps itself around a lengthy extension cord that sits in a coil at the top of the second-floor stairs, upholsters the entire surface of a sofa and chairs.

One of the rewarding ironies of "Utopia" is that for all its crazy abundance, for all its plethora of dime-store artifacts (did I mention the display of hair barrettes or the wall of T-shirts or the album covers?), chaos plays no part in Hirschhorn’s æsthetic. "Utopia" is as tightly orchestrated as the applause at a national political convention. Given how much he’s packed in, it would have to be.

Despite the variety, not a single object of the thousands on display departs from the artist’s obsessive theme: the erotic charge of war. Each T-shirt on the wall of T-shirts boasts a different camouflage print, as do the wall of sneakers. The rubber ducks are patterned in camouflage; the music-video performers all wear camouflage costumes. On each mannequin, bust, and globe, strange protrusions grow, some the size of a wart, others the size of a misshapen fetus about to be born, all under tape that itself is stamped by the same dark, mottled green imprint of military camouflage. With a few exceptions, even the ubiquitous adhesive that holds "Utopia" together is designed like military camouflage. In each of the vast array of photographs — snapshots, magazine pictures, pixilated Web images — somebody’s wearing an article of camouflage clothing, from political leaders to fishermen, from anonymous pedestrians to Hollywood stars. Clothing designed for combat and stealth, for killing undetected, is indistinguishable from popular fashion. For all its seeming flat-footedness, "Utopia" makes you aware of the extent to which battle attire and a vast assortment of products mimicking its design have become fashionable. And fashion is sexy.

Even the objects that at first appear un-camouflaged turn out to be closely related. The painted wooden forms hanging from the ceiling, like the painted shapes on the rubber matting that carpets the entire space, derive from the camouflage pattern. The few photos and objects that don’t sport camouflage tape or a camouflage pattern deal with war. The chilling image of a child having shrapnel removed from his face is free of the otherwise pervasive tape, as is the tremendous floor model of toy-city-turned-combat-zone, complete with scorched buildings and earth.

Hirschhorn’s focus, however, is not the depravity or the violence or the cruelty of war. Nothing is outright disturbing; even the boy with the facial shrapnel hasn’t been grossly disfigured. Rather, the artist wants to remind us how inured we’ve grown to emblems of violence, and to camouflage as just another design, like plaid or gingham. And to war as just another commodity.

Would that "Utopia" ended there, but it doesn’t. Superimposed on the exhibit are excerpts from a turgid essay that Hirschhorn commissioned from the philosopher Marcus Steinweg. (It appears in the show’s accompanying brochure, along with an infinitely more engaging essay by Hirschhorn himself.) Sentences like "The realism of facts, of the subject of facts corresponds to the will to self-reduction of this subject to its factual or object status" appear in large, spray-painted letters across expanses of wall space. Smaller fragments of text — even single words — footnote many of the pictures or hang from the necks of the mannequins. The pedantic overkill diminishes the installation’s effect. But one can learn to stop reading.

In a stroke of either good luck or curatorial genius, a floor-projected 14-minute video by Paul Chan titled "1st Light" complements "Utopia" as the fifth project in the ICA’s Momentum series. Whereas Hirschhorn is all visual noise, Chan works in silence, and where Hirschhorn insists on the vulgar, Chan delights in refinement.

In the opening moments of the black-and-white silent film in which everything appears in silhouette, a telephone pole and a street light rise into view and remain stationary throughout the engrossing minutes to follow. Gradually other objects float up from below as gently as a vulture rises on a vent of warm air. But what wafts upward and floats off into space ought to be earthbound: cell phones and laptops, bicycles, a speaker and microphones, tires. A flock of birds momentarily change the course of this mesmerizing display of zero gravity by flying in from above the telephone pole and roosting on the street light. All the while the upward drift of vehicles and eyeglasses and indistinguishable debris continues with measured tranquility — until a body drops out of the sky and hurls to the foreground, where it disappears. Moments later another body falls, then another. Some flail, others appear already dead or resigned; in one instance, two people falling hold each other by the hand.

Unlike the objects that float upward, the bodies fall precipitously, shattering the graceful dream of outer space. And as the sidewalk we never see accumulates corpses outside the frame, the nature of the floating objects changes: an entire train drifts skyward and then huge abstract forms nearly blot out the visual field.

Chan is drawing on the searing impression made by the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, yet nothing about "1st Light" feels exploitative. The gentle disappearance of things and the brutal erasure of human beings, the startling contrast of their direction and speed, the silhouette technique that creates a cartoonish effect until it’s undercut by the reality of death — all of this makes "1st Light" a reminder of what great art can achieve.

Issue Date: September 30 - October 6, 2005
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