Thomas Hirschhorn: Keeping the Flame Thomas Clerc magnificently helped fan the flame, to shape it, by this choice of form. But the exhibition is also determined by all those who contribute with their presence, by printing something, by sculpting a piece o
Thomas Hirschhorn’s Flamme éternelle (Eternal Flame) burned in the rooms of the Palais de Tokyo between April 24 and June 23, 2014. The exhibition was one vast production machine, curated by Julien Fronsacq. It comprised two “hearths,” 15,000 tires, and eight spaces containing reading matter and objects for creating. Admission was free, and the exhibition featured a number of spontaneously organized— “non-programmed”—interventions by the likes of Philippe Artières, Baptiste Lanaspèze, Charles Pennequin, Jacques Rancière, Fabrice Reymond, Clara Schulmann, Laurent de Sutter, Abdellah Taïa and many others. Along with writer Manuel Joseph and philosopher Marcus Steinweg, Hirschhorn himself was present in the galleries throughout the exhibition.
The meeting with Thomas Hirschhorn begins with looking for a quiet place to talk, away from the noise of the videos and the speakers. Oddly enough, the best place turns out to be along an open passage rather than a secluded corner. Nearby, a visitor is sitting on a sofa, comfortable enough almost to join in our conversation. First up, the exhibition title: “Eternal Flame” evokes memorials, triumphal arches, the flame of liberty on the waterfront in New York. These are flames with a spiritual dimension. “They are all flames. It’s a clear, open title,” he says. “If there is a flame in the title, there are two in the exhibition, in order to show this multiplicity, to draw a form.”
One of the speakers, writer Thomas Clerc, offered to teach visitors a poem about bastards by Joachim Du Bellay, issue no. 37 (June 6) of the daily journal published during the exhibition relates this experience. Your exhibition could be defined as an interior sculpture, a shifting, intellectual sculpture.
Flamme éternelle differs from your previous projects by its principle of “non-programming.” There is an interesting paradox in trying to escape, as you do here, from the consumption of culture and from cultural animation, to which we are often subjected, by offering an overabundance of proposals.” “Over-taxing the system can lead to fatigue, and fatigue means you can stop lying,” you wrote in 1994.(1) That remark could apply to Flamme éternelle. That quotation sums up a principle I have always affirmed in my work. The “non-programming” that I set up here for the first time, asking people to make their contributions without prior announcement, without panels or other signage, at no set time and without mediation, is far from “efficient.” But it’s the only form that keeps the work from getting stuck in a rut. All the contributors followed this unusual and difficult rule. This means you can talk to visitors one by one, simply by affirming a “now” and a “here.” The question of knowing whether it works already serves as a fig leaf for the cultural industry in its production of “hits.” But a “failure” can also be art. In Flamme éternelle there are moments of joy, grace, precarious, luminous moments, events that—and this is the most important thing—produce a transformation.
In what you are doing there seems to be an attempt to slow time down. Isn’t that the meaning of those banners with quotes from philosophers and writers that are interrupted: for example, “I don’t want a future, I want a….” (the end of the sentence is a “present” and it is by Robert Walser). We are subjected to so much information in the exhibition space that we are obliged, if we want to do anything, to enter into a state of real concentration, to appropriate time when in life we usually let it run by.
This comes from my commitment to presence. In my “Presence and Production” projects, it is presence that supplies production, starting with that of the artist, throughout the duration of the exhibition. I wanted to create a space in which non-satisfaction is possible, where there is no room for good conscience and bad conscience is banned. I want people to give of their time, their body. It has to be free so that people can come several times and see it every day, like me. It’s not a performance. The idea is that of a gift, aggressive, offensive and affirmative, a form that forces the other to be present and to produce something. I want to create a dynamics of comprehension, because when you understand, things become necessary, you create the conditions for being here and now. You don’t need to concentrate, unless it is to be here, now. You have to say awake.
The exhibition has a labyrinthine dimension. There is no plan, you have to look for the interventions announced on the way in.
It’s not a labyrinth but an organic space, structured by two centers, a bar, a workshop,
a video space, a library, a newspaper space, an Internet space. I didn’t want to build walls, I used tires to keep a degree of porosity. In my work, everything is intentional: the occupation of space, the saturation, the light. My rule of conduct is Less is less, more is more! I don’t want to work either against or for the existing architecture, but with it.
Where do the “Convincing Readings” ( Lectures convaincantes) that structure the exhibition come from?
The “Convincing Reading” is theater. All day long someone reads aloud from a library book in order to feed the flame. In 2010, during the “Precarious Theater” I put on in Rennes, an actress and local inhabitant said to me, “Thomas, what we’re doing here is not theatre, we are doing convincing reading.” I found the expression magnificent, and so I borrowed it—with her agreement. In the exhibition collage, which is created by the duct tape holding the chairs down on the floor, is also produced aurally, by the superposition of interventions that take place at the same time (voices, film excerpts, the rubbing of Styrofoam). One could imagine a teeming collective unconscious. That’s a nice idea. I like the simultaneity of activities, the parallel production of meaning and nonsense.
This choice of tires evokes urban uprisings— Cairo, Wall Street, the Maidan. There is something contradictory in having this spirit cohabit with that of the institution. Which are the interventions that surprised you the most?
I find the institution’s self-neutralizing questioning surprising. I have always fought, not that, but the institution. I’m not complaining because I am fighting for my own work—in this instance, to reconstruct it every day. If there was no institution, I would never have experienced art. I am surprised about the way visitors helped to put meaning and nonsense into this space. The heart of the project, the hard-core, is the ten or so people who come here every day and, for various reasons, spend lots of time here, because they are using time in a different way.
The tires have a strong smell of rubber. There are also the ones in the foyers, and the heat they give off. The exhibition is one gigantic workshop, but we can ask questions about he artistic or poetic productions of visitors.
“Quality = no, energy = yes” is my line of conduct. It is no longer possible to speak of “quality” in art. Personally, I don’t know what it is. When there’s an emergency, this criterion is not at all necessary. However, the energy and nonsense produced by Flamme
éternelle make me happy. My work creates a space that can also accommodate nonsense. In nonsense, of course, there is also “sense”
Writing is very present in Flamme éternelle: banners, graffiti, a daily newspaper, Internet. “Writing is also an engagement,” you say. I was talking about my writing, but it’s true for other people’s, too. Writing is an engagement because it is fixed, it is an affirmation of form. My friends are writers, philosophers, poets, because I like what they do and because I am with them in their battles for a comma, a word, a phrase. I try to commit myself with the same passion as them. You write a great deal. For example, in 2007 you wrote a text titled Flamme éternelle. What is the role of writing in your work? That text was about Jacques Rancière’s book
Le Maître ignorant. It was the first time I talked about the “eternal flame.” I write because I want to use my words and fight for the terms I invent. Writing helps clarify things, to invent my own terms and notions, to formulate an engagement. It’s a help, but my work doesn’t depend on it. For an artist, writing is another way of fighting against all those bland, clichéd, inexact and imprecise quotations that you find in texts on contemporary art.
You connect writing with Paris.
When I was invited to put on an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, I wanted to show what Paris, what my friends have brought me in the thirty years that I’ve been living here. I don’t want to reduce Paris to writing and I know that even here it is increasingly difficult to get yourself published. But last week, for example, Le Monde published an article by Alain Badiou about the European elections. It is here that the Alexandre and Daniel Costanzo’s review Faille was published, that Christophe Fiat led me in the footsteps of Georges Bataille, that Manuel Joseph recommended that I read Espèce humaine by Robert Antelme. I can understand that artists in Los Angeles find it stimulating to be in the city of movies. But I am here and these friendships are important for me and for my work, without the romanticism of the Café de Flore.
Have identifiable themes emerged from all the different interventions? It’s too early to analyze. As an artist you can’t be both present and distant at the same time. I need time to think and reflection and critique can come afterwards. I was happy that my six friends: Christophe Fiat, Manuel Joseph, Patricia Falguières, Alexandre and Daniel Costanzo, Marcus Steinweg, invited their friends to Eternal Flame and that they in turn invited others. More than ever, the confrontation between poetry, philosophy and writing creates a dynamic that can cut through our current political social and cultural mess. A new field has opened. Translation, C. Penwarden (1) The quotations from Thomas Hirschhorn come from Palais Magazine no. 19, 2014.