The recent death of Jason Rhoades and the wave of shows by Thomas Hirschhorn this year (see the excellent review by Gregory Volk in ‘Art in America’, June/July 06) prompt this unusual comparison.
Rhoades was the younger, a Californian, noted for his vast mechanical installations, constructions modelling often absurd or abstruse tasks, revelling in the latest materials and technology and the sheer mass or wealth displayed. In his work, installation was firstly about the prestigious means that may be brought to bear upon a task, rather than the merit of the task itself. The installation was firstly an occasion for acquisition, leasing and loans, commissions, contracts, management and logistics. The work is about drawing attention to these practices, showcasing a certain bravado or aggression, the novelty and extent of materials and their applications.
In fact whimsical tasks such as Meccatuna (see description) all but announce that the ends are little more than pretexts for an exercise in means. The work is about the conspicuous display of economic and institutional power available to the artist. The work takes a lot before it is even realised.
In this Rhoades follows a trend to installation and site specific works that engages with industry on an industrial scale. The style arises with the elaborate co-operation and sponsorship that is a feature of the work of Christo Robert Smithson, and later Nancy Rubins, Wim Delvoye, Cady Noland and Dan Petermann amongst many others. With Rhoades the emphasis is not just on scale or sophistication, but on a kind of glamour, partly carnival, partly trade show or public event. In other words, the works display certain aspects of commercial display, at the top end, for power and prestige.
The Paris-based Swiss Hirschhorn on the other hand, is interested in public display from the bottom up. Here the model is defiantly low-maintenance, improvised, homemade; confined to the resources of the educated or articulate citizen. The most obvious precedent lies in the installations of Russian Ilya Kabakov, in the early 80s, but strictly, the convergence upon an all-embracing ‘environment’ or ‘a roomful of stuff’ as they are pejoratively known, arises both in sculpture and more Conceptual installations.
Hirschhorn's installations are about private protest or marginalised public announcement, a kind of fleeting folk display and they are extended from amassed documents, slogans, pictures and rough models to their confused arrangements in booths, on tables, stands or floors, to even the modest furniture and fittings of their situation. Hirschhorn takes in the whole spectrum of the presentation, right up to the architecture. In one sense they are an art director’s view of such display; in another sense the information presented cannot be ignored or contained.
Hirschhorn’s work is notorious for its political and controversial content. It ranges from a critique of global capitalism to suspicion of standard education, science and medicine, the role of mystical and esoteric beliefs, the structure of the Swiss government as well as praise for cultural heroes such as Raymond Carver. It is a heady and provocative mix and as Volk notes, brings not only surprising resonance and richness to seemingly disparate materials but as often overwhelms them with sheer ambiguity or serendipity. The installations do not draw a line between the radical and the crackpot and the work is often about this uncomfortable overlap, between what is displayed and how it is displayed.
So Hirschhorn would seem to display too much where Rhoades displays too little. Yet Hirschhorn’s means invite the challenges of the outsider and rebel, are really their purest expression and are accepted in as much as dissent is accepted, only in the spirit of bemused tolerance, while Rhoades’ wrangling and showmanship need say no more to underline where standards and acceptance in display begin or mean business. The two approaches thus complement one another in surprising and potent ways.