THOMAS HIRSCHHORN: Flamme éternelle (Eternal Flame)
PALAIS DE TOKYO, PARIS | April 24 – June 23, 2014
One rarely perceives the olfactory imprint of an artwork before seeing it. And yet, the powerful smell of rubber grasps you right at the threshold of the Palais de Tokyo, where the Swiss born, Paris-based artist Thomas Hirschhorn has been invited to unfold his monumental installation, Flamme éternelle (Eternal Flame).
Reminiscent of a sprawling squatter’s dwelling or urban barricades, piles of over 16,000 tires delineate the precarious spaces of this work-in-progress. In this installation conceived as a workshop, Hirschhorn reactivates, for the eighth time, his “Presence and Production” protocol: there is a library of books and DVDs, computers for use, a sculpture studio, a bar, and two forums in the middle of which burn a flame sheltered by sheet metal panels. The temporary Gramsci Monument he erected last summer (with the help of local residents of the South Bronx) followed the same guidelines. Today, it is upheld by four key elements: presence, production, free entrance, and no prearranged scheduling. Presence is the necessary condition for production and in keeping with this theme, the artist is present in the space from noon through midnight for the duration of the exhibition. As Hirschhorn states, everyone—philosophers, writers, poets, and the general public—is invited to “give form to what may be called friendship between art, philosophy, poetry, writing.” This gigantic sculpture is, in effect, a tribute to thought in motion; the flame will burn forever if each and everyone fuels it.
In keeping with the artist’s request, entry is free of charge. This affords the work a welcoming atmosphere, encouraging repeated viewings as the installation evolves over time. To keep track of these evolutionary elements, a daily bulletin is printed on site, reporting events that have taken place and relevant writings produced consequentially. The absence of a timetable for the guest speakers—200 have been invited during the course of the exhibition—is new to the artist’s convention; it differentiates Eternal Flame from a cultural event, by randomly selecting the audience for a given lecturer. The chaos that prevails, the heap of materials, and the incomplete display, are considered as prerequisite conditions for triggering inspiration in the various participants.
Hirschhorn’s propensity for using cheap and utilitarian materials is undeniable: plastic garden chairs, secondhand furniture entirely covered with brown tape, makeshift tents, and unfinished polystyrene sculptures abound. Beyond purely formal purposes, these specific choices bare political significance: “Quality is an argument used to build a system of exclusion,” Hirschhorn explains. “I do not wish my work to be scrutinized under this aspect, but rather with the more inclusive criteria of energy.” These familiar and non-intimidating materials spur the audience into participatory action. To underline this questioning statement, a great many truncated quotes and political slogans sprayed on cardboard signs or pamphlets—imitating dazibao popular in China—are scattered throughout the installation. For instance, one can read: “Revolutionary opposition, that is the nature of”; “Anonymous!! We are legion. We do not forgive, we do not”; “Any monument of culture is.” Here, the viewer is free to complete the sentence, or not.
I have visited Eternal Flame a number of times to witness the venue’s evolution. Beyond its appearance of an ephemeral wasteland, the installation is busy as a beehive, reminding me of the atmosphere cast by Patrick Bouchain’s Venetian Metavilla, from 2006. Everyday, Xeroxes, banners, graffiti, and sculptures made by visitors have aggregated to the whole. The polystyrene granules sticking to my clothes, for example, are the indisputable trace of an intense bustle down at the sculpture workshop. On one specific evening, I stumbled upon the performer Sekou N’Diaye, who was reading a text written by Noam Chomsky aloud that he had selected from amongst the 600 volumes in the library. A few minutes later, he invited me to take the helm. I became like many other attendees—a transient spark, part of this larger flame. In one of the halls, surrounded by a packed audience, the philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie spoke about his current research on Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning, and their new methods of rebellion. His words echoed the spirit of freedom that pervades the installation. A little later, it was Thomas Hirschhorn’s turn to share the philosophical grounds of his project.
When considered in context with France’s unsettled political scene, this installation becomes even more relevant. Hirschhorn, through his restless engagement of the public body, has harnessed in one single structure, multiple aspects of thought, where art can function as a vehicle for counterproposals. Its open system, and all the interactions created within, nourish our reflection, stressing that change depends critically on the energy and power of imagination each one of us possess. Paradoxically, one can glimpse—for this is an institutional display—the promise of a blissful and nonetheless constructive sedition.