Disguise the Limit: Thomas Hirschhorn’s World Airport

Hamza Walker, 2000

The act of thinking has become increasingly difficult at airports. The placement of televisions in every possible sight-line has made it clear that undivided attention is not an inviolable right. In keeping with the spirit of all pervasive distraction, World Airport is a recreation of the travesty that public space at airports has become. Oddly enough, it lacks the work of public sculpture, which would confirm this. Dragging the museum’s aspirations for an idealized experience of Euclidean space into the public realm has by and large been a disaster, resulting in what is commonly referred to as “plop-art,” “urban jewelry” and in the case of the airport, “homeless abstraction.” In this respect, World Airport represents the most joyful of ironies as the airport has come to haunt the modernist gallery which sculpture, for all practical purposes, vacated in the late 1960s with the rise of conceptual practices and public art programs. This point being made rather elegantly through one of World Airport’s most prominent features, its fluorescent lighting. The banks of cellophane-wrapped fluorescent lights shamelessly disgorge Dan Flavin’s utopian aspirations for an industrially produced, commercially available, pure art and at the same time recuperate fluorescent lighting’s original intent by transforming the ambiance of World Airport into that of World Laundromat. Under rather elegant, shadowless conditions, Hirschhorn proudly submits for inspection the crummy production values flaunted throughout his work. More important, however, is what Hirschhorn’s lighting signifies in relation to a public artwork such as Thinking Lightly, Michael Hayden’s blinking, neon, ceiling sculpture located in the United Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Hirschhorn’s fluorescent lighting serves as a welcome antidote to what Helmut Jahn, the terminal’s architect, viewed as a statement of “technological sophistication,” apparently oblivious to the history of neon’s crass commercial uses in sites ranging from the most antiseptic shopping mall to the seediest urban nooks and crannies.

Rather than use public sculpture to further confirm the disintegration of public space, World Airport relies on shifts in scale and the dispersal of newspaper and magazine clippings throughout the work. The viewer is at one and the same time a late twentieth century Gulliver and The Incredible Shrinking Woman, made to feel simultaneously large and small before the deluge of information and the scale at which many of World Airport’s metaphors have been realized. “Where am I?” This question is bound to arise amidst the clutter of World Airport’s components: cellophane tendrils, partitions, lighting stands, tarmac, palisade, altars, televisions, spoons, vehicles, luggage etc. This is an appropriate response since Hirschhorn considers World Airport a map - a set of relationships established through a series of points linked by lines and flat planes. World Airport, however, is actually a collage. “Much tape. Badly.” These instructions, delivered as an imperative from Hirschhorn to a gallery assistant, were diligently followed to the degree that the tape is somewhat repulsive, taking on a creeping, organic quality, a bureaucratic mildew of sorts. It transforms the gallery into a cocoon where certain components (televisions, chairs, the base of the partitions), having been literally collaged into or onto the space, lose their edges, becoming a monadic, undifferentiated substance at the point they connect to the floor. But as for World Airport’s semblance to a map, the only red dot to reassure the viewer of their coordinates is what the artist refers to as the “flake of consciousness,” an eerie, bright red puddle-form that seeps from under either side of the tarmac. Like its graphic counterpart, the “flake of consciousness” is a bold declaration. “YOU ARE HERE,” somewhere in this mess, somewhere on this planet.

Hirschhorn describes World Airport as his inability to comprehend the world as it comes together only to fall apart. He even considers the “flake of consciousness,” as something of a self-portrait, representing a slice of his mind. With its holes, it certainly is not the birth of consciousness as it would have been celebrated by Karl Marx but more the inadequacy of such a consciousness in the face of complex global relations to have emerged a decade after the events of 1989. In light of the break up of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the student uprising in Tiennamen Square, many consider the second half of this century a liberal revolution, citing the transition made by a number of authoritarian regimes, large and small, of the radical left and radical right, to a freely elected form of government. The sprouting of liberal democracies around the world has even led some to conclude that we have reached the “end of history.” According to this theory, the birth of liberal democracy on a global scale represents the beginning of a universal history, the geographical and chronological alignment of historical events so that the end goal of humankind will be made clear. Hirschhorn’s decision to cast the world as an airport in tape, wood, cellophane, cardboard, plastic and aluminum foil, questions the immanence of a universal history especially one that serves to commemorate the current social order. World and airport are large complex systems. Insofar as the web of flight patterns allows the world to be grasped as a whole, then the world is indeed an airport. But does that mean the world functions as an airport?

Despite its humor, Hirschhorn’s work is sad, mourning the loss of intellectual and spiritual ideals that have nourished modern utopian thought, and commemorative, celebrating the triumph of the commodity. Since Marxism had become the most comprehensive language of social transformation, one resting on a critique of the current social order, “the death of socialism” became synonymous with the proscription of utopian thought. The sudden, widespread skepticism regarding historical change and social transformation as they reside in critique, dissent, and resistance mirrored the quandary in which cultural production of the latter half of this century had already found itself. Consciously and unconsciously, artists since the 1950s had been negotiating the conclusions and failure of an historical and radical avant-garde that also sought social transformation. These negotiations are reflected in Hirschhorn’s influences, which range from the Soviet avant-garde to Andy Warhol, from Kurt Schwitters to Joseph Bueys. Refusing to acknowledge the avant-garde’s conclusions regarding the fate of culture in the face of the implications wrought by urbanization and industrialization, or abandoning their idealism as it related to such a fate, would leave artists little choice but to internalize and reflect the many contradictions inherent in the existing social order. This could only be done with shades of doubt, skepticism and irony ranging from bitter to sweet as artists of Hirschhorn’s generation found themselves heir to an imagination bound rhetorically by the question, “Are we there yet?” and its response, “Been there. Done that.” In this respect, utopian thought had not been abandoned as much as it found itself in the vice-grip of irony that throughout the 1980s had become de rigueur. In addition, attributing the proscription of utopian thought to the “death of socialism” illustrates the extent to which such thinking had been premised on a cold war isolationism. After 1989, the future no longer belonged to an “us” or a “them,” as was commonly believed during the cold war and its vigorous prosecution under President Ronald Reagan. It became an all-or-nothing proposition belonging to the entire globe. This has become increasingly clear over the last decade, as the discourse of utopia has given way to that of globalization, a transition that casts the future in the unsettling terms of the present.

Hirschhorn’s smashed-car-window aesthetic is undoubtedly a response to the conditions of a radically foreshortened future beyond which it is impossible to see. He considers his urgent, makeshift sensibility universal in scope. True at least wherever there are cars. Likewise, the tape has a painterly, expressionist quality, signifying an urgency artistically as commonplace as the car alarm. As with any provisional measure, the tape raises the question of time-specifically, how long before things are fixed, how long before normalcy is restored. Applied excessively, it alludes more to “the will to fix” than actual repair, also raising the issue of futility, an issue that threatens to paint Hirschhorn as a cynic, which is far from the case. Insofar as the avant-garde can be given credit for putting forth propositions regarding the relationship of the utopian ideal to the current social order, artists throughout the century have had time to renegotiate failure and embrace the symptoms of alienation they themselves diagnosed. The hardening of irony from, say, Warhol to Jeff Koons being an acute case. It is precisely a gesture such as Koons’s use of stainless steel that Hirschhorn’s tape and tinfoil refute. After 1989, it is difficult not to acknowledge Koons’s use of stainless steel as a celebratory predecessor to market liberalism’s claims to global triumph. The stainless steel works, largely cast after commemoratives and tasteless promotional merchandise, would achieve their clearest expression in Kiepenkerl, a 1987 work in which he relocated and recast one of Munster’s forgotten bronze honor-memorial sculptures. As a “new and improved” version of the same old history, Koons’s recasting of the commemorative, so that bourgeois values “shine brighter and last longer,” is indistinguishable from the idea that history stands to transform itself into a providential bourgeois eternity. Obviously Hirschhorn’s work, unlike Koons’s, is not “built better so you can care less.” If anything, it is the opposite, built to expose stability as something of a collective myth. “The future is here!” But again, for how long? Not surprisingly, Hirschhorn is extremely sensitive about the issue of conservation, a topic to which he polemically responded “Cardboard! Marble! What’s the difference?” The difference is not eternity plus or minus ten years but an aging of the world picture on the terms of historical closure. The subsequent degradation and or preservation of Hirschhorn’s work are beside the point. Hirschhorn’s process and materials are an a priori acknowledgment of time and, by default, change, in which case the corollary between Koons and Hirschhorn gives way to the more profound corollary between Hirschhorn and On Kawara, one that rests signficantly on their fetish for journalism. Kawara’s serial production of date paintings and its corresponding diary practice as in the various series I Read (1966), I Went (1968), I Met (1968), and I Got Up (1968 -1979), provide a model of the linguistic subject, constituted in statements of fact (including those appropriated from journalism), that is in many ways the reductive antithesis of Hirschhorn’s distracted and dispersed consciousness. Whereas Kawara’s paintings and the overwhelming body of documentation are a challenge to the subject to rigorously reconstitute themselves in memory as factually stark as the date, Hirschhorn’s subject would seem forever solvent in a present characterized by an overabundance of information.

Nothing could be further from Hirschhorn’s work than an archival, serial practice. It is even an understatement to describe Hirschhorn’s work as open. For better or worse, it is simply at the mercy of the world, punctuated, indeed perforated, with ready-mades, the most abundant being text. Treated democratically in their selection, they range in complexity from bumper stickers to Spinoza. For the most part, however, the themes in World Airport (conflict, spirituality, commerce, philosophy) are determined by the four altars and the freestanding partitions. Ten of the partitions, those running perpendicular to the tarmac, feature articles focusing on a particular conflict from the past 15 years (Kosovo, Tiennamen Square, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, the Falkland Islands, Israel, Sudan/Somalia, Bosnia, Turkey, and Tibet). As a mass of journalistic information, in all its sobriety and sensationalism, these partitions lack the didacticism and moral theatricality of the work of say Alfredo Jaar. Handwritten with a fat, black permanent marker, the text on another group of blue partitions lists hundreds of destinations, suggesting the disintegration of the world into tribes each possessing an airport. The lack of familiarity with most of these places, however, begs the question as to where globalization takes place. Saskia Sassen has argued that globalization, despite the implications of the term, is actually a form of centralization, with the key players being New York, Tokyo, London, Berlin, Hong Kong, etc. If the story is one of centralization versus marginalization, then these blue partitions could be likened to a scoreboard, charting the rise in Gross Local Production as these destinations begin a competitive bartering off of natural resources and cheap labor in exchange for corporate investment so as not to be left out of the global game. Or, one could adopt a more optimistic outlook made popular by Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen that improvement in the quality of life is undeniably made possible through industrial development, an argument neo-liberals use in order to paint globalization as a morally righteous “win-win situation.” What they will not reveal is the point spread with Wall Street winning by a mega-margin compared to the rise in per capita income of residents in, say, Fushun, Arka, Hubli, and Nukus combined. As for corporate winners, they appear on partitions devoted to commerce, some to corporate affairs in general and others exclusively to the business of aviation. Another partition featuring a series of photographs of young Caucasian men in sporting gear, arms outstretched in mid-leap a few feet from the ground, is conspicuous for its lack of text. There are several metaphors to be drawn: the age-old dream of flight; an update of Yves Klein’s famous photograph Into the Void; a celebration of individual bodily sovereignty. But the young men’s age, race, and manner of dress suggests more the rhetoric of rugged individualism, a symbolic freedom used to sell a lifestyle centered around a Sports Utility Vehicle (not shown). Their aspirations prove a poor substitute for wings, as they are hopelessly backyard bound. Although there are a set number of themes determined by the partitions, their dispersal throughout the work generates an atmosphere of perpetual diversion. There is no beginning, no end, no hierarchy of information, and no visual respite. Since no single element in World Airport commands our undivided attention all diversions are relative. In tracing the path of the cellophane tendrils, which the artist provocatively refers to as “ramifications,” one would expect to arrive at a control tower that would provide an overarching syntax for World Airport’s individual elements. Not so. The ramifications gather at a conspicuously insignificant structure that recalls a sleepy, nonchalant Medusa’s head. In the absence of a leviathan, World Airport’s syntax resides more in the relationship between its components than any singular element.

Despite its overwhelmingly fragmented appearance, World Airport , like an airport when viewed from an aerial perspective, is highly ordered. The work, however, is not strictly an airport. Two of its main components, the large aluminum foil spoons - each measuring approximately two meters in length, spilling out from under one of the corners of the tarmac - and the four altars - one at each corner of the installation, all decorated with flowers, electric candles, garishly made oversized sneakers, and books dangling from their edges- are conspicuous insofar as they do not relate directly to an airport. Hirschhorn regards their presence as a critical counterpoint to the emphasis on political and commercial concerns in the airport-related components. Derived from Brecht’s famous statement, “First we eat, then morals,” these aluminum foil spoons represent a sense of caring that is a precondition for moral concerns, an a priori ethics of distribution aimed at eliminating the tension between have and have-not, need versus privilege, world hunger versus those with silver spoon in mouth. The altars are dedicated to philosophy (mind), sports (body), and religion (soul). These represented in the form of oversized athletic shoes for sports (Nike, Puma, Addidas, Reebok); books for philosophy (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Benedict de Spinoza, Antonio Gramsci, and George Bataille); and articles on various faiths for religion (Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism). But given the relative visual and spatial prominence of the tarmac and the adjoining ten partitions featuring sites of conflict, the spoons and altars are at best marginalized. The marginalization of ethics, philosophy and spirituality, all branches of intellectual activity serving as guardians of transcendental and utopian longings, constitutes a marginalization of critique. Equally telling is the relationship between the runway diorama and the partitions featuring sites of conflict. Hirschhorn describes the runway diorama as a model of globalization built around consensus, as the airplanes, standing in for various nation-states, sit prepared for take-off, receiving information from a control tower he specifically downplayed, referring to it is an “element without will,” a gesture reminiscent of political analyst Thomas Friedman’s belief that no one is in charge of globalization. The airplanes’ alignment suggests a harmonic convergence, the arrival of a universal history, a worldwide accord as they takeoff into the sunset, a common destiny the final destination. This stands in direct contrast to the conflict displayed on the ten, evenly spaced partitions that march along the tarmac’s edge. The partitions relativize perspective, eclipsing the horizon, creating a series of stalls that become claustrophobic worlds unto themselves. Consensus, conflict, and the marginalization of critique, these are as close to an overarching syntax as World Airport is likely to offer.

Given the nonhierarchical, diversionary character of World Airport, any syntax is unstable. A literal reading of one component can shift radically to a metaphorical reading of another, thereby confirming, complementing, or contradicting a previously assembled meaning. Take for instance the Dalai Lama’s recurrence throughout World Airport , appearing on the altar, Tibet’s partition, and the palisade. This attests to his status as spiritual, political and popular icon that can in no way be reduced to a singular reading but changes depending on his context. Or take for instance Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy?, a text included in the exhibition, which provides not simply a passage or a page but an entire chapter, “The Plane of Immanence” (plane in this instance referring to a two-dimensional surface) that serves as an uncanny description of the tarmac. “The plane [of immanence] has no other regions than the tribes populating and moving around on it. It is the plane that secures conceptual linkages with ever increasing connections, and its concepts that secure the populating of the plane on an always renewed and variable curve.” As the title “Plane of Immanence” suggests, it is the ultimate common ground whose renewed and variable curve is no doubt meant to reference the earth. Incidentally, this chapter serves as a paean to Spinoza who happens to be one altar away. Even in the absence of such “conceptual linkages,” readings of World Airport’s individual components in and of themselves still offer complex, faceted reflections capable of destabilizing an overarching syntax. The runway diorama could be considered less in abstract philosophical terms and more in terms of deregulation as it is relates to both the airline industry and the relative weakness of the contemporary nation-state. In this reading, economic deregulation and privatization of the airline industry at an international level is met with resistance from companies and their host nations for fear of losing “national flag status,” i.e., loss of autonomy over pricing and routing that would result from the purchase of a nationalized or subsidized airline through foreign investment. What exists in place of an economically deregulated market are a series of international “alliances” between airline companies. In this respect, the airline industry upholds some shred (if only that) of national interests contrary to the current discrediting of Keynes’s regulatory state and the vogue of Hayek’s neo-liberalism. A related reading would be the airline industry’s complicity in the erosion of national sovereignty as rapid infrastructure development, such as the building of “international airports” in places few have heard is aimed at attracting investors, these ranging from tourists to multinational corporations. In either case, there are no clear answers. Such readings of the runway diorama, alongside the deluge of information, take World Airport well outside the realm of metaphor and into the realm of allegory where it serves to narrate contemporary life in its complexity, particularly the global, political economy about which World Airport is not afraid to ask questions it knowingly fails to answer.

Suggesting World Airport be read allegorically, narrating a complex quotidian life, invites a comparison with the Swiss collaborative Peter Fischli and David Weiss. Executed in the late 1980s, their airport photographs serve as a seminal precursor to World Airport. World Airport, however, forces a critical rereading of not only the airport photographs, but also the manner their work functions allegorically. In keeping with their celebration of the mundane, Fischli and Weiss’s large color prints are a series in the most amateurish sense, mustering neither the concern of social documentary nor the formal rigor of New Objectivity. The runway and gate scenes are casually framed, kept to a bland, middle-ground distance that resists glorifying the airport. Since no other distinguishing characteristics of place, beyond an occasional glimpse of greenery at the tarmac’s edge, are given, the airport photographs propose that the world is an airport, linked by a series of homogenous and homogenizing terminals, fuselages, gates and runways. Like the allegorical model of historical change in their video, The Way Things Go, which uses the mundane a la Rube Goldberg to narrate a grand scale of socio-political activity, the airport photographs rely on the veracity ascribed to the snapshot. In this respect, their deployment of allegory, here through tepid documentary and in their earlier work through staged photographic practices does not result in a tautological relationship in which the everyday can be used to tell stories about itself. Their use of allegory serves to transform the mundane into myth, myths such as the world is an airport. But does the world function as an airport? For Fischli and Weiss the answer is synonymous with the proposition, which is to say yes. Clearly, Hirschhorn begs to differ. The proposition and answer are not necessarily synonymous. In light of World Airport, Fischli and Weiss’s work becomes a resignation to a state of affairs, which is never really seen nor questioned. Beneath its humility is the foregone conclusion that this is indeed the way things go. Hirschhorn constructs only to dissolve and hopefully challenge such myths by drowning his crude artistic production in a mass of contradictory, ready-made information, an acknowledgment that an attempt to form a narrative or narratives of globalization at the level of allegory is bound to fail. In this respect, the corollary between the airport works of Hirschhorn and Fischli and Weiss gives way to the more profound corollary between Hirschhorn and Allan Sekula’s project Fish Story, which attempts to generate narratives of globalization through the all but forgotten story of the world’s ports. This while reintroducing a socialist realist photographic practice - one equally reliant on text - where allegory and other documentary practices no longer suffice. Sekula and Hirschhorn’s practices and imaginations have been reground or simply grounded, as the case may be, particularly in the face of a burgeoning virtual world that threatens to mask concurrent and concrete social realities. Cardboard! Marble! What’s the difference? Everything, when it comes to signifying a consciousness unable to comfortably resign itself to the state of the world and even less so to the closing of history. Whereas the age-old dream of flight served as a metaphor for the unbound imagination, the skies are now bound with the vapor trail of each and every jet. Looking up, we want to see ourselves, and we do. The sky is still the limit. This, however, has become a disguise for the limits as we look around. Nowhere, now here, or perpetually elsewhere? That remains the question.