Moments after leaving the Thomas Hirschhorn exhibition “Utopia, Utopia=One World, One War, One Army, One Dress,” which will be on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston through January 16, 2006, I encountered a woman passing on Boylston Street on the way to afternoon class at the New England School of Art & Design. Normally she would have provoked at best a fleeting glance. But what proved to be riveting and memorable, indeed immortalized as the lead for this essay about a provocative Swiss artist born in 1957 and residing in a suburb of Paris, was the fact that she was wearing fashionable, camouflage pants. Ending just below the knee, tight fitting, with accessorized pockets and zippers. Hard to describe in detail since the experience was momentary. In a court of law I would be hard pressed to describe her features other than vaguely blonde and generally attractive.
But those pants. I will never forget. Will take them with me to the grave. Because what would have been quite ordinary took on layers of meaning after viewing the ICA exhibition which has as its trope the ubiquitous presence of camouflage as a signifier of the war that snarls and enthralls us, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has been spun out into splaying aspects of popular culture and everyday life as signifiers of everything from terrorism, xenophobia, machismo and racism, to sexy lingerie. Both a game, as we see explored in this provocative and sprawling installation, both cute and funny, toying with us, as well as grim and horrific. Amusing perhaps but a very dark and grim humor. Like the jokes that have been spawned by the disasters in Louisiana and Texas. Have you heard the one about the reporter who asks the President his views on “Row vs. Wade?” No need to offer the punch line, it’s making the rounds and I want to avoid the usual e mails from my Republican relatives accusing me of being a bleeding heart liberal.
But what is it about the human spirit that generates that response of humor and jokes in the face of disaster? Perhaps it is a means of liberating our psyche that is otherwise stalled and frozen. Given the choice to laugh or cry we prefer humor. But also tears. In equal doses. It allows us to cope and move on.
So we laugh at death, gloom and doom. The ultimate hubris to taunt and give the finger to the angry gods of death and destruction. Up yours and have you heard the one about? Otherwise we would never board an airplane after 9/11 or ride the London underground. For most of us it is a remote and even exotic notion but not so for the men and women facing daily acts of terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. We see them nightly on TV. In the background soldiers in camouflage. The trope of Hirschhorn’s exhibition. While we become largely numb and immune to the daily body count. Much as we did in the 1960s when the nightly news gave us the ongoing log of death in Vietnam. It dragged on to the point where Americans mostly just zoned out on the panorama of doom. And here we go again one might say.
This ICA exhibition is a mess. A sprawling senseless jumble. There is stuff everywhere. Floor to ceiling. No surface is left uncluttered with the detritus of the artist’s topographic, cranial, manic cosmology. Everywhere are bits and scraps of the text of the free catalogue essay by the philosopher Marcus Steinweg. The words are in your face. In shards as well as shrunk down and printed whole in small point panels. It provokes a crisis of whether to view or read, to look at, or study, to laugh, or cry. Or just puke your guts out. Or find a secluded corner and jerk off like Vito Acconci. Or nut out and shoot everyone in sight. Or weep and pray for the salvation of mankind. Or go get a beer. Or take a shit in the ICA john and leave a really big stink.
Yes, this show is a mess and so are my responses to it. There is nothing neat and clean about this work and the world at war that it evokes. After 9/11 I wondered how art would change. This is not what I had in mind. It is slamming out of control. Wild, loose and dangerous. I haven’t a clue to understanding it or discussing it with succinct critical analysis. Perhaps we have to just wallow in it like a dog at the beach rolling in rotten dead fish and stinking for days on end. All this war is fucking killing me.
And so my head snapped when I saw that girl walk by in cammies. How cute. What a hip fashion statement. Cool. And also kind of mind blowing man if you know what I mean. The art of war. War and art and fashion and games and shit. It sucks. This show sucks. The artist sucks. The war sucks. And I am so very grateful to Thomas Hirshhorn and the ICA for making me blow my lunch.
"Thomas Hirschhorn: Utopia,Utopia= One World, One War, One Army, One Dress" is on view March 15-May 13, 2006 at The Institute of Contemporary Art.
All images are courtesy of the artist and The ICA.