Thomas Hirschhorn’s show at the South London Gallery is a precarious, postapocalyptic mess. Collapsing floors are propped up with broken posts, and adjoining walls are held together by packing tape, which creates a foreboding sense that the installation could come down on the viewers at any moment. Yet the actual threat of fabricated precariousness is quite different than the threat posed to the viewer who emotionally invests into this fantastical arrangement, for this is not an actual ruin whose decay is reclaimed. In actuality, nothing actually fell into ruin and no one has ever lived here. This show is a ruse of ruin, completely constructed, collected, and assembled.
However, due in part to the overwhelming volume of visual information to take in, the details take time to understand. And so it isn’t obvious at first glance that this is a completely constructed ruin. These collapsing structures aren’t the result of neglect or misfortune, but facades made from a lot of cardboard, tape, and paint. The tubes that cross through the space, along with the hundreds of bricks, collapsing flooring, suspended walls, and I-beams, are all constructed of cardboard, while hundreds of meters of knotted tan packing tape adorn the installation. Most of the cardboard is sprayed dark gray, but some areas have an additional white-painted brick motif. The grayness of the installation reinforces the overall bleakness of the collapsing environment, but the flatness of tone signals that this is an entirely invented space. It’s exactly the opposite of a slick Hollywood movie facade that looks real from a specific distance. It has more the light feel of a school fete in which the students have spent a week constructing a spooky funhouse out of available materials—albeit one that’s super-sized. It’s intentionally crude and still easily understood. The decay here is created, and it is clearly about facsimile.
The addition of used and discarded items such as toilets, portable oil-filled radiators, plastic deck chairs, army netting, and broken pressboard storage units give the show a postapocalyptic element. Copious amounts of silver ducting, strewn from all directions across the space in the same manner as half-hung bunting, complete the scene. Although these items make up less than fifteen percent of the installation, the used quality greatly contrasts with the painted cardboard and tape, and gives the installation the feeling that the space was once occupied. The human element pushes the coolness of the facsimile into something recognizably familiar and personal; this straddling of facsimile and the actual is the In-Between that gives the show its title. The moment in which a viewer could resolve the dichotomy between the two is the moment when the suspension of disbelief occurs and fantasy supersedes Hirschhorn’s construct. In juxtaposing the constructed facsimile with discarded items, Hirschhorn offers viewers the space to project their own specific fantasy of apocalyptic desire onto the artwork.
For all of its projected menace, the show is a lot of fun to walk through. There is a sense of playfulness in its manic construction that isn’t usually seen in a Hirschhorn exhibition. In the time it took me to view the show, three different sets of children came through, and separately each found great joy in counting the toilets. These kids immediately understood the element of play that is often lost in the grandiosity of Hirschhorn’s heavy-handed gestures. In this case, the intimate scale of the South London Gallery makes it possible to see the lighter aspects of wonder in the work. While large enough for Hirschhorn to be his maximalist self, the installation reveals the subtler detail of his practice that would be missed in a larger space. Within this scale, children and adults alike connect to the work and engage in their particular reveries. Hirschhorn’s mastery isn’t with craft or object making, but he infuses a sense of wonder and play into his installation that enables the viewer to project past the actual physicality of the work. So the facsimile is two-fold: the installation’s construction of ruin, and the viewer’s projection. Even with this realization, it’s still incredibly hard to shake one’s own projection of apocalypse and only consider what is physically present.
Thomas Hirschhorn: In-Between is on view at South London Gallery through September 13, 2015.