Orgiastic quantities of faux blood and guts envelop intrepid spectators as they enter Thomas Hirschhorn’s lair at the Power Plant. The meager path that meanders through the encroaching display does not allow the traveler any respite until the mezzanine, which is the eagle’s aerie though it too is crowded with remains.

The display is called Das Auge (The Eye), and a huge eye looks out dispassionately from this high point. Red rivers flow throughout the exhibition, referencing everything from capillaries to national flags. Strident political banners surge from the walls while viewers circle around for the gory details like vultures. Hirschhorn has culled media imagery of such violent death and dismemberment, not usually released by mainstream publications. One can look directly into the head of someone whose brains have been blown out. There is a commingling of repulsion and fascination.

For many years, the institutionalized view of aesthetics has presented an avant-garde that was more about art than politics. Andy Warhol for instance, referenced consumerism but became an item of consumption only significant in an art context. The term ‘avant-garde’ originally referred to Marxist artists in the vanguard of political, economic and social reform. Political art’s dilemma is to make a statement that cannot be neutralized into another consumer product.

Situationist Guy Debord outlined a strategy to combat Advanced Capitalism in his book “The Society of the Spectacle” and this was ‘détournement’. Thus immersive situations were constructed with materials drawn from popular culture where the aim was to disrupt the habitual communication. They used non-traditional art materials to resist commoditization and took their cause to the streets through the concept of Direct Democracy, encouraging the 1968 riots in Paris.

For Hirschhorn, the eye is the form by which all aspects are given visibility. Everything he assembled stems from images or events he has seen. A woman in a ‘bloodied’ fur coat protesting the slaughter of seals is replicated in the runway ramp rows of partially naked mannequins wearing bloodied fur coats with rivulets of blood running between their legs. They have animal masks and carry placards. He sees cardboard cutouts of people in a military hijack simulation and tapes these ‘innocent bystanders’ heads to the backs of white plastic chairs. However, he is presenting everything that defines us dispassionately yet with attachment (love).

Red interlinks and flows throughout the display. National flags that have red in them like the Swiss and Canadian adjoin other flags with all but red excised with white. The ‘eye’ only sees red, which might reference anger or moral outrage but it is also just ‘red’. He is not desecrating flags but merely noting the passage of the red, although he notices that states are founded through bloodletting.

The ambivalence is important for Hirschhorn to maintain a moral integrity. He claims the blame as a ‘non-‘man but he is also concerned with protecting ‘non-innocent’ humans. Thus slaughtering seals evokes moral outrage in him but this is also contained or neutralized as something that defines the existence of ‘non-innocent’ humans. He presents complexity rather than a point of view. An ‘Integrated Text’, which is by Manuel Joseph and titled Flat Red Flag: No Cash and Carry is part of Das Auge but only because it is printed in red. As a ‘take-away’ the viewer symbolically carries Das Auge into the wider world.

Joseph Beuys, to whom Hirschhorn is often compared, took to the streets through Direct Democracy and politicizing student groups. Reminiscent of an organism, Das Auge has similarities with Beuys installations but it is more transparent and less shamanistic. Ultimately, the question for political art is the effectiveness of colonizing the public mind. Das Auge presents a ‘fake reality’ generated largely by the media and advertising. For me, it stopped short of being truly inspirational and remained histrionically bound within an art context.

The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery
231 Queens Quay W, Toronto, ON
Tel.: 416 973-4949
11 March – 29 May, 2011