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Artists From The Edge
Thomas Hirschhorn

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Gramsci Monument. Thomas Hirschhorn. 2013. New York.

In the art world, auctions and mega galleries dominate. There are graffiti artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat who sell for tens of millions of dollars. Venice’s Biennale welcomes  ‘outsider’ artists and mixes them with ‘insiders’ such as Richard Serra.

Enter Thomas Hirschhorn, a creator of installations, spaces, meeting places similar to Brazilian favelas – a real outsider. He is a survivor of a social art movement which aims to change not so much the history of art as the art of history -- and of life.

Invited by the New York DIA Foundation, Hirschhorn visited 46 of New York’s 334 public housing units in search of the best place to build a monument to Antonio Gramsci, the revolutionary philosopher and founder of the Italian Communist Party.

In the end, he chose Forest Houses, an urban complex in the South Bronx which, until a few years ago, suffered from crime. Today the situation has improved a little. Once he had found the location, Hirschhorn moved there and started to work with the people of the neighbourhood to create his idea for the monument.

Gramsci Monument

Thomas Hirschhorn

Thomas Hirschhorn’s idea was ambitious: build a temporary structure in a diverse urban neighbourhood and use it as a community centre to spark discussions around philosophy, art, and life.

Over the course of a year and a half, the Gramsci Monument project at Forest Houses, Bronx, New York, employed people living in the area to build a  wooden clubhouse with several rooms connected by a network of gangways and porches. 

The Gramsci Monument in common with Hirschhorn's other projects used common materials such as cardboard, foil, duct tape, and plastic wrap. 

The Gramsci Monument  housed a library filled with texts by Gramsci, Marx, and Civil Rights Movement-thinkers. It employed residents at $12/hour to run children’s art classes, a local newspaper, a radio station, a library, a computer lab, and a grill. When the monument came down, the temporary jobs vanished, the radio station and newspaper shut down, and computers and equipment were raffled away.


Public opinion of the project was divided. 

Mostly, the established art world and newspapers like the New York Times dismissed the whole structure as a carpetbagging monument to the artist’s 'monumental ego.' 


Residents of Forest Houses expressed gratitude for the much-needed (however temporary) creative outlet for their kids, not to mention, a noticeable drop in shootings.

Many locals attended events and played an active role in building and maintaining the monument.


The following comment from a local resident illustrates how the Gramsci Monument was seen by Forest Houses.

" In the beginning, people were sceptical. One of my neighbours asked Thomas, “Why do you want to get yourself in trouble?” Another thought that he must not be “sane.” But in the end, he won people over.


They realised that he was serious, that he kept his word, and that he showed up day after day to realise his work–what he calls “presence production.” Thomas worked harder than anybody, and people respect hard work.


We had respect for the project, respect for the ideas that Thomas brought forward. I remember quite early on before they started building, they had a gathering at Forest Houses, a “meet and greet” where Thomas presented the project to a broader group of residents. Around a hundred people showed


“I’ve never heard of Thomas Hirschhorn before. I don’t know art, never heard of Antonio Gramsci. But Thomas told me about Gramsci, so I decided I should read it. So I read Gramsci, and I realised it was very much like Malcolm X.” When I heard that I knew that the project would succeed, that Thomas had partners at Forest Houses. 



Thomas Hirschhorn (born 1957 in Bern) is a Swiss installation artist. He lives and works in Paris.


He describes his sculptural environments as 'collages in the third dimension' and explains that this means 'putting things together that are not meant to be put together'. 


He has described his choice to use everyday materials in his work as "political" and that he only uses materials that are “universal, economic, inclusive, and don’t bear any plus-value”.


He has said that he is interested in the “hardcore of reality”, without illusions, and has displayed a strong commitment to his work and role as an artist. He has described working and production as “necessary”, discounting anyone who encourages him to not work hard, and says “I want to be overgiving in my work”.


His monumental works are concerned with issues of justice and injustice, power and powerlessness, and moral responsibility.


His work is shown in numerous museums, galleries and exhibitions among which the Venice Biennale (1999 and 2015), Documenta11 (2002), the 27th Sao Paolo Biennale (2006), 55th Carnegie International, Pittsburg (2008), the Swiss Pavillion at the 54th Venice Biennale (2011), La Triennale at Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2012), 9th Shanghai Biennale (2012), Manifesta 10 at Saint-Petersburg (2014), Atopolis Mons (2015), South London Gallery (2015), Kunsthal Aarhus (2017), Fotogalleriet, Oslo (2017), The National Gallery of Kosovo (2018), MoMa PS1 (2019). 

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Even if Gramsci was little-known, a connection was made with Malcolm X, and a translation was happening between Thomas’ world, the world and the ideas of Gramsci, and the residents of Forest Houses.

The talks on Saturdays were packed. People were coming every day: that’s a sign that the residents were interested in the project. I remember I was there one morning just before it opened to the public and a group of kids was running toward the monument, screaming, “The monument is about to open. Let’s go to the computer room!”

Even if Gramsci was little-known, a connection was made with Malcolm X, and a translation was happening between Thomas’ world, the world and the ideas of Gramsci, and the residents of Forest Houses.

Purpose of the Gramsci Monument

John Berger, the art critic.  defined art’s purpose as to “help or encourage people to know and claim their social rights.” By those standards, the Gramsci Monument was a success; Forest Houses Tenants Association President, Erik Farmer, said: “let [the kids] know that there’s more to the world than this.” 


The writings of Gramsci resonate with every part of the monument, its reception, and how it was made. Hirschhorn's central idea following Gramsci is that everyone is an intellectual, although society doesn’t allow for everyone to assume intellectual roles.

Gramsci Monument is an affirmation of an autonomous artwork that is made as a gesture of love. This gesture doesn’t necessarily call for an answer; it’s both utopian and concrete. Together with the residents of the housing project, a new form has been created that is site-specific based on the artist's relationship with a 'non-exclusive audience.'

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