joanne lee


the incommensurable banner

A review of Thomas Hirschhorn’s The Incommensurable Banner, shown as part of the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial, was commissioned for a-n magazine, and also appears online.

Thomas Hirschhorn’s work ‘The Incommensurable Banner’, premiered at this year’s Brighton Photo Biennial, fills the length of the Fabrica gallery. Its coarse fabric is roughly pasted with colour images whose paper buckles from the glue with which they have been applied; above the pictures the words ‘THE INCOMMENSURABLE, THE INCOMMENSURABLE’ are scrawled in crude black capitals. The images show the victims of contemporary conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, their bodies charred and blasted by industrial weaponry: bodies lie sticky with blood on dusty ground, some are waxy, already visibly decaying, whilst others are fresh as newly butchered cuts of meat. The photographs catalogue detached limbs, legless torsos, decapitated heads, crushed and twisted bodies, but at times there is simply indeterminate, shapeless, bloody flesh.

The pictures here, sourced from websites, magazines and papers circulating (often illicitly) outside northern Europe, could be defined as pornographic in that everything is shown and little left to the imagination. In the gallery, a number of viewers stood sideways to the banner, as if only daring to look out of the corner of their eye, but others stared and stared: in the West, we usually don’t see such things (apart from within the special effects fiction of movies). Our news coverage is understandably squeamish about showing the carnal remains of actual conflict: in its place we hear the numeric tally of death and see only its traces – blood-stained clothing, shattered buildings, wailing relatives. Hirschhorn’s banner ostensibly protests this absence.

These days it’s not at all unusual to encounter the language of protest in contemporary art galleries - Mark Wallinger’s reconstruction of Brian Haw’s Parliament Square peace camp won him the 2007 Turner Prize – but Hirschhorn’s protest is oddly circumspect with its viewing carefully managed: a curved translucent screen protects the unwary visitor’s gaze from the carnage and there is such a concern over giving offence that each viewing is preceded by a gallery invigilator alerting those entering the gallery to the images’ explicit content; the refrain punctuating one’s looking. As a result, and despite the gruesome images, it seemed to me that this was in effect a very polite protest: encountering the banner in this controlled environment differs significantly from its being unfurled on the street. It seems that the work considers the idea of protest rather than itself being a protest, but, like a lot of contemporary art, I fear that this piece purports to ‘deal’ with its subject simply by presenting it in a gallery and pairing it with a table groaning with appropriately educational/interpretative material.

My discomfort is not about Hirschhorn’s images - for I think it is proper that such material should be examined - but far more about the efficacy of gallery/biennial culture as a place in which to do so. Much is made on the Biennial website about engaging the discursive potential of a global online community upon matters which are of undoubted significance, and I was curious to see how the contentious subject matter was debated: some weeks into the event, there are scarcely any comments posted, despite the many entreaties to do so. However, what I found most disconcerting was the decision to host so many pictures of exhibition openings and associated events: the Biennial site seemed as a result to resemble an upmarket Facebook, with pictures of lipsticked ladies and trendy young men posing incongruously with their drinks in front of the exhibited images of war. My anxiety is that these art world shenanigans ultimately get in the way of what are clearly important debates about contemporary images and the conflicts from which they derive: I believe art can be political, but I’m left wondering whether its current culture does any more than pay lip service to such an aspiration.