Photo © Richard Moss / Culture24
Review: Adam Bambury experiences The Incommensurable Banner, showing at Brighton’s Fabrica until November 16 2008.
Thomas Hirschhorn’s chilling The Incommensurable is surely the most talked about artwork at this year’s Brighton Photo Biennial. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the 18ft long banner plastered with graphic photographs of mutilated bodies that is being premiered at Fabrica until November 16. But is it a taboo-breaking exposé of the reality of modern warfare, or a disrespectful piece of down-market sensationalism?
“The assembly of the various elements in the show is supposed to encourage critical thinking and not aesthetic delectation”, says the Biennial’s curator Julian Stallabrass. Nowhere is it more apparent than in The Incommensurable, though it is hard to make critical thinking a priority when face to face with it. A more immediate concern, perhaps, is trying not to be sick.
On entering the deconsecrated regency church that houses the piece, the viewer is presented with a wall of frosted glass running the length of the hall. There to protect the eyes of the unwary, it hints at what lies beyond, while providing a sanctuary for the sensitive before the gruesome main event. It raises questions regarding the necessity of proceeding any further – we know what is in there, do we really need to see it?
For Hirschhorn, merely knowing is not enough: “We know everything”, he says. “We know from our endless 24-hour news channels that every day 10 people die here or there. We want to know but we don’t want to see. Because when we see we are more involved. This is the power of visual arts. This is why I am a visual artist and this is why I insist this should be seen.”
Further in, an attendant by a partition in the wall makes sure to warn everyone who enters that they are about to witness something graphic and disturbing. People’s responses vary from the irritated brush-off of ‘Yes, yes, whatever’, to the widened eyes and prompt of exit of a woman with a small child. The viewer is required to give their informed consent before engaging with the banner, a consent not required by the perpetrators of the wars it depicts.
Finally, it is in full view. White fabric covered in large photographs, running the length of the hall. Above the images, the title of the piece is roughly sprayed like a piece of graffiti. It is evident that Hirschhorn’s fascination with the ‘naïve’ reflex of people to create homemade banners and costumes to dramatise their cause has not ebbed. The Swiss-born artist has again borrowed the everyday materials of discarded packaging and photocopied imagery used by more conventional protesters.
Photo © Richard Moss / Culture24
It is hard to know where to look. On passing through the frosted wall, the viewer is forced uncomfortably close to the banner. At first, my eyes dart around, as I try to take it in without ‘seeing’ any of the individual images. To focus on any particular image feels invasive and voyeuristic. To turn away now seems like burying my head in the sand.
I force myself to take it in: a torso, the lower half a mash of purple; a body, its head lying nearby; a dark red smear that was presumably once human.
The photographs are taken from websites, others from newspapers and magazines, mainly those that circulate outside northern Europe. But for Hirschhorn, considering their source and the stories behind them is merely the first step in disassociating with what is being looked at.
“It confronts the way we can kid ourselves about what goes on in the world,” believes Michael Miller, co-director of Fabrica. “By using this kind of graphic imagery he is inviting us not to turn away but to engage with a view of the world in its entirety.”
The Incommensurable forces the viewer to stare death in the face. Seeing these images makes it all too clear how fragile we are, and how easily we can become nothing but a mess of blood and tissue.
Of course the photographs are shocking and dehumanize their subjects. Viewed individually, or casually put into a magazine devoted to such spectacle, they would only disgust. But taken collectively, coupled with the protester aesthetic and the church setting, their power as a statement is undeniable.
Those who have recorded their thoughts in the visitor’s book seem to agree, with many arguing that everyone should witness the piece. Someone has scrawled an impassioned prayer to God to end all war, while underneath it someone else demands the closure of a local weapons manufacturer.
Hirschhorn’s work has long been concerned with how the powerless, or the lone individual voice, can be heard in a world overwhelmed by the din and spin of mass media and marketing. The Incommensurable shows us how loud it can shout. It may not be agreeable, it may not be entertaining, but it is very real.