Chris Arnade, whose stirring photographs documenting the public faces of addiction in Hunts Point are hard to forget, recently explored the ongoing South Bronx installation "Gramsci Monument" by artist Thomas Hirschhorn. Here's what he saw...
I am a white man who has spent the last three years photographing the South Bronx; mainly addicts, sex workers, and drug dealers. In that time I have been made acutely aware of my race and status, but never made to feel uncomfortable.
Yesterday, as I walked into the middle of the Forest Houses development in the South Bronx to visit the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation “Gramsci Monument,” I felt acutely aware of my race.
More to the point I felt like a fool; walking past addicts I know, past playing kids, past old folks sitting on benches, past drug dealers dealing, past young couples, all black and Hispanic, to visit a large tree-house like contraption built as a temporary monument to an Italian Marxist leader from the 1920’s.
It is Mr. Hirschhorn’s fourth such project. The prior three were also temporary installations placed in working class neighborhoods around Europe, built with the cooperation of locals. Each one was dedicated to a thinker that the artist respects: Baruch Spinoza, Georges Bataille, and Gilles Deleuze. This project, dedicated to Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), fills the central plaza of the housing project. It's about the size and shape of a large tug boat and is built out of plywood, packing tape and bed sheets. It feels like a clubhouse built by some very energetic college kids.
Over the course of its short existence (it will be taken down September 15) it is meant to be alive and active. It has a political library. It has a radio station. It produces a daily newspaper. It has a stage. There is a daily schedule of speakers and performances.
I know the Forest Houses from my work on addiction, and have labeled one corner of it in my car’s GPS as “addict corner three.” It is far more than that. Like any slice of the South Bronx, it is a vibrant community filled with decent folks, most fighting against poverty, a lack of resources, the consequences of the absurd war on drugs, and Mayor Bloomberg’s absurd Stop & Frisk.
It is filled with successes and failures, often sadly more of the latter. What does an art installation that looks like a tree fort and is dedicated to an Italian Communist leader of the 1920’s have to do with any of that? Hell if I know.
The day I was there the installation was sparsely attended, a mostly empty wood structure surrounded by the far more energetic hum of the neighborhood.
I tried to listen to the lecture being given by a Swiss poet at the outdoor stage. I heard the names Kafka, Sartre, Derrida, intertwined with terms from poetry, but honestly I couldn’t understand a thing he said. Never once did I hear a mention of the Bronx. "Aesthetics" and "hegemony" were repeated over and over. Nobody sitting in that section of the installation listening to the speaker was from the neighborhood. Well, one was; he worked for the project. Everyone else looked like the Republican caricature of a Marxist: White college professors dressed in smart, expensive, but non-sexual clothes. It was a depressing place to be.
The other half of the art installation was more alive. Amongst other spaces, it had a computer room filled with Bronx kids being kids.
Instead of Marxist slogans festooning the walls, rules common to any computer room were hung up. “No food” replaced “Quality should be attributed to Human Beings not things.”
What do the people who actually live in the Forest Houses think of the project? Most think it’s cool, albeit a bit confusing.
One young father sat with his daughter on a park bench five yards away, “I like it. Sometimes they have folks singing, sometimes there is really good music. The slogans. Naaaaah, don’t really get those much.”
A group of older women chatted in Spanish between the two halves of the structure. “I don’t know much about it," one admitted. "It is a nice change. I myself, I have not gone inside. To be honest with you, I don’t read very well these days.”
One side of the structure runs against a playground. Desire, a three-year-old playing on the slide said, “It's okay. I like the free computer. They give free food sometimes, no candy though. They also use lots of big words.”
I believe Thomas Hirschhorn has the best intentions (the very expensive art gallery he is represented by, Gladstone, might distort those intentions). Locals were paid to build it. That is great. There is a schedule of open mic nights. That is great. It has brought people who would never ever enter a housing project to enter a housing project. That could be great. Sadly, the day I was there, it had brought them to hear a rambling speech by a Swiss poet housed in a rambling structure built by a Swiss artist.
So I left as I came, feeling uncomfortable.
Maybe the artist wanted to make me feel that way. Every New Yorker should feel uncomfortable that a city of such immense wealth and promise has neighborhoods of such poverty and pain.
That is not, however, why I felt uncomfortable.
Rather, I felt uncomfortable walking into an all black and Hispanic housing project to then sit with other whites and listen to another white guy tell me what he thought dead philosophers might have to say about the Bronx. If they were poets.
I felt uncomfortable watching European tourists snap photos of Marxist slogans; yet never once stop to talk to the residence of the Housing Project.
I felt uncomfortable watching a kid sling drugs under a bed sheet painted with a Gramsci quote, “I live, I am a partisan. I hate the indifferent!”
My discomfort came not from a sense of injustice, but from participating and viewing the well-intentioned political naivety of Thomas Hirschhorn and his artwork.
It was a discomfort similar to watching a white grandfather try to rap. "See kids, I get it! "