When art is a community project

Documenta exhibit unites a struggling German neighborhood

For me, art is a tool to get to know the world. Art is a tool to make me confront reality; art is a tool to experience the time in which I am living.– Thomas Hirschhorn, artist

Given his definition of art, Swiss-born Thomas Hirschhorn is living his word. At Documenta, the world's largest show of contemporary art in Kassel, Germany, Mr. Hirschhorn has erected a monument to French philosopher Georges Bataille.

The eight-part monument stands in the middle of an immigrant neighborhood in a low- income district in this northern German city. With its makeshift shacks – including a library, a snack bar, and a television studio – some viewers might argue that the work is more of a community project than a piece of art.

In either case, Hirschhorn fulfils his stated artistic mission. He has been introduced to young people from distant countries, acting as disciplinarian, teacher, and friend.

Chaos is the reigning visual element of the monument, which invites public commentary via spray cans. Though most viewers wouldn't necessarily believe it, Hirschhorn said each part of the work is precisely configured.

"There's nothing here that doesn't belong here," he says.

Documenta is held in Kassel every five years, and Hirschhorn's work fits into the political undertones of the exhibit. Artistic director Nigerian Okwui Enwezor has created an exhibit that represents as many genres as it does generations.

Mr. Enwezor sees the exhibit as a "public intervention" to probe contemporary problems and possibilities for art, politics, and society.

Under Hirschhorn's direction, young people from the area helped build the Bataille Monument. Now they manage the work of art and are paid for their time. When the exhibit closes later this month, the same German-Turkish youths will help scrap the graffiti-laden elements and colored lights of the monument that bedecked their neighborhood throughout the rainy summer.

Hirschhorn's art focuses on capitalism and consumerism, and in this vein, the Bataille monument was created with the wrappings of the consumer industry. Raw materials are plywood, tape, plastic wrap, and cardboard.

Hirschhorn sees each of the eight elements as separate doors to the monument. He wouldn't say which element is his favorite, because the artist avoids the idea of a hierarchy for the pieces. For neighborhood kids, however, the TV studio was an obvious draw.

Mustafa Calikiran, a budding sketcher, was manning the TV studio on a recent Saturday afternoon. He and two other young people sat on a sofa discussing neighborhood gossip as tourists traipsed through. The TV studio is used for taping interviews and productions that are shown on Kassel's open TV channel.

Calikiran, who has finished school and is looking for a job, says Hirschhorn is a little bit crazy. A bit verrückt.

Hirschhorn's art contemporaries probably consider him a bit crazy, too. He has taken an apartment in the settlement and roams the monument daily.

In his months in Kassel, Hirschhorn has accompanied his artist-workers at meals, to the courthouse, and to the hospital. At night, he retires to his room to write e-mails. In the morning, it's time to survey any overnight damage to the monument.

The Bataille Monument is Hirschhorn's third public-space monument. The last one in Avignon, dedicated to Gilles Deleuze, had to be scrapped early because of the threat of vandalism, prompting Hirschhorn to man the current one.

Children play soccer at the base of another part of the exhibit – a 15-foot cardboard structure. Brown packaging tape gives the upper part of the sculpture the look of a tree trunk.

Other elements are a stand with food and drinks, a shuttle service from the monument to the main areas of Documenta, workshops, a 24-hour webcam (http://www.documenta.de/data/english/artists/hirschhorn), a library, and a topography of Bataille's work. Bataille wrote about loss, gifts, and excess.

"I'm interested in Bataille's notion of expenditure," Hirschhorn says. "He said art and poetry are a loss, since they aren't usable. This text and these ideas are important for me."

Belying the philosopher's words, Hirschhorn's Bataille monument clearly has a use in the Friedrich Woehler housing area. Young people find expression for their ideas, have a new meeting point, and are the center of media attention.

During a stroll through the monument, Erich and Inge Sieber, residents of Kassel, say that the exhibit has brought a greater sense of community to the neighborhood.

Two other viewers, young women from out of town, stayed only five minutes. "It's not what I expected," one woman said as she was shuttled back to other areas of Documenta in a car driven by a neighborhood youngster.

While acknowledging the community-building aspects of the monument, Hirschhorn stands firm: "Functionality is not planned; it is not a goal. Each person can create their own function for the monument."

Hirschhorn's next, new exhibit will debut in the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York Nov. 2.

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