Art in keeping with the people

"Les Quattre Livres" (The Four Books) is one of Hirschhorn's latest installations in Munich Keystone

Although his art enjoys renown worldwide, Thomas Hirschhorn does not confine his work to posh galleries and museums, but takes it to the streets.

This content was published on April 7, 2005

Using everyday materials such as such as cardboard, sticky tape, Plexiglas, and neon tubes, the artist creates sculptures and installations that reflect a strong egalitarian bent.

Well-known in artistic circles, Hirschhorn became a household name in Switzerland in 2004 with his controversial Paris exhibition Swiss-Swiss Democracy, which famously featured a theatre piece of a man urinating on a poster of the right-wing Swiss cabinet minister, Christoph Blocher.

An uproar ensued, setting off an acrimonious debate in parliament and the media between supporters and denunciators of the artist. As a direct consequence, the budget of the Swiss arts council that funded the exhibition was slashed.

"I see Thomas Hirschhorn as the most politically incisive Swiss artist around," was the view of the late Swiss curator, Harald Szeemann, legendary worldwide for his artistic savvy.


Hirschhorn, by contrast, sees himself first and foremost as an artist. "I speak for no one," said the 48-year old, who has been based in Paris since 1984. "I don’t make political art; instead, I want to make my work as an artist political."

Luxury, he maintains, has nothing to do with art. "Energy, yes! Quality, no!" is one of his credos. This philosophy is reflected in his preferred work materials, often recyclable, which include aluminium foil, planks, and packaging.

He further believes that art does not have to be perfect, and that "mistakes" are a permissible, even desirable, component of a finished piece.

"I always wanted to make simple, ecological, 'poor’ art," says Hirschhorn. "But not Arte Povera."

One idea, the Musée Precaire Albinot, was an eight-week project that saw residents of his Paris neighbourhood build a temporary museum to house works loaned from the Centre Pompidou from April to June 2004.


Hirschhorn is also known for creating works that honour artists, philosophers, and writers he admires, including Piet Mondrian, Meret Oppenheim, Robert Walser, and Michel Foucault.

Hirschhorn’s idea was to bring eight key 20th-century works from the Centre Pompidou collections to the inhabitants of Aubervilliers – an area of Paris where art is hardly visible and where Hirschhorn’s studio is based. Featured artists included Duchamp, Malewitsch, Léger, Mondrain, Le Corbusier, Dali, Beuys, and Warhol.

Local residents were involved throughout the project, which was located in an empty construction site.

They helped to build the Musée Precarie Albinot using wooden beams and planks, and assisted in the related issues of safety, transport, workshops, and the running of an on-site bar and restaurant.


Taken with the idea, the Centre Pompidou designed a management-training programme for a core group of 12 young residents who were charged with overseeing the project. "The Musée Precarie Labinot was a fantastic experience, also for our employees," enthused the Centre’s Alfred Pacquement.

In the temporary museum itself, passers-by and neighbours mixed with art experts from afar while children played among the works. In short, the art space was filled with the vitality of street life.

Although the participation of local residents was central to the idea of the Musée Precarie Albinot, Thomas Hirschhorn is adamant that this was not a socio-cultural project. "I’m an artist, not a social worker."

Born in Bern, Hirschhorn studied design in Zurich. His work has been exhibited in places as far flung as Japan, South Africa, the United States and Germany. His current installation Les Quatres Livres is on show in Munich.

Key facts

Thomas Hirschhorn was born in Bern in 1957.
He was awarded the Joseph Beuys prize in 2004.
He has been based in Paris since 1984.

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In brief

Hirschhorn became a household name in Switzerland in 2004 with his controversial Paris exhibition Swiss-Swiss Democracy.

The show featured a theatre piece of a man urinating on a poster of the right-wing Swiss cabinet minister, Christoph Blocher.

Parliament made its displeasure known by cutting the budget of the Swiss arts council, which had funded the exhibition.

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