In 1984, Thomas Hirschhorn moved from Switzerland to Paris, where he still lives today, in order to join Grapus, a graphics collective with roots in the events of May 1968. The collective seeks to combine artistic research with social engagement and therefore to work for a new world. This attitude has been manifest in Hirschhorn’s work since 1986. Precarious, sometimes even ephemeral, his installations convey an image of tumult, of a great jumble. They immerse viewers in a dense magma of thought mashing together philosophy, literature, art and politics, to assemble them in a network via snatches of ideas and with simple techniques (collage, recycled material, fragments of texts, etc.).
The artist made the installation Swiss Army Knife for his 1998 exhibition at the Bern Kunsthalle, where it occupied the entire ground floor. Made up of fifteen themes or ‘condensation points’, as Hirschhorn calls them, this seemingly chaotic installation works like the traditional Swiss army knife after which it is named: it is a multifunctional tool that can cut, perforate and file, but also repair and mend. Hirschhorn applies this Swiss army knife approach to fifteen chapters from Swiss history and culture (including the army, Nazi gold, luxury watches, globalisation, concrete art and Ferdinand Hodler), sometimes mocking and deconstructing myths, sometimes celebrating misfits like Robert Walser who were never understood by the Swiss system. Using poor materials such as wooden panels, folding tables, red cloth, photocopies, cardboard, plastic and sheets of aluminium, Hirschhorn makes art with a do-it-yourself aesthetic on a grand scale, producing work that is concise, energetic and immediately effective, a connected ensemble with no hierarchies whose formal appearance is the direct result of the urgent message to be communicated. Here, the Swiss army knife, a global symbol of Swiss success, ends up turning against those who produced it.
Hal Foster and Lisa Lee (eds.), Critical Laboratory. The Writings of Thomas Hirschhorn, Cambridge/MA, The MIT Press, 2013.
Bernard Fibicher (ed.), Thomas Hirschhorn. ‘Swiss Army Knife’, exh. cat. Bern, Kunsthalle, 1998.