BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 10 OCT 01
Featured in
Issue 62

Thomas Hirschorn

Stephan Friedman Gallery, London, UK

BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 10 OCT 01

There's something quietly heart-breaking about laundrettes, with their scuffed vinyl floors and yeasty smells. The coin-op slots and clunking machinery are the opposite of the cosy domestic ideal of the sleek new Zanussi, bought on hire purchase. They're spaces that reaffirm the poverty of their users, cheap places to wash cheap clothes. As the narrator of Martin Amis' Money (1984) observed, 'Without money, you're one day old and one inch tall. And you're nude too.' Maybe that's because your entire wardrobe is on the spin-cycle.

Thomas Hirschhorn's Laundrette (2001) is a shonky simulacrum of this unloved environment, fabricated from box-fresh swatches of cardboard, laminate flooring and aluminium foil. The brand-spanking newness of these materials lends the piece a brash vitality, its carnival-float manufacture at odds with the tired, fag-stubbed interior of the average inner-city laundromat. This isn't the high-camp overhaul achieved in Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette (1986), in which Gordon Warnecke opens a glitzy temple to the weekly wash under grey, south London skies. Rather, Hirschhorn's construction has the provisional feel of a home-made political placard, a bright, bold sign designed to empower the disenfranchised. Purged of the usual laundrette grime, the piece omits soapsuds and soiled laundry. What we get instead is a glut of information, pinned to the walls, stuck to the windows and beaming from the TV screens lodged in the glassy corneas of the washing machine doors. Cuttings from supermarket tabloids and wrestling magazines rub up against each other, Dudley Death Drop's anabolic curves answering the toned bum and tum of the Slimmer of the Fortnight. These modified bodies lead us uneasily down to the scenes played out on the screens below. On colour-saturated video, brutal news footage runs in a continuous loop. A corpse's flayed skin is peeled from its face, the tape spooling backwards so the childish hands look like they're pulling a balaclava over a limp, skeletal puppet. A woman scatters lime over a dead body, floating face down in a foaming river. An Asian teenager in a Rambo headband parades a severed human head. The tapes are exhausted, nth generation copies, as endlessly replicated as the atrocities they record. The screens showing news footage are interspersed by videos of the artist eating ketchup-smothered chips, scrubbing red dye from his hands and pouring catering packs of cola into a fizzing toilet pan.

There's a rhetoric here about consumption and the body, from the tweakings of the dieters and wrestlers, through the nutritional anti-matter of global fast food, to the dissembled remains of Third World peasants. Is this just a phase we're going through? Better consult the washing instructions.

Winding around the walls is a five-stage model of Marxian economic history, describing an inevitable march towards socialism. This seems to be the curative to the screens' horrors, a bright-white shirtfront, cleansed of blood and tomato sauce. Its linear trajectory is disrupted, however, by a budding pot-plant, flowering on top of a bookcase and obscuring point two. Beneath the plant's roots, the shelves groan with the literature of political thought: Baruch Spinoza, Naomi Klein, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Popper, and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus (1987). The last text, placed on top of the stack, provides a key to the pile-up of visual information in Laundrette. Subtitled Capitalism and Schizophrenia, it's a book made up of 'continuous regions of intensity that do not allow themselves to be interrupted by any external termination, any more than they allow themselves to move towards a climax'. Hirschhorn slaps flyers for French Hip-Hop collectives to the windows, tapes Alice B. Toklas' recipe for hash cakes to the dryers, and leaves us to make our own willful connections.

Laundrette, despite its referencing of the politics of resistance, leaves you feeling like a feeble spectator - there's no conclusion to its argument, no valedictory arrival at the gates of a utopia. Like Newton the alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), supine in front of dozens of simultaneously running TV sets, you can't make sense of this senseless world. As Hirschhorn has said 'Art doesn't give satisfaction. Art poses problems. Art gives questions. Art inflicts sadness.' Above one of the screens hangs an image of James Joyce trying to tie the shoelaces of a child sitting in his lap. He's not doing too well, and the toddler's about to get burned by the cigarette drooping from his lips. Hirschhorn knows that something precious is slipping from our grasp, and we might not be in time to save it.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.