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I’m in the South Bronx, under the trees that shelter the gardens of Forest Houses, a public housing project in a neighbourhood that (certainly in the years when I was growing up in New York) was once synonymous with urban decay and violent crime. This was “Fort Apache”, no-man’s land.
But on this overcast August morning, I’m talking with Erik Farmer, president of the Forest Houses residents’ association, about art. For Farmer was integral in bringing to fruition the “Gramsci Monument”, the latest work by Swiss-born artist Thomas Hirschhorn. This is an artwork that takes the form of a sequence of rough-hewn plywood buildings in the middle of the project: there’s a library here, a daily newspaper, a radio station; there are art classes and lectures and a computer room for kids to use.
It’s not like a museum; it’s like a neighbourhood – and it’s like nothing Farmer had ever seen. “Everyone’s involved, everyone gets something out of it,” he tells me. “Whatever age you are, whoever you are. Whether it’s a lecture, or the kids going on trips. They can use the computers, they use the radio station – everyone finds a way to use it.”
Hirschhorn’s work is site-specific. He uses only materials that are widely and easily available: plywood, duct tape, cardboard, foil and plastic wrap. More than a decade ago, he began a series of projects dedicated to the philosophers he most admires: to Spinoza in Amsterdam in 1999, to Gilles Deleuze in Avignon in 2000, to Georges Bataille in Kassel, Germany, in 2002. They are works made and built in public housing projects, and made and built not by Hirschhorn alone but in collaboration with the people who live in those projects.
The one at Forest Houses, the largest yet by far, is inspired by the work of Antonio Gramsci, Italian political theorist and one-time leader of Italy’s Communist party, who died in 1937, at the age of 46, following his imprisonment by Mussolini’s regime. Here, banners with quotations from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks hang from trees and are stretched between lamp-posts: “The content of art is art itself,” says one. Taped to a plywood wall is another: “The dry twigs are indispensable for making the log burn, but not in and of themselves. Only the log, by burning, changes the surroundings from cold to warm.”
Hirschhorn – here at his project every single day – wants us all to be logs. Commissioned by the Dia Art Foundation, his Gramsci Monument opened on July 1 after seven weeks of construction by Hirschhorn and 15 residents. It will close on September 15, when it will be dismantled and much of it (computers, equipment and so on) distributed to the people who live here.
Once you arrive at Forest Houses, it’s not hard to find Hirschhorn, a lanky figure in thick black glasses, already sweating through his pale blue shirt. We sit at a table outside the newspaper office where an issue of 14 pages is produced every day: the one I take away with me has neighbourhood news, extracts from a book about Gramsci – and poems by Rudyard Kipling.
Hirschhorn wants to make, he tells me in his elegant if occasionally eccentric English, “a new term of monument”. A monument, as most of us think of it, is fixed, immovable, and nearly always about the past. The Gramsci Monument is just the opposite. “It’s an ongoing project which has to be, every day, improved. It’s never a finished project. This is a project about production.” When I ask how hard it was to get the residents involved in his work, he shrugs. Not because he doesn’t care: but because it’s his problem, not theirs.
“The problem is, do I do a work which wants to involve the residents? Which is based on friendship, which is based on equality? Which is based on the belief that everybody is an intellectual, everybody is an artist? I wanted to make something out of the city centre, where people are living together in a neighbourhood that touches reality. This is how I want to see the world.”
Just over halfway through the Gramsci Monument’s lifespan, it feels as if this is exactly what Hirschhorn has done. Residents and visitors – most of whom, like me, look as if they’ve never been to the South Bronx before – mingle happily, as DJ Baby-Dee mans the radio station, pouring out Prince and the news of the day. For Farmer it’s been a transformational experience – and not just because it gave the residents dozens of jobs.
“Visitors love it,” he says, with wonder in his voice. “And that’s not normal. They’re like, ‘Wow, you can come up here.’ And we think they’re afraid – because everyone lives differently, looks at things differently. But I tell them all the time, we’re the same. We all believe, we all pray, we all have ambition. Colour doesn’t change much. Don’t believe what you hear. And that’s why I think this is so special. Because people thought this couldn’t happen.”
To get back into Manhattan, I hop on the 5 train, the Lexington Avenue Express; I get off at 86th Street, perfect for the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, the Frick. But today, I’m not sure I want to go to those places. I want to keep the Gramsci Monument in my mind. Art, Farmer said to me, “is for everyone. It has a lot to do with our daily lives. It took me until now to realise that. And that’s incredible.” And he’s right.
To hear a podcast of this column, go to www.ft.com/culturecast
Peter Aspden is away