When the Costa Concordia ran aground last year, it seemed like nothing so much as a terrible reminder of the damage that one inattentive and cowardly person can do–especially if that person is the captain. But the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn saw its gaudy, listing interiors as something more: The perfect metaphor for the excesses of the global economy. “The flooded casino of consumption stands for evidence,” he says. “The evidence of a coming disaster and the evidence of an announced failure.”
This week at Gladstone Gallery, Hirschhorn unveiled a massive recreation of Concordia‘s interiors, alongside a retrospective of his work at the nearby Dia:Chelsea project space. At Gladstone, the 55-year-old artist has installed a 50-foot diorama based on photographs of Costa Concordia’s listing interiors. Inside Concordia Concordia, Hirschhorn’s team has painstakingly recreated elements of the scene, right down to the piles of spilled plates and orange life vests. Hirschhorn’s signature brown packing tape and frayed cardboard bits are in evidence, too, alongside paper chandeliers and faux-oak chairs. A dusting of pages from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital blanket the scene, making Hirschhorn’s cultural criticism explicit.
Hirschhorn recalls a specific moment of the disaster–when the Italian coast guard tried to force Concordia‘s deserting captain back aboard his sinking ship–as the thing that cauterized his idea for the piece. “‘Get back on board!’ means there is definitely no escape,” he writes. “We have to confront the self-produced disaster in its incredible normality–there is no way out, there is no place to flee, there is no safe land anymore!”
And just in case you weren’t clear on the metaphor Hirschhorn is making, he hammers his point home by saying the size of the installation is a reference to “too big to fail,” the foregone conclusion that led to the 2008 economic meltdown (and quite a few shipwrecks). “On the contrary,” he adds, “when something is Too Big, it must Fail.”
The enormous size–and visual density–of Concordia, Concordia, is on par with Hirschhorn’s past work. Ten years ago, in the same gallery, the artist premiered Cavemanman, a claustrophobic cardboard cave filled with detritus of 20th century pop culture, both high and low. Hirschhorn seems dead set on forcing us to acknowledge the spectacle of capitalist culture, which in his hands becomes grotesque. “I’m interested in the ‘too much,’ doing too much, giving too much, putting too much of an effort into something,” he’s said. “Wastefulness as a tool or weapon.”
Unsurprisingly, Hirschhorn’s installation has incurred the rage of many who feel it makes light of a disaster that killed 30 people. On the other hand, what separates him from, say, James Cameron?