MAXXI Museum, Rome

Upon entering Thomas Hirschhorn’s exhibition, The Purple Line’, you are handed a leaflet warning of the ‘unsettling’ nature of the images within.  Images which combine fashion photography with violent pictures of mutilated bodies from various warzones around the world. It sets a sober tone and one which continues throughout the 118 images within.

The collages in this show use contradictions of photography. That which can be used to show polar realities of today’s world- people represented as superficially idealised forms and the documentation of human life as a horror-show of death.  How this is presented, the rules governing taste and censorship is at the heart of this dialectic. More specifically, Hirschhorn’s work shines a spotlight on our acceptance or disinterest of such broadcasted realities: what we wish to be real and the reality we wish to avoid.  He does this through a ‘flipping’ of the heavily pixilated censored image which might be used by the media to conceal a victims identity.  He takes harmless, sterile images from glamourous fashion photography and market media advertising and heavily pixilates these combining them with horrendous images of war-ravaged bodies and freshly exploded corpses- the gore all sharply in focus. The idea is a bit of a one trick pony but is it is an effective one.  Each photographic image is made using cut prints which are cellotaped together.  The collage  is wrapped in the type of cellophane you might find over a greeting card and is nailed to the gallery wall.  Though each work is rectangular, most of the collages have a collage-free area where only the wall is seen.  I enjoyed the absence of an image in these areas which added a deeper dimension about potential horrors which exists but are not documented by the camera.

Hirschhorn forces you not only to confront this harsh reality but also how you view it.  The collaged images range from small and intimate to enormous- history painting size enormous.  The exhibition is organized over ‘The Purple Line’ which is an angular purple wall erected within the Maxxi’s impressive, Zaha Hadid gallery three interior.  The purple wall is jagged, double-sided and is aimed at taking you on a journey.

Access to some of the imagery however is unfortunately denied. Shallow viewing space combined with towering photographs glistening in wrapped cellophane make it impossible to see everything properly.  Hirschhorn explains that this ‘snippet’ type of viewing was intentional though I am not sure it added a significant new dimension to the experience. I could not help but also question the relevance of the huge scale of some of the pieces and thought they could have made a stronger impact as smaller pieces.

Display cabinets within the exhibition provide generous insights into Hirschhorn’s artistic thinking and technique.  He explains his ideas and how the collages were made in easy English.  There is an egalitarian, non-elitist accessibility to the text. Though I enjoyed the alternative space and particular hue of purple, I was not altogether convinced about his explanation about its ‘purity’ tipping either side of red and mauve.  The pixel being a square of pure colour being the association.

‘The Purple Line’ is a relevant exhibition chiming with contemporary issues about mass media, information technology, capitalism, censorship and the artist’s duty today to engage with such themes. Hirschhorn has gone to great lengths to access images showing details of the depravity of humanity existing today in war-torn regions of our world. There are overtones of conscience and responsibility in his work which shies away from judgement or political activism. It is social realism shot through the lens of an inverted value system.


Tom Aberneithie Nov 2021