I’m not sure how well known Antonio Gramsci is to most people. I came across him because I studied politics at university and I’ve been interested in left wing history for a long time. I was intrigued to read about a German artist called Thomas Hirschhorn who had been inspired by Gramsci and built a temporary monument to him in the Bronx. Gramsci has been dead since 1937, he was a Sardinian-born communist, intellectual and revolutionary that spent the last ten years or so of his life in prison. From there he wrote his prison note books, which are heavily referenced in Hirschhorn’s work.
There are lots of websites telling you about the project and I would encourage a visit to the Gramsci Monument website to find out more. What I wanted to record here was its impact on me.
I have seen a lot of art over the years, some is dull, some stimulates and some leaves a lasting impression. But seeing Hirschhorn’s work in the Bronx has really provoked an unusual response in me. Essentially it’s a badly constructed temporary structure, made of balsa wood, nails and a lot of duct tape. It’s a series of small rickety buildings with signs scrawn in marker pen and sheets covered in painted on quotes from Gramsci’s work.
The first picture here is what you see when you arrive; the second is inside the first main structure and is most like visiting a museum, filled with artefacts and a video on a loop in Italian; and the third is an example of the sheets covered in quotes from Gramsci that are draped around the structures and in some places from the actual apartment buildings that surround the monument.
I don’t mind admitting I was nervous about going to the Bronx: the structure is in the middle of a housing project in South Bronx, a run down area and not on the usual tourist trail. I took my two children with me: we were the only visitors. I felt like we were intruding. Nobody took any notice of us. The structures have been put up by the local residents, are used by them and they will be the ones to take them down. There is a real sense that this is meant to be here, it’s not intruding, it’s not been imposed on the locals, it’s like a visiting time machine and soon it will be gone.
I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to an artist and an exhibition of their own work. But here I spoke to Hirschhorn (photographed below), who was busy creating tomorrow’s Gramsci Monument Newspaper, which is published every day and contains a mixture of Gramsci quotes, extracts from left wing literature and local flavour, including ‘resident of the day’ on the back cover.
I asked him whether the Gramsci Monument had met his expectations and what it’s legacy would be for the residents. He was very intense, almost bemused by my questions. He said the legacy was the memory, that the local people will remember this experience and take that with them. He said the newspaper and the radio station that they created would be taken on by the local Community Centre and for him, none of this was meant to be permanent, and that is the joy.
Reading about Gramsci, looking at pictures of him, artefacts from a museum in Italy, of his slippers and comb from prison, in a balsa wood rickety shack, listening to R&B or whatever booming in the background, in the South Bronx. Now that’s an NYC experience I won’t forget.