“Even the comparison with the Titanic isn’t right, because this didn’t take place on the high seas, but practically in a washtub,” said an Italian commentator in La Republica, describing perceptions of the Concordia disaster. “It is a shipwreck that speaks of mediocrity.”
Thomas Hirschhorn’s new show, Concordia, Concordia, at Gladstone Gallery, takes the real-life Costa Concordia disaster as a starting point. The Concordia, with 4,200 souls aboard and with a hull of 114,500 tons – more than twice the weight of the Titanic – ran aground off the Tuscan coast. A rock tore a 160-foot long gash in the hull when the captain, Francesco Schettino, had maneuvered too close to shore to show off the brand new ship, valued at more than half a billion dollars. Schettino called in to the coast guard a “small technical failure,” then cut off communication for over two hours while he reportedly dined with a woman.
Still ignoring the coast guard’s radio calls, Schettino abandoned ship before hundreds of passengers evacuated, later claiming to have fallen (with his laptop) into a lifeboat. A coast guard captain ordered him back onto the ship to lead the evacuation. “Get back aboard! Damn it!” As a result of Schettino’s actions, an insufficiently trained crew, and equipment failure, 32 people died in the disaster.
It is well documented that the Titanic tells a tale of class struggle. For example, Daniel Mendelsohn wrote,”Of the men in first class—who paid as much as four thousand three hundred and fifty dollars for a one-way fare at a time when the average annual household income in the U.S. was eight hundred dollars—the percentage of survivors was roughly the same as that of children in third class.”
Same goes for the raft of the Medusa, the real-life crisis that inspired Gericault’s great painting. After the frigate Medusa lost her convoy and ran aground, the captain and officers unloaded 160 members of the crew onto a raft, the plan being that one of the Medusa’s boats would tow the raft. The officers cut the tow ropes.
The Costa Concordia has become a drama of Trans-Euro Contempt, where the disaster symbolized Italy’s crippling recession, debt, and corruption, and Captain Schettino embodied Silvio Berlusconi. And with their own stable economy, Germans began to resent bailing out their desperate Mediterranean neighbors:
“The birth defect of the euro was to put very different cultures of economic activity in the straitjacket of a single currency,” wrote a commentator in Der Spiegel. “Be honest,” he added. “Did it surprise anyone that the unlucky captain of the Costa Concordia is Italian?” He asked whether anyone could imagine that a German, or even British, captain would have behaved as the Italian did. Il Giornale fired back a reminder about Auschwitz, while another paper turned the tables and compared Angela Merkel to a captain fleeing a disaster.
Concordia, Concordia, Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation at Gladstone Gallery, recreates the casino of the Concordia and is a splashing, colorful spectacle. Your eyes might comb the densely scattered and piled materials for a moment before they settle on the fact that the room is tipped over. And you might start to think about Thomas Demand’s Pacific Sun video, an animated wonder made from paper sculptures, based on the the calamitous rocking of the actual Pacific Sun ship at sea.
In both the Hirschhorn and Demand works, the contingent “sets” are depopulated. That is characteristic of Demand, but not of Hirschhorn. We don’t see the stumbles, faceplants, concussions, shrieks, and casualties that really happened – which is the opposite of Gericault’s Raft, which maximizes and capitalizes repulsive gore, derived from cadaver studies. With Concordia, which looks like a toppled party, and not a disaster, are we supposed to project ourselves into this space? Interpret the toppled furniture as surrogates for people? Or is tactile biography insignificant against:
a) the historical facts (a billion dollar disaster),
b) the abstract translation (it’s about the banality of disaster), or
c) the aesthetic code (make it more kitsch)?
It is unfortunate that viewers can’t penetrate Concordia, Concordia, as they could Hirschhorn’s unforgettable and deeply unsettling Superficial Engagement (2006). Visitors can only enter the gallery, look up and around, then move on. This presentation made me feel docile and amused, rather than stirred and investigative. And being stuck on the outside really feels at odds with the statement Hirschhorn wrote for the show. After twice repeating “Get back on board!” – the coast guard captain’s order- he adds, “There is no way out, there is no place to flee, there is no safe land anymore!” Yes, there is, and it’s way too easy to find the exit.
Where are the women and children? With the human stories sifted from the wreckage, and with gallery visitors sidelined, evacuation is at work here, just as it was when the actual Concordia crashed. For me, this deprives the work of the irrefutable and often visceral human experience that made Hirschhorn’s earlier projects in New York so challenging. “Get back aboard!”