Thomas Hirschhorn’s Tilting World

View during set-up of the work, “Concordia, Concordia,” Gladstone Gallery, New York, 2012. (Copyright Thomas Hirschhorn)

When the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground off Isola del Giglio in January, killing 32 people, its captain made headlines because, far from going down with the ship, he fled the scene and was ordered by a coast guard officer to return. Remember those tapes? “Listen [Captain] Schettino,” reads the English transcript, “you saved yourself from the sea, but I am going to … really do something bad to you …  I am going to make you pay for this. Go on board, [expletive]!” The Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn found poetry in this.

“I liked that a lot,” Mr. Hirschhorn said a few weeks ago at New York’s Gladstone gallery. “He said, ‘You have to come back on the boat”—you know, ‘Man, there is no escape in our time!’ There is no escaping, you cannot escape.”

At Gladstone, he stood in the middle of his own capsizing space, wrapping frayed wires with brown masking tape. His installation, “Concordia, Concordia,” which opens Sept. 13, is a room inside a room, a giant box built from plywood and decorated in cruise-ship chintz, and it is capsizing, not capsized—Mr. Hirschhorn feels this is an important distinction. He is tall, and has glasses and a heavy Germanic accent. He sounds like he has big tonsils that make each word a push, but speaks quickly all the same.

“On these doors, there’s a structure coming out, a bit like this,” he explained, gesturing to photos of the real ship on its side. The photos hung on the gallery wall, near a pile of chairs and other clutter, to serve as inspiration for the four installers who orbited the pile. In the photos, you can’t tell what exactly it is that’s hanging out of the open doors—some kind of fabric or wiring—and it’s that kind of indeterminacy that he is trying to recreate with his installation, hence the tape. “I don’t want it to be too material, because it’s not only material, it’s something that, perhaps, gives the possibility to think of something else. So I have to cover it with tape.”

The whole box pitches to the left, where the ceiling is, with the floor on the right side of the gallery, slanted at somewhere over 45 degrees. The angle is severe enough that, were this an actual capsizing ship, it would have no chance of righting itself. It was important to him, he said, that the show be based on human error, rather than a natural tragedy like a tsunami. He said the shipwreck resembled “the whole over-crowded, over-made system.” It’s easy to replace “system” with, say, the “global economy,” but he eschews any such comparisons—he’s more about the global epistemology.

“When I saw a few pictures from the inside of this ship, I was really fascinated by this universe—this completely new universe, with floating chairs, this upside-down situation,” he added. “The chairs are no longer where they should be, the decorative elements are no longer where they should be, the staircase doesn’t make sense. This is the moment where you have to find a way to rearrange all this stuff. This is what I would like to offer the brain—to be creative in this. Of course it’s a disaster, but it’s also a chance to see it new, to see the new possibilities.”

Mr. Hirschhorn’s work has a strong grounding in arte povera, an Italian style of the 1960s associated with humble materials, and his installations frequently use cardboard, duct tape, and other elements that might be mistaken for trash. Though the Gladstone box is large and well-engineered, it still follows in this vein. The wood is cheap, and if you walk behind the floor, you can see there’s nothing holding it to the gallery wall but some reinforcing straps. As for the decoration of the ship room’s interior—gaudy carpeting and a lofted bar cling to the floor-wall, the wall paper appears to be gift wrap, and there’s a tacky reprint of The Raft of the Medusa. “I saw how these kinds of boats are actually decorated, with a kind of over-decoration, a lot of stuff all over the ceiling and et cetera,” he said. “Because it must be over-decorated, perhaps in order to show they are rich. A little bit like in a casino.” (A number of the chairs come from a casino supplier.)

For his past few weeks in New York, Mr. Hirschhorn has split his time between the “Concordia, Concordia” installation and visits to the Bronx, where he has been scouting locations for a monument to Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist leader imprisoned by Mussolini. He’s narrowed it down to eight locations. The monument, presented in collaboration with Dia, is part of a series that has included other monuments to Baruch Spinoza (1999, Amsterdam, in silver duct tape), Gilles Deleuze (2000, Avignon, tree altar, similar to one for a person killed in a car accident) and Georges Bataille (2002, Kassel, heavy plywood). These are non-monuments as much as they are monuments, monuments to the dearth of powerful monuments and the destruction of those, like Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, that were too ambitious.

“His mode of being is, ‘energy yes, quality no,’” said Yasmil Raymond, a Dia curator who’s been working with him on the Gramsci monument. Its designs are not yet finished, and she couldn’t say much by way of description, though she did rule out its being in the shape of “a book, since Gramsci never published in his lifetime.”

Next week Mr. Hirschhorn will debut a 30-foot timeline of his past public works at Dia:Chelsea, a retrospective in cardboard that features photos, marker lines and printed pages, similar to a homeless person outlining some conspiracy for passersby. It’s a way to introduce new audiences to pieces like the other monuments and his Musée Précaire Albinet, where he had the residents of a suburb in Paris, his usual base of operations, build a museum that was then filled with works from the Pompidou Center, among them Marcel Duchamp’s bicycle wheel.

A similar spirit of inclusivity, if not of participation, is present in the Gramsci monument. In planning it, Ms. Raymond said, he sometimes makes reference to wanting to reach “the third row.” The phrase originates with a photo the artist took at his Spinoza festival, an offshoot of the monument. In the photo, a group of local women are watching a philosopher speak. The first two rows of chairs were empty, but nevertheless the women have chosen to sit in the third row.

“They’re far away, they don’t really want to get too close,” Ms. Raymond said. “But they are there and they are looking.”

When he goes to the Bronx now, he pitches the project to community leaders, making a serious effort to explain it, because as with his banlieue museum, community input is important to the work. One day a few months back, he pitched the monument to three elderly Bronx women, who were so impressed by it that, immediately after his talk, they took him to a spot that they thought might be good for it.

“It’s funny, because people from the neighborhood and the community centers say to me ‘Thomas, sell us your project,’” he said. “Nobody would say that in Europe—this is just a cultural difference—so I had to explain I don’t want to sell it to you, I just want to ask you for help.” They also ask him about the benefits his work will have for the community. “It’s fine! But I tell them, I’m not serving the community, I’m serving art.

“I don’t make community art,” he added. “I don’t make relational aesthetic art, I don’t make participatory art and I don’t make educational art. You know, afterwards people say to me that it helps the community but that’s not my problem.” He wants his art to speak to everyone and no one, in any place imaginable.

As for what speaks to him, he is difficult to pin down. His praise of Occupy Wall Street, whose politics were fairly aligned with his own, was tepid for an artist who works extensively with cardboard and the ersatz.

“I liked the form,” he said of the protest. “What I mean by form: I like that people, today, think again their body is important. Their own body, only their body, that’s it’s their body that’s important. I think this is a very clear critique to representative democracy, in which the bodies don’t play any role.”

Almost like the curious decision to put one’s body on a boat?

“Yes. It’s important,” he said, just before he ended the interview at Gladstone, “that humans are strange.”

Thomas Hirschhorn’s Tilting World