10 01 07

Hans Haacke – Really. Works 1959 - 2006

Benjamin Seibel

Hans Haacke became well-known as a critic of the museum as an institution with his first major solo exhibition in 1971 – because it never took place. Part of the exhibition, that was to be held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, should have included Haackes work Shapolsky et al., a critical documentation of the morally questionable activities of an influential real estate company. After Haacke refused to omit the work, the director of the museum Thomas M. Messer cancelled the exhibition. Even though the rumours about connections between the museum’s board of trustees and the mentioned real estate company were never confirmed, the possibility of corporate sponsors turning away from the museum was apparently too much of a risk. The curator Edward F. Fry, who demonstrated solidarity with Haacke to the end, was fired. While the cancellation of his show marked a setback for Haacke’s career, one should not underestimate the significance that lay in just the cancellation itself. The hidden power structures of the museum and the borders of what can be done were revealed precisely by crossing these borders. Massive protests against censorship and for freedom of the arts followed. Artists occupied the Guggenheim and called for a boycott of the museum. From this time on, Haacke was avoided by American institutions and had to wait another 15 years before his next solo exhibition could take place in the US. Shapolsky et al. was shown later at documenta X in 1997 but until then had lost its critical value and was left to be a piece of art history.

Since the 1970s the intertwinements between the economy, the arts and corporate sponsorship of cultural institutions have been subject of Haacke’s work. Still, he never lost his belief in the importance of the museum as a socio-political space. On the contrary, because it is where he identifies one of the “battlefields” of public opinion, he refuses to leave the museum to the corporations without a fight. The testimonies of these fights can now be seen as part of a broad retrospective in the Hamburger Deichtorhallen.

Die Fahne hoch!(Raise the Flag) thrones highly visible at the opposing end of the room. The three banners with their Nazi-like aesthetics were originally installed at the Königsplatz in Munich in 1991. They show a picture of the SS badge, the writing “Zum Appell: Deutsche Industrie im Irak“ (“Roll Call: German Industry in Iraq“)and a list of 21 German companies that did business with Saddam Hussein. The Installation, which in it’s design referred to the history of the Königsplatz as a rallying place for Hitler’s troops, created an overwhelming media response, also due to an injunction against the artwork by one of the listed corporations.
The provocation itself is a key element of Haacke’s work, who seemingly follows a quite simple formula. Without provocation, no scandal. Without scandal, no debate. Without debate, no meaning. The more scandalous a work is, the better it functions, within and especially outside the art field.

The exhibition in Hamburg also shows works that deal with the hidden power structures within the art field itself. For Haacke the use of mere montage, made up of quotes and photos, is often enough to prove the hypocrisy of the financiers, be it Saatchi, Cartier or Daimler-Benz. It reveals their alleged interest in the arts as one which is purely an economic one, while the same corporations are exploiting their workers or supporting repressive regimes.
Presenting these works in a museum might make sense because this way Haacke is sure to reach the same audience that the sponsors of other exhibitions have in mind.

In general, the attempt to present institutional critique in the form of a retrospective bears problems. What was once a specific intervention loses it’s edge when accumulated in a museum. The main problem hereby is not that the works are somewhat outdated or that most of these battles have already been fought. It is, in fact, the theatrical staging of these works which causes discomfort. Surely protest depends on actuality and the example of Raise the Flag! makes it clear that a site-specific artwork which has been taken out of its context can at best function as a documentary of itself. But the form of presentation in the museum as part of a retrospective gives these works an aura that is created primarily because one is looking at a work of the artist Hans Haacke. The uniqueness of these works is emphasized, while its original intention of initiating a political debate almost disappears. In the book Freier Austausch which he published together with Pierre Bourdieu, Haacke takes the position that a critical work can benefit from the symbolic capital of the museum as an institution. Yet the question must be asked if not the opposite is happening. By being defined primarily as works of art their potential to criticise is neutralised, while at the same time, the romantic idea of the autonomous artist and the authorship are emphasised – some of the concepts that Haacke once tried to challenge. Attributes such as the inability to comprise, rebelliousness or independence are suddenly used to create a cult of personality that can hardly be of advantage for actual political demands.

In fact, Haacke was one of the first artists who used the gallery not only to exhibit but also for working purposes. In his work Gallery-Goers’ Birthplace and Residence Profile that he started in 1969, visitors of the gallery were supposed to mark their birthplace and residence on a city map which made them part of a sociological analysis. The fact that Haacke now presents the results from back then instead of initiating a new survey is another example for the lacking compatibility of Haacke’s undoubtedly important work with the format of the retrospective. The journalists, that have always been a vital catalyst for Haacke’s critique, don’t seem to be particularly disturbed by this. The German newspapers and magazines celebrated Haacke as a personality and one can’t help to think that he, who used to have a hard time succeeding as an artist, does deserve this late fame. Picking up where he left off will be up to others.

Deichtorhallen Hamburg 17.11.06 – 05.02.07
Akademie der Künste, Berlin 18.11.06 – 14.01.07

Benjamin Seibel


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Hans Haacke – Really. Works 1959 - 2006 Hans Haacke – Wirklich. Werke 1959 - 2006