December 10, 2009

Bellwether (or not)



Hans Haacke’s work has investigated the extent to which cultural production intersects with political necessity. As the saying goes, “All art is political,” but only if we provide the exterior context needed to establish the relevance of a work’s politics. Without a contextual “reading” an artwork’s political intent may remain obscured or “cloudy.” Moreover, the supplemental political context of particular works of art begin to lose their impact and wane over the years, as the prevailing conditions or “climate” of their original insertion into the social order suffer the “fog” of the past.

Such is the case with many of Haacke’s works. How important are Reaganomics to us today? Does the average Westerner truly “understand” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Similarly, our disdain for slumlords is off-set by our comprehension that the economic realities of this country are built on “opportunity.” Thus, we realize that the rich can dabble in the arts and also indulge in baser aspects of greed.

Perhaps this is why Haacke did not mention his infamous “Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971” in the Phillips Collection's “Conversations with Artists” last night. The particular details of those “fraudulent practices” of one financial firm in the ownership of various tenement apartment buildings in Harlem and the Lower East Side are possibly less relevant to us 38 years later. The 146 photographs were accompanied by texts describing the locations and the financial transactions behind the ownership of the pictured buildings. As recently as 1997, this work by Haacke was described as exposing a “guilty” Harry Shapolsky who was “well protected by influential friends” and that his “fraudulent practices” were overlooked by a “judicial system” that was “exceedingly forgiving.”(1)

“Shapolsky et al” is often cited as exemplary of “institutional critique” and its photo-text presentation has come to encapsulate this “academic discipline.”(2) But how can we care about this work now? In my lectures about “Shapolsky et al” I “explain” the work with supplemental information about its supposition that the “rich” are not nice people. There is also the art world gossip that this work was the reason for Haacke’s canceled Guggenheim solo show.(3)

The implication that the nature of wealth involves power is always topical. However, artworks that focus on this reality remain episodic and their “survival” as “art history” is dependent upon additional information provided by critics, curators, educators and (dare I say it?) those institutions that “manage” our consciousness.(4)

Haacke’s current exhibition at X Initiative perhaps sidesteps those issues of wealth and power to coalesce as a kind of mini-retrospective with a couple of bonuses – literally: there are giant fans with the word “Bonus” flashing on and off above them. These fans, coupled with all the windows on the fourth floor space (which used to be one of Dia’s buildings) wide open, generate an aggressively uncomfortable viewing space. Haacke gleefully referred to it as the “most adverse conditions for display of art.”

In a humorous nod to the hostile environment, Haacke has set up two devices on a table: a hygrothermograph measuring and recording the temperature and relative humidity of the space, plus a barograph recording barometric pressure.

“Whether or not” this was a subtle dig at Dia or any of that institution’s agendas, hidden or otherwise, is difficult to say. Haacke does acknowledge the metaphoric potentialities of his work.(5) Thus, one could speculate that the presentation of art that has been called “difficult” (institutional critique, systems art) in an unpleasant ambiance might yield some interesting metaphors: “cold” art as misunderstood, or its commercial denial.

Regardless, one might also conjecture that the current work of Haacke bears less resemblance to his past works of explicit critique and controversy. The Haacke of today has been marginalized to the point that he may no longer be a bellwether of conceptualism. Without the artist himself “re-contextualizing” his past and “explaining” his present position in art history, we will have to remain content to bundle up and submit to the torture.


Image: An installation shot of “Weather, or not” (2009); © Copyright by Hans Haacke. Photograph:
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1. www.medienkunstnetz.de.

2. Haacke’s characterization of institutional critique, as he admitted in Q&A that he had “kind of practiced it early on” but there is a “danger that it becomes an academic discipline.”

3. “Famously, Haacke’s refusal to withdraw the piece from his solo show at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971, led to the exhibition being cancelled. Haacke’s career has, of course, been undergirded by a heroic narrative of institutional neglect and censorship that continues to nourish his credibility as a political artist.” From Frieze Magazine, Issue 106, April 2007.

4. “Consciousness is […] a battleground of conflicting interests. Correspondingly, the products of consciousness represent interests and interpretations of the world that are potentially at odds with each other. The products of the means of production, like those means themselves, are not neutral.” From Haacke’s essay, “Museums, Managers of Consciousness” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, (Peter Selz, Kristine Stiles, editors), University of California Press, 1996, 877.

5. Haacke went to some length explaining the symbolism of his portrait of Reagan placed opposite an enlarged 35mm frame of Polish protestors represented the conflict between the “opposing” mediums of painting and photography.

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