“I react to things that bug me”
The grand uncle of conceptual art and institutional critique, Hans Haacke, visited Chicago in April and presented the Dog and Pony Show at the University of Chicago. F Newsmagazine caught up with him before the event.
Anna Kryczka: I am interested in learning a bit more about this Dog and Pony Show you brought to town. I’m curious if you are utilizing this term in its traveling huckster/charlatan American folk guise, or in the more general sense of corporate courtship rituals.
Hans Haacke: In the old days, a “dog and pony show” was a mom-and-pop store kind of circus, moving from small town to small town in rural America. Today, the expression is often used dismissively for elaborate campaigns by traveling sales people to promote various goods and ideas in corporate or political settings. I see my visit to the University of Chicago on the scale of a pushcart operation, similar to academics on the lecture circuit and the custom of artists doing various gigs–unlike the razzle-dazzle of the three-ring circus of the primaries.
AK: I am curious about how you would categorize your diverse practices. Do you see art as a fundamentally oppositional practice? Your work seems to anticipate its existence within the art world, yet typically its implications have a much broader significance.
Much of the literature dealing with your work seems to characterize your attitudes as fundamentally pessimistic concerning the current state of affairs. How do you see your work as addressing the salient issues of late capitalism? Do you see work that purports an engagement with an aesthetic to be dishonest or instrumental in perpetuating our consumptive reality?
HH: The various media I have chosen and the diverse approaches I took have usually been determined by the social and architectural context for which I develop a project. However, I do not get there methodically. My works may amount to “oppositional practice.” I react to things that bug me. But I don’t feel comfortable making this a rule for other artists, even though I am allergic to works that cater to interests I oppose.
What happens in the art world is not occurring in a world apart—contrary to what some either naïvely or cynically believe. Not only does the “rest” of the world have an impact on what kind of art is being produced, traded, and talked about. I believe cultural productions do affect—in homeopathic doses—the consensus of society. It is therefore not irrelevant what these productions are like.
AK: Your work seems to focus on structural, economic and class concerns. I wonder what your thoughts are on the work of Fred Wilson who addresses many of the same institutional issues that your work deals with in addition to focusing more specifically on racial issues. The notion of the archive, documentation, and the truth associated with these constructs seems to be operative in your work. What are your thoughts on the history of the archive and its position in the emergence of the modernist subjectivity in terms of its operation in your enterprise?
HH: Since I first came across the work of Fred Wilson—I believe it was his Guarded View (New York museum guard uniforms on dummies) in 1991—I have followed his work with great sympathy. At the time, I succeeded in having Cooper Union, where I was teaching, invite him as a guest instructor. We have been loosely in touch over the years. In preparation for projects, I have often done research in archives of various kinds. I am not sure, however, to what extent “The Archive” is, indeed, related to modernism.
“The Archive” is currently a hot subject (I have participated in conferences on the topic). But remember, European artists and scholars studied Roman, Greek and Egyptian artifacts, read ancient texts, and made pilgrimages to what was thought of as the cradle of (Western) civilization well before modernism. Libraries and the preservation of documents precede the nineteenth century. Today’s researchers still use them.
I just can’t Haacke it any longer
An account of Hans Haacke’s Dog and Pony Show
Question time. Whenever a distinguished speaker comes to impart his or her thoughts to a group, it is always “question time” that leaves me writhing in agony, sliding so far down my chair that my shoulders are level with everyone else’s knees, in the small hope that my palpable embarrassment might somehow disappear, along with me, under the chair. In those moments I’m embarrassed to be human. To be fair, I have to admit there aren’t many times when I’ve mustered the courage to ask a stupid question in front of 200 people. The fools are admirable. But I pity the speakers who have to respond, and who try to reply sensibly, reasonably, while attempting to retain their authority and lower themselves to the level of such a question. Ask a silly question, get a silly answer. If you want a Haacke, you’re going to get a Haacke.
So “question time” is a difficult balancing act. More difficult, still, if you happen to be a little tired, something of a vague speaker, perhaps a little past your prime, but nonetheless an utterly revered member of the art world. People want everything from you. For those two hours, you are God, and you’re going to tell us WHAT THE ARTIST’S ROLE IS IN THE WORLD, oh, and WHAT IS THE PRECISE RELATION BETWEEN ART AND POLITICS?
Hans Haacke’s Artspeaks Fellows lecture at the University of Chicago on April 7 was one such occasion. Notwithstanding this artist’s extraordinary career and his continued production of astute, political messages through art, the event left me, and others I spoke to, a little disappointed and mildly drowsy. Haacke spoke at a lulling, slow pace and made vague, rambling pronouncements. His works continue to fascinate, but the method of this presentation seemed as efficient as eating soup with a fork. Fortunately, F Newsmagazine had a chance to interview Haacke separately (see left), so this was not all there was to be made of the event.
To top off Haacke’s mix of ums, ahs and heartfelt comments during the Dog and Pony Show, we were left with an overly long and poorly moderated question time, commanded by some guy who didn’t introduce himself, and whose only memorable addition to the evening was a deeply voiced comment, “Louis Vuitton.” I would explain this more if I could, but it really was that peculiar and random.
Delightfully though, Haacke used slides, even for recently shot photographs. His dogged old-school heroics are admirable.
During The Dog and Pony Show Haacke recounted selected moments in his artistic career, commenting on particular works that piqued his interest or that expressed something that he felt continues to be significant in the current political climate. Haacke has produced a series of works, many involving the stars of the U.S. flag, which directly critique U.S. foreign policy and George W. Bush’s administration, and the artist joked that he admires George Bush Senior very much, adding solemnly, “He’s an intellectual giant…compared to his son.”
One of the works that received the most attention by Haacke was his garden for the German Parliament, the Bundestag. The garden is an ongoing, participatory work which involves soil samples from more than 300 of the country’s electoral districts. The soil is brought to the parliament in sacks and emptied onto the garden by local representatives, and over time a wild garden has grown around neon lettering that reads: Der Bevolkerung (to the population). The garden grew in an unplanned manner from seeds that were already present in the soil samples. The only time this garden has been altered is when blackberries began to take hold and Haacke had to intervene in order to stop what he called the “master race” of weeds from killing everything else in the garden, a symbolism too ironic for comfort.