BY Ara H. Merjian in Reviews | 01 OCT 12
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Issue 150

Hans Haacke

BY Ara H. Merjian in Reviews | 01 OCT 12

Hans Haacke Helmsboro Country, 1990

Hans Haacke has often been labelled a ‘post-minimalist’, ‘post-conceptual’ or ‘political’ artist – a term that is at once impossibly wide-ranging and spitefully reductive. He wriggles free of these as deftly as he maintains minimalism’s cool aloofness, brings to bear the cerebral sting of conceptual practice and betrays an unrelenting engagement with politics.

For all of its poise, Haacke’s work unfurls with the immediacy of real time. The artist-investigator names names. It was, in part, the resistance that his ad hominem practice met in the US – most notably from New York’s Guggenheim Museum, which cancelled his impending Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings: A Real-Time Social System as of May 1, 1971 (1971) – that drove his efforts back across the Atlantic during the 1970s and ’80s. Fortunately, he found his way back (he’s now settled permanently in New York), though his intercontinental activity has produced some of the most truly international art of the postwar period. The Reina Sofía’s retrospective paid due homage to the five decades of that corpus. The show’s title, ‘Castles in the Air’, alludes less to Haacke’s work than to the illusions that his practice has consistently unmasked.

A few works from recent decades –The Invisible Hand of the Market (2009) and Trickle Up (1992) – feature, respectively,an outsized hand in the form of a pendulum waving back and forth on the wall, anda dilapidated couch. For all the wry upshot of these pieces, their relative flipness set into relief the more subtle and incisive dimensions of Haacke’s larger project. One of the implicit arguments of that project is that the cheaper thrills of aesthetic interest often mask deeper problems and are often invisible on the surface of the work (and of the world). The cumulative effect of his installations can come across as hectoring. Hung together in a series of rooms, they feel somewhat like a legal deposition, in which form plays a secondary, and often almost reluctant, role.

Yet the principal register is irony, rather than outright sermonizing. There are no verdicts in Haacke’s work, only evidence – usually re-presented in the very terms in which it was originally issued. Bearing a quote by David Rockefeller about the benefits of art to ‘corporate image’, the magnesium plates of On Social Grease (1975) evoke their subject as much in format as in word. Created on the occasion of Philip Morris’s sponsorship of ‘Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1989, Cowboy with Cigarette (1990) turned one of the Spaniard’s collages into a mock-advertisement. To be sure, works like Helmsboro Country (1990) – a huge packet of cigarettes, emblazoned with the mug of senator Jesse Helms, and quoting his policies on the side as a kind of health warning – jettison subtlety. There are moments, though, when Haacke’s intricate apparatus manifests itself in compellingly visual terms. A case in point is his Gallery Goers Residence Profile Part 2 (1970–1): if the neat stacks of photographs suggest a kind of graph, their formal arrangement on the wall exceeds empirical demonstration.

The split dates by which numerous works were labelled suggested their re-installation. On a basic level, News (1969/2008), for example, transforms anecdotal reportage into reams of paper, reflecting, in part, upon the de-humanization of the digital age. But at a time when the world’s daily descriptions circulate virtually, this work lends those anecdotes a hard and fast materiality. However seemingly unrelated, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of water towers and winches struck me as the closest analogy. Even in their cold seriality, the remnants of the last industrial revolution at least left us monuments to their particular form of oblivion.

Commissioned for this exhibition and bearing its eponymous title, Haacke’s most recent work examines the burst bubble of a failed Madrid housing project. Pinned on wires, a number of sparse photographs evoke the site’s dereliction in addition to depicting it. With Picasso’s Guernica (1937) upstairs, and work by Sharon Hayes installed nearby, the political mordancy of Haacke’s work has never looked so relevant. However, I wondered if the commission was meant to preemptively ground the live wire that is Haacke’s work. Some of the technocrats at the Reina Sofía (or trustees, or shareholders) might have quaked just a little in welcoming him to the premises. Who was to say, after all, that the museum itself – gearing up for a round of government-mandated cuts to its staff this October – would be spared scrutiny in turn?

The moral heart of Haacke’s practice means that any system is subject to an anatomy of its power. Indeed, as his work has so poignantly insisted, it is often the smaller entity – whether corporate or state-sponsored – that stands as a microcosm and metonymy of political authority at large, hence their presence as the perennial effigies of his critique. The host institution here seems to have dodged that proverbial bullet; its retrospection did not turn into a compulsory inspection. But Haacke always has unfinished business, as it were, and therein lies his perpetual relevance.

Ara H. Merjian is Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, USA, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History.