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Hans Haacke at Paula Cooper
11 January – 17 February 2008
Paula Cooper Gallery – 534 W 21 St, New York NY
German artist Hans Haacke is known for taking uncompromisingly critical positions in high-profile exhibition sites around the world. In the 2000 Whitney Biennial, for instance, he exhibited Sanitation, a text-based installation of quotes from New York's former mayor and current Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani. In the piece, Haacke attacked Giuliani for his aggressive public maneuvering against the highly publicized Brooklyn Museum show Sensations of the previous year, which featured Chris Ofili's expressive rendition of a black Madonna adorned with bits of dried cow dung. In Haacke's installation, three quotes from the former mayor were reproduced as a wall-text in Fraktur Gothic, a typeface popular with the Third Reich, in front of a row of garbage cans out of which emitted the sounds of marching troops or an advancing army. The installation incited a kind of ruling-class furor from both the Giulianni camp and at least one of the Whitney heirs and namesakes of the museum – who rescinded her planned $1 million donation to the museum for that year and threatened to dissociate the family name from the institution.
It is not without trepidation that I evoke the Sanitation work of eight years ago; it would be nothing if not a mistake to misrepresent Haacke primarily as a creator of blunt, agitational artwork. His more recent public monument in Berlin to the revered German intellectual, writer, and committed socialist Rosa Luxemburg is, in contrast, a highly nuanced and sophisticated public work, on which Greg Sholette has written beautifully and with authority in Artforum's Novemeber 2006 issue. I begin with Haacke's work on Giuliani however because, with the former mayor's currency in the media spotlight, it is worth remembering his regressive brand of cultural politics, to speak nothing of his more fatal ideological standpoints. Haacke's tactics with Sanitation, in turn, match the hard-line rhetoric of the city mayor with the artist's own wildly provocation installation – and it works; when power got nasty, the art got equally nasty right back.
The consequent media attention on the artist was expected, and not something that Haacke was unfamiliar with by 2000, as his career is studded with such incidents. His partial destruction of the German pavilion in the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993, for example, incited similar uproar when it evoked the Biennale's history in Italy's fascist years and won the artist the prestigious Golden Lion award. This type of work however has perhaps made Haacke more enemies than friends in the international exhibition circuits, and, in some cases, resulted in hindrances to his exhibition potential. The 1971 work Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 a photo-text installation documenting, in great detail, the property holdings of Manhattan's largest non-institutional land owning partnership, resulted in the cancelation of Haacke's solo Guggenheim show that same year and the firing of the Guggenheim's Edward F. Fry, the responsible curator who invited Haacke to present his work.
The press release for Haacke's current solo exhibition at Paula Cooper gallery states as much on the Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo... piece, which is currently on display with four other works. The five pieces constituting this exhibition — each from from a discrete moment in the artist's career — together form a subtle and fiercely intelligent constellation of work.
Upon entering Paula Cooper's south-side gallery space on W. 21 Street, patrons pass by a series of modest black and white photographs of art spectators at the second documenta in Kassel, Germany. The 26 photos which make up the work, Photographic Notes, documenta 2, 1959, were taken by the young Haacke, a student at the time shooting on his breaks while working as an assistant at the tremendous exhibition fair, and seem intuitive and well composed. There are pictures of various unidentified figures who immediately take on social significance in relation to the massive abstract works on display around them — one figure gesturing authoritatively with his hands might be a curator or art professional, while another older figure becomes simply an unenthusiastic spectator. The placement of the work by the gallery's entrance may seem as intuitive a gesture as the pictures themselves. While the images depicted might appear diluted by the passage of time to contemporary viewers — black and white photographs of large Ab-Ex canvases seeming almost inseparable from their historical bracket — they nevertheless retain a current vocabulary because the rules of art spectatorship have so little changed over the past fifty years. Yet the photos do in fact document a sort of radical change taking place in post-war Germany at the time of their production, as many German citizens in 1959 came to Kassel to witness for the first time the spectacle of contemporary art, multitudinous in its varied manifestations and self-obsessed vanities to which Haacke so explicitly and deftly refers.
Photographic notes... is both a kind of mirror for exhibition goers as well as a singular, self-referential component in the show, signifying a documentary mode where context and framing become just as important as the content of the art, whether it be information aesthetics or massive kinetic sculpture. The former is represented by Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo..., installed around the corner on three walls that make up a space where the abstracted information Haacke has gathered as art material can be physically navigated by viewers. Trickle Up (1992), a reversal on the well known neoliberal mantra, installed in the center of the Haacke exhibition, is a sculpture consisting of a severely weathered old couch upon which rests a pristine, embroidered pillow depicting an idealized image of the White House and a 1992 quote from George Herbert Walker Bush equating anxiety over cuts to the capital gains tax with a Puritanical social anxiety about "someone somewhere having a good time." Directly above this work hangs Mission Accomplished (2005), a reference to one of the current president's more publicized instances of misspeaking and a close-up print reproduction of the American flag whose torn half lies on the floor, at the foot of the couch in Trickle Up. Shoe prints evident on the torn print, one wonders if it was the artist or the gallery patrons who had trampled upon the work.
The most spectacular object on display is undoubtedly Wide White Flow (1967), a large rectangular piece of white fabric elevated slightly from the ground and activated by several large fans blowing streams of air directly beneath it. The fabric takes on the properties of flowing jets of water and is instantly mesmerizing to observe, as patrons circle around it to any of several vantage points. The press release describes the piece as being conceptually grounded in Haacke's interest in observed systems functioning in a constant state of flux. One might compare the piece to Haacke's more well know, if less spectacular, Condensation Cube (1963-65). The work here, like Condensation Cube, functions like a maquette for the real-world systems Haacke's more politically invested work aims to study or unsettle. Indeed, the social issues Haacke addresses in the other works on view are in contrast very sharply defined — the abstracted power matrices supported by seemingly immobile aggregation of capital, the production of meaning in contemporary art spectatorship, and the relationship of media spectacle to public policy — and continually draw attention to the ideological and material spaces where our own perception of the work is constituted: the gallery space in one instant, the city in another, the country in yet another. Wide White Flow, on the other hand, threatens to disrupt this otherwise Brechtian context emphasis by seducing us with its ceaseless motion, its minimal but monumental aesthetic, and its visual potency as a kinetic system functioning precisely as it should. In a word, the dialectic here between this work and the others, competing for attention with radically divergent strategies, takes on a form of its own: both a critical model of art spectacle and its enacted, strategic disruption.