Bernhart Schwenk

Laudatio for Hans Haacke on the presentation of the 2017 Roswitha Haftmann Prize, on 31 May 2017 at the Kunsthaus Zürich

Check against delivery.

The historical situation in which Hans Haacke grew up offers a particularly strong hint about where the roots of his art lie: born in 1936 in a Germany in thrall to ideology, he was a child during the Second World War, attending school and university in an immediate post-war climate that saw the past as something to be ashamed of and suppressed.

And yet the city of Kassel, where Hans Haacke went to study art, was a rather special place. Located in the province of Hesse, in the so-called zonal border area and soon hard up against the wall of the GDR, it had since 1955 played host to an ambitious international art exhibition: documenta, which was established as a deliberate statement of openness to the world. For years thereafter, Kassel remained imbued with a contradictory sense of small-town parochialism and international openness. In any event, we may reasonably assume that when, aged 25, Hans Haacke left Germany for America via Paris, he wanted to experience the world from another perspective: to familiarize himself with the apparently foreign and view the seemingly familiar with detachment. Hans Haacke has lived in New York since the early 1960s.

He arrived there at a time when 20th-century society and culture were experiencing arguably their greatest transformation, with politics, commerce and the mass media fundamentally changing everyday life: an earthquake with its epicentre in that very same metropolis and aftershocks that, in the decades that followed, rippled outwards chiefly to Europe, Hans Haacke’s old homeland.

The years around 1970 in New York were an exciting and excitable time in which Hans Haacke played a crucial role. Undoubtedly, one reason for his rise to fame in this period was that his work was articulated not within or for the art bubble, but rather in direct exchange with the public, politics and business.

That social concern, incidentally, links Hans Haacke to Joseph Beuys, who is contemporaneously developing his ‘social sculpture’ over in Germany. Like Beuys, who is 15 years his senior, Hans Haacke sees his work as an artist in terms of communication and participation. He becomes an uncompromising yet equally popular teacher, remaining committed to education, to exchange with students, for the rest of his life. He taught for some four decades at the Cooper Union, one of the leading colleges of art in the US. As a visiting professor, he still travels to this day.

Hans Haacke is an acute observer – and from the outset he directed his scrutiny towards the development of physical, biological and social processes. Quite simply, his works visualize those processes through models and images. They reveal the underlying structures that Hans Haacke is really interested in.

He starts out in comparatively abstract fashion, according to the contemporaneous New Sculpture and Minimal Art movements. Hans Haacke’s earliest works include the ‘Condensation Cubes’: transparent plastic containers that he filled with water and then sealed. The temperature difference causes the enclosed water to condense and form droplets that grow constantly and, once they reach a certain size and weight, run downwards in rivulets. The process of condensation is continuous. Hans Haacke compares these conditions to a living organism reacting in a flexible manner to its surroundings. The constellation of the droplets changes through an inner necessity, but also unpredictably and freely. In an interview, Hans Haacke once said of his works: ‘There is not much to say about them, because everything is simple and clear. All you can do is describe them. There are no secrets.’

This exact observation of a system and the modelling of that observation to create a living, independent dynamic is an element in virtually all of Hans Haacke’s works, and especially those created from that moment on. His contribution for a 1971 show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, in which he had been invited to appear at the young age of 35, is the product of exact observation: a research project. At the time, as Hans Haacke recalls, New York was a decaying and bankrupt city, its buildings dilapidated and Central Park desperately neglected. Yet some were profiting from this impoverishment and, in so doing, making it even worse: powerful real estate holding companies that systematically exploited the situation and directed huge speculative transactions.

Hans Haacke was not allowed to display the work. It was too risky for the Director of the Guggenheim Museum, whose institution received very little public funding and was therefore dependent on private benefactors. When Haacke refused to remove the work from the exhibition, the entire show was promptly cancelled even before installation had commenced.

The ensuing debate revolved around the dividing line between art and politics, and who has the right to decide whether a political gesture is art, or what art is permitted to do. Furthermore Haacke’s piece raised the question how closely the key figures in this exploitation of community and public were connected to the promoters of art and culture – although this question has not been asked explicitly.

The cancellation of Hans Haacke’s invitation to appear at one of the country’s most prestigious museums made waves. It rightly established Haacke’s reputation as an artist who tells it like it is. It should be emphasized, however, that Hans Haacke’s works are never judgemental or partisan – even if appearances sometimes suggest otherwise. Even for the planned work at the Guggenheim, he had in essence merely gathered together facts that were already in the public domain anyway. And what Haacke said about another of his projects also applies here: ‘I leave it up to you as far as how you evaluate this situation. You continue the work by drawing your own conclusions from the information presented.’

From now on, though, the hue and cry surrounding an exhibition by Hans Haacke had to be considered or assessed, as far as that was possible. Now every curator and museum director could decide for themselves whether or not they were prepared to back truth and the disclosure of facts. It became apparent that in a certain context, the truth becomes problematic. Or in other words, the truth is not welcome everywhere. Yet as Ingeborg Bachmann concisely and effectively put it in 1959, people should be expected to face up to the truth. In the art business especially, given its claim to morality, artistic critique is necessary – however uncomfortable, revealing, complicated and occasionally shameful this critique may be.

The curators of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne were not afraid to face facts in 1974. Hans Haacke’s contribution to their exhibition consisted quite simply in presenting the provenance of one of the museum’s paintings: Edouard Manet’s “Bunch of Asparagus”. On ten panels, Hans Haacke documented the history of this painting, which hangs in the Cologne museum to this day. The matter-of-fact chronicling of generally available facts really shook things up. First of all, it recast certain qualities typically ascribed to an outstanding work of art, namely autonomy and timelessness. It was now beyond question that changes of ownership are significant for a work of art and tell us something about its owners at the time. The chairman of the museum committee that had purchased the Manet was one of the leading bankers and patrons of the arts in the Federal Republic of Germany. Decades earlier he had played a key role in the National Socialist system and its war economy. Given that the painting’s previous owners had mostly been Jewish, this was something of a contradiction. The true art – the art of reflection – began with those who viewed Haacke’s ‘Manet-Projekt 74’; perhaps they also pondered that art is always a political act as well. Even Manet’s decision to devote a portrait to a simple bunch of asparagus was in a way political, because it expanded conventions – which is precisely why the image gained such art-historical significance.
It should be added that in Cologne, once again, Hans Haacke’s work was removed from the exhibition. Yet here, as before, he revealed nothing that was not already common knowledge or that visitors to the exhibition could not have found out for themselves by looking in books.

Hans Haacke has been invited to appear at documenta in Kassel, the leading exhibition of contemporary art, on a number of occasions: 1972, 1982, 1987 and 1997. In 1993 he intervened at the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, receiving the Golden Lion for an installation that is one of the most remarkable in the event’s history. Haacke ripped up the marble floor of the pavilion. On the one hand, the work is a specific treatment of the building, which had been taken over 1950 by the Federal Republic of Germany with no changes to its 1938 appearance, save for the removal of an eagle and swastikas from the façade after WW II. On the other, it presented a Germany that – four years after the Berlin Wall came down and with reunification not yet truly implemented – has had its foundations removed, or needs to redefine them.

It seems entirely fitting that shortly thereafter, Hans Haacke was invited by the German Parliament to create a work for the old Reichstag building. In 2000, he installed a box some 20 metres in length in one of the courtyards, with the words TO THE POPULATION radiating upwards from its centre in white neon letters – a reference to the inscription TO THE GERMAN PEOPLE affixed to the west portal of the Reichstag in 1916. The difference prompts us to reflect on Parliament’s role and self-perception.

Since 2000, MPs have been encouraged to strew earth from their constituencies at a time of their choosing. The invitation also extends to new MPs elected in the future. So the mixing of earth from every constituency emphasizes the community of all regions and the insight that the issues addressed in Parliament concern all citizens equally. The vegetation has been left to grow unchecked.

Once again, we sense that Haacke’s installations always relate to their specific political, social and cultural environment, calling on the viewer or user to react and engage in dialogue. That dialogue is part of his process art. The insistence that marks out Haacke’s work points to the fact that each individual must attain knowledge themselves. The work of art can only be a mediator through which knowledge is obtained. Hans Haacke put it in very personal terms: ‘Indirectly, the more humane world I dream of speaks through my works.’

On his 80th birthday last year Hans Haacke noted that the conditions for art that engages directly with political issues remain difficult. He said – and I quote the gist of his statement – that today, when artists address issues that really hit a raw nerve, that unsettle people, most museums and other institutions are unwilling to exhibit them because, in so doing, they risk upsetting their donors, sponsors and, perhaps, even the political powers that be. In many institutions, a kind of ‘self-censorship’ is in operation. Even in liberal times, that has not essentially changed.

And it is because not much has changed that Hans Haacke continues to intervene. To encourage all of us to do as he does.

So there can be no better time to honour the work of Hans Haacke. This is the perfect moment to remind ourselves that Hans Haacke is one of the pioneers of art with a social conscience; someone who, for almost 60 years, has showed us that art can be political and yet still be good art, by stimulating and, sometimes, irritating its audience.

Hans Haacke, my congratulations!