September/October 2004

more feature articles:

Carrie Mae Weems
A Little of Everything
by Phil Oppenheim


Hans Haacke and Meschac Gaba,
Two Political Artists in the Age of Globalization

By Jerry Cullum

Revolutions seldom succeed as planned. There are too many variables, including the ability of the sufficiently clever to hijack idealistic structures for personal advantage. Conservatives have typically used this paradox to justify changing nothing whatsoever, overlooking the fact that even failed schemes for perfection often make conditions less miserable.

Nonetheless, clarifying the nature of problems is easier than prescribing workable solutions, and the best political art of the past century has either been openly utopian (and hence beautiful) or skeptically ironic (and hence wary of handing out advice).

Hans Haacke began as an aesthetic revolutionary, and achieved fame as a master of ironic critique. A new survey of his career published by Phaidon reminds us that he began in Germany as an abstract painter of considerable talent, shifted to mirrored sculpture, and went on in New York to create some of the most dematerialized art of the anti-object wing of 1960s art, in lovely but intellectually rigorous explorations of wind and mist (see the survey of Haacke‚s career in the Phaidon volume, simply titled Hans Haacke).

Hans Haacke, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, 1971, photographs, data sheets, charts, dimensions variable (photo © Fred Scruton; all Hans Haacke images are reproduced with permission from Hans Haacke, Phaidon Press, 2004.

That combination of visual sensitivity and intense attention to material conditions quickly got him into trouble. After gaining considerable recognition and inclusion in such since-legendary shows of conceptualism as „When Attitudes Become Form,š he was offered a 1971 solo exhibition at the Guggenheim. When he showed up with work that included detailed mapping of the arcanely self-serving shenanigans of New York real estate tycoons, the invitation was withdrawn, even after Haacke offered to substitute fictitious names while exhibiting the real photographs and transactions. Rumor suggested at the time that Guggenheim trustees had financial ties to the firms thus analyzed. This was not the case, apparently, so director Thomas Messer‚s qualms appear to have been on general principle. In either case, however, Haacke‚s work disappeared from U.S. museums until 1983, and curator Edward Fry never again worked in the United States.

Galerie Paul Maenz in Cologne exhibited the censored artwork, now considered one of the great works of the decade, and in 1974 Haacke had his revenge by documenting the indisputable connections of Guggenheim trustees to a corporation engaged in exploitative behavior in Chile. In the interim, he had engaged in environmental-activist art in Germany and refined his technique for revealing the hidden structures of the art world.

Also in 1974, a meticulous documentation of the Nazi-tainted provenance of a Manet painting in Cologne‚s Wallraf-Richartz Museum got Haacke deleted from a show at that German institution. Daniel Buren‚s subversive inclusion of reproductions of the project in his own installation resulted in the papering over of the offending panels, by order of the director. Again, Galerie Paul Maenz stepped in to exhibit the work. Haacke was clearly on a roll, to the benefit of his name recognition but not necessarily his personal finances.

Haacke‚s day would come in the institutional-critique climate of the 1980s. A brutally satirical exploration of the East-West connections of German collector and chocolate magnate Peter Ludwig hinted that Ludwig‚s philanthropic patronage of Communist art was financed by the labor of badly paid immigrant workers at his Aachen factory.

Haacke continued his project of unveiling the forgotten Nazi past, constructing in Graz, Austria a replica of a 1938 monument to the Nazi movement, with a tally of war casualties added. In a now-familiar pattern, persons unknown firebombed it. By 1993, Haacke brought his critique to the Nazi-era German pavilion at the Venice Biennial, where he broke up the marble floor (in a conscious reference to a Caspar David Friedrich painting of a ship trapped in ice), installed a photograph showing Hitler at the 1934 Biennale, hung a giant 1990 Deutschmark coin over the door, and repeated inside the pavilion the word „Germaniaš that appears on its facade. Germania is Italian for Germany, but was also Hitlerős name for his redesigned capital city.

Hans Haacke, Der Bevölkerung (To the Population), 1999, neon letters, frame, earth; Frame, 268 by 82 by 12 inches; Neon letters, 24 by 48 inches (courtesy the artist).

The passing reference to the economic consequences of German reunification wasn‚t Haacke‚s first foray into that topic; three years previously, he had installed a Mercedes logo atop an East German guard tower and titled the work Freedom Is Now Simply Going to Be SponsoredųOut of Petty Cash. He eventually tackled Germany‚s most enduring problem, at the heart of one of its most problematic symbols. The Reichstag, remodeled as an emblem of reunified parliamentary democracy, still boasts its original motto „To the German People.š This slogan seems innocuously democratic enoughųEmperor Wilhelm, offended by its populist presumptuousness, delayed its placement until years after the building‚s completion. However, „Dem Deutschen Volkeš took on new connotations when, as Haacke points out, the Nazis and the Communists both used the concept of the „Volkš for repressive ends. Starting from Bertolt Brecht‚s remark that replacing „Volkš with „Bevölkerungš or „populationš was a step towards moral clarity, in 2000 Haacke installed the words „Dem Bevölkerungš („To the Populationš) in a Reichstag courtyard where plants would grow untended in soil collected all over Germany.

Hans Haacke, Germania, 1993, German Pavilion at the XLV Venice Biennial, wood wall, 8 wood letters, plastic reproduction of German 1 Mark coin, minted 1990, photograph of 1934, 1,000-watt floodlight (photo © Roman Mensing /

This conceptually elegant piece illustrates the dilemma of cultural specificity. Just as the satires on Peter Ludwig require quite a bit of explanation to be intelligible outside Germany, To the Population requires not just translating the words but also providing historical background. On one level, the piece alludes to the vexed problem of immigration and citizenship, which came to the fore when ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union were eligible for automatic citizenship while children born in Germany to Turkish guest workers were not. The general problem is global; the application in Haacke‚s artwork is linguistically and politically local.

Much of Haacke‚s critique of multinational corporations doesn‚t pose this difficulty, though the work still requires knowledge of the language in which it‚s presented. (A case in point is a 1978 tapestry reproducing an ad in Farsi fawning on the Shah of Iran; the accompanying translation, as is appropriate for the corporation in question, is in Dutch.) However, worker exploitation and political repression are similar all over the world, so that Haacke‚s reformulation of Leyland Vehicles‚ advertising to remark on its provision of Land Rovers to South African police remains easy to interpret even as apartheid fades from memory. 1983‚s actual-size sweatbox labeled „Isolation box, as used by U.S troops at Point Salines prison camp in Grenadaš is self-evidently appalling even if one knows nothing about the Grenada intervention.

Hans Haacke, A Breed Apart (detail), 1978, 7 panels, photographs on masonite, framed, under glass, 36 by 3.6 inches each. (photo © Fred Scruton; all Hans Haacke images are reproduced with permission from Hans Haacke, Phaidon Press, 2004.

Some works become obscure as their motivating factor recedes into history. Eventually, the giant cigarette pack of 1990 labeled „Helmsboro Countryš will require an explication not only of the tobacco company Philip Morris funding the tobacco-state senator Jesse Helms, but also of Helms‚s role in riling up people against avant-garde art. The banners hung in a Nazi-era parade ground in Munich in 1991, combining an SS skull and crossbones with a list of German corporations providing war materials to Iraq, already require recollection of just which of Saddam Hussein‚s transgressions they reference. (It was the invasion of Kuwait, in this case, not the Iran-Iraq war.)

Of course, even the most obscure of politically pointed artworks help elucidate suppressed truths, once art historians take on the task of explicating them. But the dialectic between clarity and obscurity demonstrates that all of us operate within limited turf; we can expand our intellectual horizons but we‚ll still never know some topics with the intimacy of someone who grew up living with them. We may, however, know them with greater breadth, thanks to Haacke; one of his most famous artworks, On Social Grease, is a deadpan survey of unintentionally revealing remarks by public figures about the real function of the arts in society.

On the other hand, that 1975 work now illustrates the impact of shifting contexts. Then, it was considered scandalous for Richard Nixon to observe, maladroitly, „The excellence of the American product in the arts has won worldwide reputation.š Now, it passes almost without comment when an American museum director states that the Louvre recognizes its status as an exportable brand name.1 In a sense, Haacke‚s critique has been internalized; the once-embarrassing connections, more than just acknowledged, now are taken for granted as the only possible arrangement.

For this reason, Haacke‚s 2001 Mixed Messages installation at London‚s Serpentine Gallery seems oddly behind the curve. Stemming ultimately from Marcel Broodthaers‚ critique of museum collections, the work juxtaposes eighteenth-century vases and racist advertising in ways that reveal the consequences of colonialism and ethnic assumptions, and does so with an ironic skill of which only Haacke would be capable. But Jon Bird‚s explicatory essay in the Phaidon volume fails to acknowledge that museums had long been begging the fabled African-American artist Fred Wilson to create ironic juxtapositions using their permanent collections, the focus being the hidden racial subtext of art. The Mixed Messages context was European, and a European conceptualist pioneered the museum-critique genre, but it seems odd not to observe that similar rearrangements had been done elsewhere, for similar though not identical purposes.

Again, however, it illustrates that in the age of globalization we still begin from where we are, and learn from others how to understand life somewhere else. Thus it makes perfect sense that in the twenty-first century there should be an African-born version of Hans Haacke, resident now in the capital of a former colonizing power and unveiling postcolonial presuppositions both to his home country and to Europe and America.

Meschac Gaba grew up in then-revolutionary Benin, and in some ways the experience of early life in a Marxist state, coupled with his 1995 emigration to Amsterdam, has created in him as fine a sense of historical irony as that in any Central European artist. However, his conceptualist critique began with the local context, rather than being an imported product.

Hyperinflation and the dynamics of commercial exchange were reflected early in the incorporation of banknotes into his collages, which, he points out, still sold for more than the value of the currency used as art supplies. A series of transformed African banknotes, with the faces of European artists overlaid on the bodies of the African leaders originally portrayed, provided an ironic commentary on Picasso‚s primitivism and the cult of personality on two continents.

In recent years, Gaba has been engaged in the project of the Museum of Contemporary African Art, a conceptual work that combines critique, celebration and a substantial amount of wit and generous good humor. The twelve rooms of the Museum have been presented at institutions around the world, though mostly in Europe. Only one aspect of the Museum exists at any one time, though all the rooms are now posted on a sophisticated website ( Some, most notably the restaurant, were meant to appear only once. Others can be replicated many times, though with variations specific to each locale.

Meschac Gaba, The Summer Collection, installation project (courtesy the artist).

The Summer Collection, for example, as first presented in Haarlem, Netherlands, commented ironically on exoticism, as Gaba made ordinary secondhand clothes fashionable by adding Africanized accessories. The Thrift Store Collection that Georgia State University students have produced for the show currently in Atlanta comments on the trade in used clothing, donated to American charities but then sold in African markets, where it has destroyed the livelihood of local tailors and clothing manufacturers.2 By turning used clothing into a hip variation on haute couture, Gaba symbolically repays the favor on the streets of Europe and America, and raises money for useful purposes beyond his own livelihood.

Thrift store garment remodeled by Keith Crane for Meschac Gaba‚s Thrift Store Collection project, Georgia State University, Atlanta, 2004 (courtesy Georgia State University).

  Thrift store garment remodeled by Michelle Comstock for Meschac Gaba‚s Thrift Store Collection project,
Georgia State University,
Atlanta, 2004 (courtesy
Georgia State University).

Gaba intended the order in which he erected the rooms to criticize present-day museum practice: the last rooms to appear were those that actually featured a collection of art, their belatedness reflecting the current tendency in the museum world for the art to be an afterthought. But he also meant the creation of a virtual museum not only to point up the nonexistence of museums of contemporary African art throughout the world (including in Africa) but also to heighten awareness that perhaps contemporary African art could make its way through the world in a post-museum context, leaping from postcolonial obscurity to global recognition and cyberspace presence. Gaba doesn‚t intend this obviously optimistic vision to obscure the problems that, as art historian and curator Olu Oguibe observes in his recent book The Culture Game, come when what Oguibe ironically calls the „deprived geographies of the worldš must compete in a globalized electronic marketplace in which they face major disadvantages.3

It‚s illuminating that Gaba has become a hero to Beninese artists for achieving results that are taken for granted in Haacke‚s biography. Gaba has gotten attention for neglected facts, and has done so by joining the world of the jet-lagged global travelers memorably evoked by Pico Iyer in 2000‚s The Global Soul and, more recently, in Sun After Dark.4 Artists stuck in uncongenial circumstances the world over know that it isn‚t necessarily the honorarium that changes one‚s status; it‚s simply getting the gig and the airline ticket paid for by the exhibiting institution. Haacke has been commuting across the Atlantic from the beginning, but in many places, an artist or curator‚s capacity for frequent flying is pretty hot stuff, simultaneously a prerequisite for recognition and a consequence of it.

Meschac Gaba, Humanist Space, 2002, bicycles at Museum of Contemporary African Art Museum Shop, Documenta11, Kassel, Germany
(photo © Hans Theys courtesy the artist).

So it isn‚t surprising that Gaba‚s work should also have a kinship to the social sculpture proposed by Joseph Beuys. His bicycle-rental business of 2002 at Documenta11, which operated alongside the Museum Shop of his Museum of Contemporary African Art, is currently appearing in a site-specific version in Atlanta, where salvaged bikes have been refurbished and rented to sightseers inclined to travel the bike paths of the city‚s Freedom Park in the vicinity of the Carter Center. Proceeds from the Atlanta rental will be applied towards eventual shipment of the Museum Library to Benin, where its books will directly benefit artists as well as delivering a component of the Museum of Contemporary African Art to Gaba‚s native soil.

Some of Gaba‚s conceptual stratagems require as much explication as some of Haacke‚s, but in general he has recognized that he is operating in a climate of almost total ignorance, and simplified accordingly. A 2003 installation in „A Fiction of Authenticity,š the Contemporary Art Museum Saint Louis‚ recent show of contemporary African emigre artists, was an on-site burial and archeological excavation of American appliances, the point being the ludicrously inadequate evidence from which cultures are reconstructed. Documentation of an actual case would have been mind-numbingly immense, and probably inconclusive.

One could sum up much about Gaba and Haacke by quoting Lee Weng Choy: „Parody, as Walter Benjamin once said of criticism, is a matter of the right distance. Mimic too closely and the mimicry and its object are indistinguishable. Mimic too outrageously and the joke is only one-dimensional.š Choy‚s observation appears in Gerardo Mosquera and Jean Fisher‚s Over Here: International Perspectives on Art and Culture.5 Although this newly published anthology discusses neither Gaba nor Haacke, it presents the cultural displacement of émigré artists in essays that do analytically what Iyer‚s books do lyrically: reveal the often surprising contours of our newfound global condition.

A June 25, 2004 New Republic Online column by Jed Perl castigated High Museum of Art director Michael E. Shapiro for his reported comment, „The Louvre realizes it‚s a great brand, and one that can be exported,š cited by Carol Vogel, „Inside Art,š New York Times, E26, June 18, 2004.
See New York Times, W1, June 3, 2004.
Minnesota University Press, 2004, p. 156.
Alfred A. Knopf, 1999 and 2004, respectively.
MIT Press, 2004.

Gaba‚s Thrift Store Collection (Collection Fripé) and Peace Maker are part of the „Strange Planetš exhibition at Georgia State University and Saltworks Gallery September 2ųNovember 5, while the „Atlanta ASDųArt au Service du Développementš bicycle rental will take place September 4ų6 and 11ų12. Haacke‚s work is included in a number of current exhibitions in Europe and the United States, including „Jasper Johns to Jeff Koonsš, at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through October 20, „Crimes and Misdemeanors: Politics in U.S. Art of the 1980sš at Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati through November 21; and „Nothingness,š Galerie Eugen Landl New Space, Palais Wildenstein, Graz, Austria, October 9ųNovember 21.

JERRY CULLUM is senior editor at ART PAPERS.


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