»Systemic« is the operative word here. And it is just so easy to say. Racism is systemic, you know! But really grasping what it means when racism, inequality, environmental degradation, or corruption are systemic? Not so easy. We usually refuse to recognise and clearly name this system, let alone define ourselves in relation to it. Instead we gloss over reality with emotional, often sentimental excuses, half-baked arguments, idealistic or ideological transfiguration. Perhaps, one might think, what we really need is a critical algorithm that scans the system logically, without regard to connections, conventions, and feelings.
Of course an algorithm is never neutral and always obeys certain pre-defined parameters, but the stubborn persistence and unemotional consistency with which it proceeds could prove an asset when it comes to pointing out sometimes problematic connections to other systems, like those between art and the corporate world, for example. The liberal art establishment was slow to grasp that it’s not just a few bad apples that behave immorally, are extremely profit-seeking, or ultra-right-wing. It took protests like Nan Goldin’s against the Sackler family—prominent patrons of the Louvre who profited mightily from the opioid crisis—or scandals like the one surrounding Warren Kanders who, as a trustee of the progressive Whitney Museum, owned a company that produced the tear-gas grenades that had been used against migrants at the US-Mexico border.
It took about 50 years too long to realise all this, considering we have had something like this system-critical algorithm for the art establishment since the early 1970s. His name: Hans Haacke. Haacke was supposed to have a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 1971. The exhibition was cancelled. The reason: Haacke’s ›Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-time Social System, as of May 1, 1971‹, an artwork consisting of wall-filling photo and text documentation including photos of houses, city maps, and 142 typewritten pages of research on the »slumlords« of New York City. Back then, a museum wasn’t the place for showcasing social realities like these in such a direct and blunt manner. Thomas Messer, museum director at the Guggenheim, called Haacke’s envisioned work »an alien substance that had entered the art museum organism.« The curator was fired; Haacke had to pack it in; The remark was a rather apt description of ›Rye in the Tropic‹ and ›Beans Growing‹ (1971), two other pieces the artist had already realized for the show—and which had to be removed as well. Haacke had planted rye seeds in the tropical plant beds by the windows and beans around the lower ramp of the museum—a biological system with modest crops that really did resemble an alien substance in the mighty, shiny museum apparatus.
Now the 84-year-old artist—who was born in Cologne and moved to New York in the early 1960s—has attained a kind of pop star celebrity. The New Museum in New York put on an opulent show of his work with ›All Connected‹ in 2019, the same year that the art magazine ›Monopol‹ named him the most important artist personality of the year. He will be awarded the Goslar Kaiserring in 2020, and more than one project by Haacke will be on view in the context of this year’s Berlin Art Week. Shown at the initiative of Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.) and produced by Kulturprojekte Berlin, his work ›Wir (alle) sind das Volk‹ / ›We (all) are the people‹ (2003/2017) will appear on the façades of various Berlin Art Week partner institutions. For this work Haacke took up the well-known slogan of East German demonstrators at the peaceful Monday protests of 1989, modified it to create a statement of solidarity with all people and with migrants and refugees, and had it translated into a number of different languages. But as celebrated as Haacke has become in the meantime, project documentation in the n.b.k. exhibition space—another presentation opening in the context of Berlin Art Week—shows just how controversial his installation ›Der Bevölkerung‹ was at its inauguration in the northern atrium of the Reichstag. All that was just 20 years ago.
The early 2000s: those were days when great artists like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst acted like entrepreneurs and the art business became increasingly hedonistic. The lounges, slides, and soup kitchens of so-called Relational Art by artists including Philippe Parreno or Rirkrit Tiravanija transformed institutions into spaces of experience and playgrounds. More than a few art lovers breathed a sigh of relief that they no longer had to study the text works and performances of institutional critique, but were now allowed to party in a supposedly carefree manner—unencumbered, so to speak.
Hans Haacke had already attracted a lot of attention with ›Germania‹ in 1993, his relentless and very direct reappraisal of Germany’s past and reunification in the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Detractors thought it too didactic, too left-wing, humourless, by someone who makes art for an educated, elitist audience. Young artists in the early 2000s looked elsewhere, certainly not at Hans Haacke.
And now, again, this digging around in the past. Commissioned in 1998 by German Parliament’s art advisory council, Haacke’s work references »Dem deutschen Volke« (For the German People), an inscription made out of steel from molten cannons and added to the tympanum of the Reichstag building’s west portico in 1916. The neon lettering for ›Der Bevölkerung‹ appears in the same typography used in the original inscription; Haacke had it installed horizontally in an enormous flower bed, so that the neon letters shine upwards toward the sky. The artwork also invited participation from members of parliament, who were asked to contribute soil from their electoral districts and add it to the flower bed together with visitors, so that a »population« of various different kinds of soil, plants, and microorganisms from all parts of the republic would take root. To dedicate the Reichstag not only to Germans with passports, but to the »population« in general and thus also to refugees and migrants, was a plea for diversity. As was the mixture of various different soils that merge in a single organic system in the flower bed.
Yet it is precisely that aspect that that reminded some critics of the project too much of the blood-and-soil metaphor of National Socialism. »From ›right of blood‹ to ›right of soil‹: what we get is a politically-correct lesson Haacke foisted upon himself at the sight of a Turkish family barbecuing in Berlin’s Tierpark« Petra Kipphoff wrote in the weekly newspaper ›Die Zeit‹, »but the artist, who has lived in New York for decades, has just as little knowledge of everyday German life as most politicians.« A parliamentary debate convened especially for the project proposal in the Bundestag, and it passed by a narrow majority. Haacke was the only artist to prompt such a contentious vote in the Bundestag.
Oliver Schwarz, a long-time comrade-in-arms and project partner of Haacke’s, put together a documentation exhibition about the project. It reconstructs these events but also draws connections to little-known early work by Haacke in which the artist—who came from kinetic art—found conceptual parallels between biological, physical systems, and social processes as early as the 1960s. In conversation, Schwarz also cites a Haacke quote from the invitation card to ›Wind and Water‹, Haacke’s first major solo exhibition at Howard Wise Gallery in New York in 1966: »… make something, which cannot ›perform‹ without the assistance of its environment … «. This can also refer to the political environment. »Although a majority of the art advisory board approved it after several very tense rounds of discussion, the concept for ›Der Bevölkerung‹ took on a media-political momentum of its own. The speed and scale of that momentum were very much on a par with the madness of today’s social media channels«, Schwarz recalls.
But how is the population bed faring now? After twenty years of growth and decay in the northern atrium of the Reichstag, ›Der Bevölkerung‹ is no longer a topic of overheated debate, Schwarz says. Nearly 400 parliamentarians have taken part since its inauguration. »While all of the members of the CDU/CSU parliamentary fraction—with the exception of two couragous women— initially tried to stop the project, most of the soil contributions in recent years come from exactly these ranks. When it comes to ›Der Bevölkerung‹, it isn’t just the attitudes that are different; parliamentarians’ motivations to participate have also changed in many ways and will probably continue to do so,« says Schwarz, who is also in charge of the project’s website. This project homepage also hosts a wonderfully revealing time-lapse video showing changes to ›Der Bevölkerung‹ as time goes on, the flourishing of plants and increased stress in recent years as a consequence of climate change, which will bring more refugees to Europe in the future. It’s a good thing that Haacke is continuing his work—with the unflinching consistency of an algorithm.