In the second and final part of our featured discussion between Hans Haacke and Jon Bird at the ICA, we conclude that Mr Haacke’s work crosses boundaries of Conceptual, Minimal, Pop and site specific Land Art. His latest work unveiled on the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square titled, ‘Gift Horse’ is no exception to the artist’s reputation to challenge our perceptions of public art. Artlyst even got to ask a few questions at the end of the conversation.
JB In terms of natural systems, there is also business involvement with oppressive regimes what kind or another and particularly with the relationships to South Africa during the period of Apartheid. So this work, which is a Breed Apart, Can we talk through this one?
JB So your work is always in that respect site specific when you are invited to do a project?
HH Very often yes.
JB Has it ever not been? I am wondering if you didn’t have a project in mind or an exhibition coming up like the plinth proposal or something that you are submitted, would it still be a studio practice. Or you always respond to an invitation and then the process of research begins?
HH In effect, looking back, it has became the pattern to respond to the context
JB In that respect, the ways in which, even from early on, your realisation of the context of the institution is something that has been consistent through everything you have done.
HH The condensation responses to his context so this is sociological meteorology.
JB About the work Taking Stock (Unfinished) exhibited in 1984 at the Tate gallery, again I think there is a kind of backstory to this in terms of the director of the Tate and whether the work is going to actually go head or not.
HH Yes, it was a bit controversial but it did go on exhibition. It was a solo exhibition at the Tate during the time of Margaret Thatcher’s glory and also something that to an extent still exists today, which was the role that Charles Saatchi played in the art world. At the time, Charles and his brother Maurice were heads of a major advertising publishing firm, which also was involved in South Africa and supported the fortunes of the South African regime. They also came up in fact was the slogan ‘Labour isn’t working’. I don’t know what we can grant to them but they were the ones who did it. They also ran the election of Margaret Thatcher. I tried to combine the two and get an image of the Tate gallery into a painting. Painting was not the new thing in art world for a long time, it was not popular and all of a sudden painting came back and in effect, Charles Saatchi was promoting some of that. So I thought I have to adopt that medium and I was not very skilled. I did the figurative representation as well as I could and on the basis of a photograph I produced a single portrait of Margaret Thatcher.
JB Was it a question to employ someone to make the painting for you? Or did you want to do it yourself?
HH No, I did a few figurative paintings in my adult years and it was important for me that I did them myself. So I came up with this statue of Pandora by Harry Bates. It is in the collection of the Tate gallery. The volumes that you see on the bookshelf in the back have the title of accounts that the Saatchi and Saatchi agency was handling, in London and in South Africa like British airways, few other governments, and also museums in London. On the floor it is a paper that speaks about artworks owned de by the Saatchi firm which was not officially an art-collecting firm. One slot in the painting was mentioned I believe. The annual report of Saatchi and Saatchi few years later had a quote of Leyland. It was very prominently displayed and I was struck by it but I totally agreed to that. It was very tricky on the one end but they were right. Leyland’s quote was ‘everything is connected to everything else’.
JB This is called Taking Stock (Unfinished), why unfinished?
HH I didn’t know what the bottom line at the end is going to be (laugh). We are leaving with the bottom line in part at the moment.
JB I would like to talk about Germania which was the work presented at the German pavilion for the Venice Biennale in 1993. I think both you and Nam June Paik were artists selected and basically you destroyed the pavilion. I wondered again about the thinking behind how you came to decide on this project.
HH As I often do, I researched the context and the history of the Venice Biennale in this case. I learned that Hitler had his first visit abroad, after he took over Berlin, and he went to Venice for a meeting with the Duce Mussolini. It coincided with the Venice Biennale of that year. He went to see the German pavilion, after all as a fellow painter he was (laugh). In the entrance I put a photograph of him visiting the gallery. Somebody told him that probably the architect of the building was not longer appropriate for the new Reich. It used to be a Bavarian pavilion in rococo style and certainly that was not the major style that was appropriate for his new regime. Therefore, Hitler’s architect Albert Speer was commissioned to design a new pavilion, which in fact ended up a few years later. This is still the pavilion of Germany today. Above the new facade, there is the inscription Germania that is the Italian word for Germany but it also happened to be the name that Hitler meant to give the city of Berlin after it had been rebuilt. Thus, it was a charged place and 1993 was just a few years after the reunification of Germany. It was also, I believe the first time after the reunification that a Venice Biennale was held because for some reason, I don’t remember why, it skipped a year. I thought it is time to sort of draw a bottom line of what caused the break out of the country and what we were dealing with. This pavilion is symbolic; it could be a metaphor for what Germany went through. I wanted to acknowledge it and so I thought it was appropriate to break up the floor.
JB Was there any objection to that?
HH: It was absolutely remarkable that the curator at the time, Klaus Bußmann, thought about it only for one night. He was in New York and he visited Nam June Paik who was co-exhibiting with me in the pavilion. After I told him what I had in mind and he had spoken to Paik, he came back to me within one day saying we would do it. As it was predictable it didn’t go down to well with the German authorities. However, as Klaus was the museum director of the State Museum in Münster, the floor was broken up.
JB I visited this and I remembered it got more broken as people realised that they were encouraged to walk around the ruins and increase that process of ruination.
HH On the one end it became eventually a playground but I also saw a number of people who picked up slices with emotion. I assume there was some history behind that encourages them to do that.
JB Of course, it would not have happened now. In just thinking how Ai Weiwei’s installation at Tate of the small chairs all over the floor. For the first few days you were encourage to walk around them so you have actually the sound of your feet crunching them but you couldn’t participate in the work in the way which they did at the pavilion.
Can we go on to the work for the Reichstag (1998)?
HH When the country was reunited the Germans decided they wanted to reestablish the capital of the country in Berlin where it had been since the 1870’s. The Reichstag building, which had been built in the late 19th century, had to be reoccupied and renovated. The architect Norman Foster was in charge to do that. The German parliament owns him the Dome on the top of the building. The parliament decided to invite a number of artists that were there under the occupied Germany and other German artists to produce artworks specifically for the building. I was one of the people who were invited and I was assigned to make a proposal for the interior open-air courtyard. I proposed that the inscription on the facade of the building, which said the ‘Dem Deutschen Volke’, which translated, is ‘to the German people’, at some point was an innocent dedication but then it had been contaminated by a rather sinister meaning, an exclusive racist meaning. The work was a complementary version in this courtyard which including the population of all the residents of Germany in the inscription ‘Der Bevölkerung’ (‘The Population’). As you know, in Germany, there are now about 9 to 10% of immigrant residents. I proposed to the members of the parliament to bring hundred tones of soil of their constituency and spread it around to draw the facade with the additional dedication. I assumed that in the few years in the soil there would be animal life and that it would spread now it is a jungle. I stipulated that no gardening should be made. Therefore, it is a kind of vegetation that is rarely found in exclusive government space.
JB I think this is again a work that nearly didn’t happen, as it was a subject of considerable critic and then support. There was a vote and it just passed.
HH I was very surprised, I did not expect it. The conservative parties in Germany were strictly against it. The manner that the parliament would have a debate and a vote is that if 160 signatures come together to demand. It came about and there were members from each party that spoke against it and fight. In the end it turned out that the proposal was accepted by a majority of two votes and the two votes were the votes of the former president of the parliament, a Christian Democratic Conservative party member who was a woman, and another woman, member of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria party.
JB You said a couple of times that you didn’t expect but my suspicion is that you do expect and I am consciously referring to the conversation and publication you had with Pierre Bourdieu where you both talked about your work as a provocations. To some extent, if you don’t get that response it seems to be that it would be a lack of success of the project. It needs to push again something and that something whether it is a specific body, or whether an institution or whatever is going to push back. There is a question that Bourdieu asked you that I think is always an impossible question but I will handle it. He says ‘what an action inspired by the symbolic strategies that you put in motion might be?’
HH In many ways I am still in doubt with the degree of naïveté. That is to say I like to believe, and I am wrong occasionally, that in democratic societies certain things must pass, must go through and censorship is not part of a democratic society as it is supposed to function. I am often wrong and not only for myself but I saw this happening to other artists.
JB I would like to thank Hans Haacke for answering my questions. Could we now answer a couple of questions within thigh deadlines?
Artlyst: Where do you envisage the Gift Horse going after a year on the plinth?
HH I could see it but I don’t expect it, to go on the balcony in Tate Modern. Lighting will probably be good.
Artlyst: How about in front of the Stock Exchange?
HH: (Laugh). That is extremely unlikely, I am not sure whether it would be right there. – I have this sort of mental picture of amateur investors standing underneath it… (Laugh).
HH They can do that on Trafalgar Square (laugh).
– Last question, what is it do you think that motivates these institutions to invite you in the first place considering you record of doing something to criticise their ethics?
HH I believe that institutions are not monochrome. Some people at various levels sympathise with this kind of approach I undertake. They are opened up and I am glad they exist. We are not a police state yet (laugh).
Transcribed by : Sofia Touzani Photo: © Artlyst 2015