Grass Roots

Los Angeles

Left: Artists Ruth Weisberg and Hans Haacke with USC MFA Graduate Program Director Jud Fine. Right: Art historian Thomas Crow. (All photos: Tamara Sussman)

I've never known the title of my favorite Hans Haacke piece, and have always thought of it as “East Bunny, West Bunny.” It's a photograph of the former “death strip” along the border looking into East Berlin that features two bunnies in a face-off, one gaunt and desperate-looking, the other fat, smug, and potentially aggressive. Its subtle humor is something of an exception for Haacke, who tends to be a bit literal for my taste. But on account of the political catastrophe we now face, I was eagerly anticipating his three talks last week, given as the twenty-fourth annual Getty Lecturer and hosted by USC's School of Fine Arts.

Divided into accounts of Haacke's career as a whole, his reconfigurations of existing museum collections, and, finally, his recent work, the lectures were all overbooked. The first evening diehards even watched by simulcast from the courtyard, as Grad Program Director Jud Fine introduced the artist with a spirited vignette about encountering Haacke while a student at Cornell, on the occasion of Willoughby Sharp's decisive 1969 “Earth Art” exhibition. The 1969 show included Haacke's Grass Grows, emblematic of his early, often slyly brilliant natural systems work. As Fine and his peers eagerly assembled with their clunky reel-to-reel tape recorders turned on, Haacke's “explanation” of the piece was a glib repetition of its title. Frances Stark, who teaches at USC, said in her own introduction the next night that her students asked her “why we're so skeptical of political art.” I did overhear the shabbily handsome kid behind me quip that Haacke reminded him of nude beaches—“too much ideology to relax and enjoy the flesh.” But the many students in attendance, notebooks and pens at the ready, seemed not at all too-cool-for-Haacke. Personally not a fan of nude beaches, or any beaches for that matter (I'm with Adorno on the inanity of tanning), I was, in fact, up for some ideology. Unfortunately, little was forthcoming.

Left: Artists Andrea Bowers and Sam Durant. Right: Lisa Anne Auerbach shows off her knit goods.

On the first evening, held in USC's Gerontology Center (“the largest conferrer of degrees in intergenerational relationships!” a banner announced), Haacke referred to his lecture notes as a “musical score,” but as a friend pointed out, it wasn't a score with much room for improvisation. But if his delivery was slightly terse, his demeanor was warm and gently professorial, and at the dinner (whose intergenerational guest list included Tom Crow, MoCA director Jeremy Strick, Frances Stark, and Charlie White) held in his honor at USC's Faculty Commons before the second lecture, Haacke seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself. MFA candidate Justin Beal filled me in on Haacke's visit to the grad studios that afternoon, where he had asked the elder statesman what he thought of the new cohort of “political” artists like Sam Durant (who turned up at the lecture that evening). Haacke would only commit to distaste for Santiago Sierra, a suspicion of Vanessa Beecroft's motives, and—surprise—an affinity with Alfredo Jaar and Walid Raad. (“Amazing,” Beal said, “all three have double ”A“s in their last names!”)

There were even longer lines for the final lecture, held at MoCA. Everyone I spoke to was keen to find out what Haacke would say about the disgraced “state of the union,” after which his recent Paula Cooper invective was titled. A description of witnessing 9/11 from the roof of Cooper Union segued to his submission for the WTC Memorial, which included a proposal for a video loop of the collapsing towers projected on a forty-foot slurry wall. Forcing a continuation of televisual destruction jouissance seemed ill thought-out at best. I remembered the slogan on the sweater that craft maven Lisa Anne Auerbach had finished knitting during the first lecture: “There’s nothing left to burn / Set yourself on fire.” It seemed more appropriate to these dark times than Haacke's bizarre embrace of received ideas, to say nothing of the tragedy-lust that marked his discussion of Hurricane Katrina. Of Ripped, an image of a torn flag, he said, “This one speaks for itself,” only to intone five minutes later that interpretations are “never authoritative.” I began to wonder if leaving nothing to interpret is Haacke's escape from this contradiction.

Left: Hans Haacke at the podium. Right: Artists Stephanie Taylor, Alice Konitz, and Arthur Ou.

During the Q & A session the subject of Middle East reactions to the Danish Muhammad cartoons arose. Haacke claimed opposition to censorship, citing the Helms-Serrano debacle, but said that people should be sensitive to what might offend. Framing the furor as a culture war seemed inexcusably lazy coming from someone on the Left. But when a skeptic bluntly asked him why he chose art as his outlet for anger, I suddenly felt protective of him and the bold endeavor he's sustained for so long, and nostalgic for the early work, whose “literal” quality evoked unspoken depths.