TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT March 1987

HANS HAACKE’S CORPORATE MUSE

FOR THOSE OF US RAISED in the idealist climate of art schools in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Hans Haacke is a seminal artist, his work a model for an art practice that would challenge the isolation of art from worldly issues. Unlike most politically motivated art, Haacke’s has not only explored the institutional mind, it has entered and touched its nerve endings, forcing responses from it and bringing it into visibility by incorporating those responses within itself. Haacke made a particular contribution at a time when it felt actually possible that art would break out of its incarceration in the museum vitrine, out of the cultural amnesia of late Modernism, and reclaim some kind of social responsibility. Although both times and art have changed, Haacke has not quit. In his recent exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, “Hans Haacke: Unfinished Business,” work from 1971 to 1986 formed a kind of palimpsest of the history of art that explores its own context, and an augury of art complicit with and taken over by insidious interlocking vested interests.

The ubiquitous cynicism with which multinational corporations use the patronage of art as a form of public relations to promote the appearance of humane, enlightened cultural values while masking suspect political affiliations is clearly the base issue of Haacke’s MetroMobiltan, 1985. This wall-sized assemblage features a classical entablature from which hang three banners, the whole a reference to the entrance facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the promotional flags prominently displayed there to advertise the museum’s special exhibitions. The two flanking banners in Haacke’s piece quote two of the Mobil Oil Corporation’s statements—conflicting in mood, if not in fact—on its involvement with the police and military in South Africa, while the central ban-which have a cynical economic stake in their patronizing of the image of black Africa’s “primitivism.” This is the most powerful, deceptive genre of racism, because while it has a kind of ’50s, United Nations-ish look of cultural exchange, it has the subliminal effect of feeding the image of the “uncivilized” African, an image these corporations desperately count on to excuse their role in the poverty and the denial of human rights that afflict so many of the continent’s peoples.

MetroMobiltan has the look of a mausoleum, and it is not intended as fanciful to suggest that Haacke’s installation has the deathly aura of a memorial park stalked by the insatiable vampire of hegemonic power and haunted by the ghost of human values past. The six photoengraved magnesium plaques, mounted on aluminum, of On Social Grease, 1975, also remind one of memorials; each bears a quotation, each explicitly revealing. (Here, for example, is Robert Kingsley, then an Exxon public-affairs department manager, as Haacke found him quoted in the New York Times: “EXXON’s support of the arts serves the arts as a social lubricant. And if business is to continue in big cities, it needs a more lubricated environment.”) And the lighted candles on the draped alter of Buhrlesque, 1985, evoke the eternal flame, not of the human spirit, but of its consumption by corporate interests. The cost (and the profits) of these archetypal modern nexuses of power form one of the principal themes of Haacke’s work, which in one way or another always makes a connection with modes of representation. In Taking Stock (unfinished), 1983–84, the artist’s target is Saatchi & Saatchi Company PLC, the world’s largest advertising firm. This piece, and the documentation that accompanies it (which Haacke augments as time goes by), trace the firm’s financial history, its relationships with the British government under Margaret Thatcher during the ’80s, and Doris and Charles Saatchi’s involvement with art institutions in England and with the international art market. It implicitly involves another death theme: how a collector has the power to disturb the fragile ecology of cultural life. Haacke’s work deals with these subjects voluminously. As one of the artist’s titles pointedly remarks, “the road to profits is paved with culture.”

Haacke presents evidence that brings into focus an ethical position. Like a cultural archaeologist, he digs up and presents the facts, carefully constructing different meanings from those of public relations rhetoric. His vigilance has become a labor of Sisyphean dimensions. It is a condition of his strategy that in replicating the rhetorical and presentational codes of his visual sources he risks replicating their sterilized and impersonal elegance. One wanted to shatter the silence of these memorials, to scream an obscenity equal to that by ner announces the “Treasures of Ancient Nigeria” exhibition, which ran at the Met in 1980 and was partly funded by Mobil. The banners all but obscure a photomural describing a funeral procession for blacks shot by South African police at Crossroads, near Cape Town, in 1985. Haacke’s fake facade both metaphorically mimics and undermines the facade presented by corporations and museums, on the draped altar of Buhrlesque, 1985, evoke the eternal flame, not of the human spirit, but of its consumption by corporate interests. The cost (and the profits) of these archetypal modern nexuses of power form one of the principal themes of Haacke’s work, which in one way or another always makes a connection with modes of representation. In Taking Stock (unfinished), 1983-84, the artist’s target is which corporations such as Oerlikon-Bührle (dealt with in Buhrlesque) flaunt their circumvention of the law, or by which American Cyanamid (in The Right to Life, 1979) makes a mockery of human rights. The issue is finding the power to speak.

Jean Fisher is an artist and a freelance writer currently living in New York. She contributes regularly to Artforum.