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PRINT May 2000

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Hans Haacke

IN 1937, BERTOLT BRECHT SUGGESTED that replacing the word Volk—a noun in vogue at the time among the ideologists of Aryan superiority—with the neutral, even bureaucratic Bevölkerung (population) would be one way to “avoid a lie.” Last month, German-born Conceptual artist Hans Haacke took Brecht’s cue and found himself in the spectral embrace of a debate about blood and soil in the new Germany.

In 1998, the German parliament (Bundestag) invited a number of artists to contribute work commemorating the reopening of the Reichstag building in Berlin as the seat of government. Haacke, a US resident for the last thirty-five years, intended to use the given data of the newly renovated building itself as a part of his project. In 1916, an inscription was added over the entrance to the structure that reads Dem Deutschen Volke (For the German People), a phrase with significant resonance for modern German history. The artist didn’t propose actually replacing the phrase, but suggested juxtaposing it with another inscription, Der Bevölkerung, that would rest atop his permanent installation, a seventy-foot-long trough filled with soil culled by Bundestag members from their districts.

Despite getting the OK from the Kunstbeirat, the committee responsible for fielding the proposals, Haacke’s idea caught flak in the Bundestag; members of the left and right disagreed only as to why they found it untenable. After months of informal debate, the project was brought to a parliamentary vote at the beginning of April.

When it comes to cultivating controversy Haacke has long had something of a green thumb. In February, his contribution to the Whitney Biennial generated screaming headlines—and prompted the defection of a pair of Whitney family doyennes—for presumably likening New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani to a Nazi. The point of Sanitation, Haacke explains, wasn’t really to compare Giuliani to Hitler, but to warn against the abridgment of First Amendment rights, particularly the censure of the Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation” exhibition. “What I found disturbing,” Haacke says, “was that the press repeated the spin that the Giuliani people had put on it.” True indeed, but Nazi imagery rarely flushes out interpretative niceties from the tabloid press. If Sanitation lacked the multilayered poetry of For the Population, Haacke points to a link between the two works: “Both,” he says, “arise out of a concern for constitutional issues.”

“German citizenship laws are changing,” the artist explains. “In the past, citizenship depended on who your parents were. That was called the ‘right of the blood.’ The laws are now moving toward the ‘right of the land.’ The implication is that citizenship depends on where you were born. That is, where you walk is what determines who you are. This is a huge shift in the way the idea of ‘soil’ is used.”

If Haacke intended his project to explore that shift, liberal Bundestag members, from the SPD (Social Democrat) and the Green Party, heard only echoes of Hitler’s “blood and soil.” The right, the CDU (Christian Democrat) and its more conservative Bavarian wing the CSU (Christian Social Union), took issue as well: The word Volk, after all, is politically expedient, especially when it comes to gearing up voters already wary of foreigners.

One of Haacke’s few supporters on the right was Rita Süssmuth (CDU), the former Bundestag president. “She spoke on behalf of both artistic freedom and the project itself,” Haacke says. “No one from her side applauded.” Still, For the Population was approved in a 260-258 vote, thanks partly to the spirited rhetoric of Süssmuth, Bundestag president Wolfgang Thierse (SPD), and Haacke himself, who did some predebate caucusing. But the artist believes that ultraconservative Volker Kauder might have finally decided it. “Kauder gave such a rabidly nationalist speech that he pushed some of the straddlers the other way. They couldn’t afford to be associated with that kind of rhetoric.”

As with the Sanitation piece, Haacke is in retrospect a little surprised at all the fuss. “I assumed it would be taken much more lightly. Deciding where the soil would come from, I thought, would be like a folk festival for each district.”

With the soil due to arrive this fall, already some members are deliberating over where it should be taken from. “People are seriously thinking about it in ways I didn’t even anticipate,” Haacke says. “One representative was a farmer, a fervent supporter of the project. In the beginning, he was wondering what would grow. He was afraid that certain weeds would grow so high that they’d cover the inscription. I told him that no matter how high, the plants would never overgrow the letters.”

Lee Smith is an editor and writer in New York.