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PRINT March 2010

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Hans Haacke’s “Weather, or Not”

THE NAME HANS HAACKE has become synonymous with institutional critique. And with good reason—Haacke pioneered a singularly acute practice in which the economic and political conditions of art’s marketing and display function as an aesthetic medium. In this regard, his MoMA Poll of 1970 is exemplary: The artist asked museum visitors whether “the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy [would] be a reason for you not voting for him in November.” The question was far from innocent, given the Rockefeller family’s prominent role as founders and patrons of the Museum of Modern Art. As in many of Haacke’s projects, aesthetics were reinvented as sociological methods: “If ‘yes’ please cast your ballot into the left box; if ‘no’ into the right box,” the wall text instructed. The results of the poll were clearly visible, since ballots accumulated in two transparent Plexiglas containers placed next to each other for all to witness.

The very notion of critique presupposes a legible matrix of judgment: a right and a wrong (or a right and a left), a yes and a no—which is why Haacke’s recent show at the X-Initiative in New York, “Weather, or not,” was so intriguing. As the title suggests, the notoriously fickle vagaries of weather—which, although they are fully capable of both seduction and destruction, cannot be held morally accountable—served as the exhibition’s central metaphor. “Weather, or not” opened with Adam Smith’s iconic eighteenth-century phrase “the invisible hand of the market,” here transposed into a long, thin billboard in which the word hand was replaced by an animated, cartoonish icon of one. The movement of this open palm from side to side seemed not only to wave hello to the gallery’s visitors but also to dismiss the millions of recently unemployed with a “bye-bye” as blithe as a smiley face. The invisible hand of the market, of course, naturalizes financial fluctuations as a kind of weather; in Smith’s understanding, this flux was benign, or at least self-correcting, but in the current economic crisis, caused by years of neoliberal policies, it feels more like a tsunami. (Indeed, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan warned against what he called a “credit tsunami.”)

Of course, Haacke’s citation of weather represents a return for him. As a photograph in the exhibition, Spray of Ithaca Falls: Freezing and Melting on Rope, Feb. 7, 8, 9 . . . 1969, reminds us, he began his career in the 1960s working with natural systems alongside sociological and political ones. Nonetheless, I can’t help taking the show’s punning title, “Weather, or not,” as a kind of echo and update of Haacke’s referendum in MoMA Poll forty years ago. Is he asking whether or not art can meet the twin challenges of our moment—namely, out-of-control weather and out-of-control markets? Or is he wondering if markets are themselves weather—acts of God, as the lawyers might say—or not? In both cases, the capacity for critique through the identification of a stable moral dichotomy is doubtful at best.

The initial impression here was one of abandonment—of a sparsely furnished, neglected, or deserted space (after all, the show did occupy the former Dia Center headquarters in Manhattan, and the X-Initiative ended its one-year life span immediately after this exhibition). But the installation was nevertheless complex, including several intersecting economic “weather systems,” of which I can give only a hint. Finance capital was represented not just by Adam Smith’s slogan but by a flashing sign that read bonus and Haacke’s biting diptych Thank You, Paine Webber, 1979; traces of factory labor were implied through a series of anthropomorphic ranks of empty workers’ lockers, some at angles, some lying on the floor as though knocked down; and the informal or black-market economy was suggested in a few of Haacke’s photographs, pinned up askew. One showed a woman begging outside a yacht party at the Venice Biennale, while another (also in Venice) captured a vendor selling knockoff handbags in the borrowed light of a Prada shopwindow.

What truly activated the exhibition, though, was that it created its own weather system (and by this I don’t mean a spectacular environment meant to entertain awestruck viewers, à la Olafur Eliasson). The several north and south windows in the vast gallery were kept open—and I can attest, having visited on a very cold day in January, that the room was frigid. Mounted underneath the flashing bonus sign, a bank of six noisy industrial-strength fans blew hard on anyone in front of it; the current also kept a little scrap of silver foil, suspended on a line, afloat across the room. Here, Haacke demonstrated not only that art may enter into natural ecologies but also that art is its own ecology—a point clearly made by the display of a hydrograph and a barograph, machines used by museums to track proper temperature and humidity for maintaining a work of art.

Who has ever seen a museum’s windows open during the winter? What artist would allow his work to be exhibited outside the narrow range of temperate conditions optimal for its survival? And how much does it cost, anyway, for our museums to maintain works of art in such splendid comfort? Haacke has put his own work (and those who wish to view it) on the street, so to speak, along with the beggar and black-market vendor in the midst of Venice. He thus takes a step beyond the ostensibly stable dichotomy of “critique” by issuing an ethical call appropriate to the age of recession: to confront abandonment without passing judgment—to feel what it’s like to be outside the social, political, and economic perimeters of the art world, if only for a moment, looking in from the cold.

David Joselit teaches modern art at Yale University in New Haven.