New York

Hans Haacke

Paula Cooper Gallery | 534 West 21st Street

Hans Haacke is never without an agenda; for almost forty years, he has been investigating, exposing, and protesting, refusing to be silent in the face of corporate crime, governmental corruption, and artworld mischief. He’s a perennial whistle-blower with a long and notable history of social activism and doesn’t blanch at the problematic designation of “political artist.” Frequently, he names names: Jesse Helms, Philip Morris, Daimler-Benz, Deutsche Bank, and Ronald Reagan have all figured in an ever-growing pantheon of culprits.

Anyone familiar with this oeuvre might be justified in wondering why it has taken him so long to get around to his latest inductee into the hall of shame: George W. Bush. In Commander in Chief, 2005, a digital C-print posted at the entrance to “State of the Union,” his recent exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery, a dopey-looking Bush, his eyes closed, seems to confirm the widespread suspicion that the President is asleep at the wheel. But it’s not just Bush’s disastrously confused War on Terror that’s raised Haacke’s hackles, or the horror of human rights abuses dismissed as the work of a few “bad apples,” or the administration’s assault on the poor. In this show, a larger picture of the post-9/11 climate emerged, one that attempted to embrace the whiplash induced by globalism’s shift into high gear, and the accelerating dissolution of the familiar, if fallible, institutions—school, church, and state—that structured twentieth-century life. Haacke’s aims and references are nothing if not direct: He gives his proposal for a World Trade Center Memorial the no-nonsense title Proposal for poster commemorating 9/11 with photographs of posters produced by Creative Time 6 months after attack, on approximately 100 media boards in Manhattan.

The shots tacked to the wall as a part of this work are typical of the exhibition’s urgent intensity. So is State of the Union, 2005, a twenty-four-foot-long blue nylon banner, embroidered with white stars and ripped down the middle, which hung down from the gallery’s rafters to almost touch the floor. It has the tragic beauty of Caravaggio’s Deposition, ca. 1602–04, the drooping fabric somehow suggestive of the swooning posture of the dead Christ. On a more intimate scale, personal loss was evoked by two sculptures incorporating salvaged objects. In one, Untitled #2, 2005, a trashed metal locker tipped over on its side coughs up a trove of pennies. Thrown on top is a gold eagle ornament mounted on a wooden pole, alluding perhaps to the state and the loss of its authority. In the other, Untitled #3, 2005, an old wooden desk is inverted and its drawers scattered about.

But for all the exhibition’s personal poetics, the constant clatter of a printer hooked up to a wire service stole the show with its uninterrupted feed of “information.” Pages accumulated without respite in spiraling heaps of paper encoded with the news of the minute—some of it trivial and stale before it hit the ground, some bulletins vital to our interests. Sharing the charged environment thus created were a group of digital photographs and prints reproducing the red, white, and blue landscape of American political campaign posters but also including the occasional incendiary image, such as portrait of a hooded figure, head wrapped in blue and white starry fabric, modeled after one of those infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib.

Shot through with references to national identity and national disgrace, the ironies of abandonment and the pain of loss, Haacke’s new work takes the pulse of the American patient and pronounces its condition as grave indeed. This artist is never in finer form than when he’s driven to outrage.

Jan Avgikos