The Canadian Art Database

Jamelie Hassan

Hans Haacke
at The Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, May 15 - June 21

Vanguard, Vol. 16 #4, Sept/Oct 1987
[ 1,923 words ]

During the last week of Hans Haacke's exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery, the Saskatchewan government absorbed the Saskatchewan Arts Board into the Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture, seriously jeopardizing the arm's-length relationship that guaranteed the board's political independence. The Saskatchewan Arts Board was established in 1949 and was the first of its kind in North America. The geographical irony of this reactionary decision is not lost on the residents of Saskatoon when visiting this survey of 15 years of Haacke's work. Viewers of his portraits of Reagan and Thatcher can easily substitute their own Conservative leader, Grant Devine, who has spent his term in office dismantling social programs and eroding the political and economic base of this province, home to early socialist practice in Canada. It is a sign of some hope that the Saskatchewan government is now considering reversing its decision regarding the Saskatchewan Arts Board because of public protest from the cultural community.

The Haacke exhibit was clearly an extension of local and world events. Margaret Thatcher made British history by being the first British prime minister this century to be elected to three consecutive terms of office. In Taking Stock, her oil portrait sits preposterously in the back centre of the gallery, appropriating the costume and artifice of regal decor. Her library is evidence, however, of the source of her power. Inscribed on the spines of the books are the names of her collaborators, clients of the Saatchi and Saatchi advertising conglomerate — British Airways, the Arts Council of Great Britain, the British Museum, Conservative-British Elections, and the South Africa Nationalist Party, among a mass of others. Porcelain plates on the top shelf of the bookcase contain the faces of brothers Maurice and Charles Saatchi, alluding to their spirited collecting of plate-breaking painter Julian Schnabel. Their involvement in collecting contemporary art coincides with their advertising company's theory of global marketing, which was responsible for Thatcher's election campaigns as well as South Africa's Botha (in London, they are referred to as 'Snatchit and Snatchit'). According to Haacke's annotations to the piece, as patrons of the arts the Saatchis are part of a group that uses their donations of contemporaryy art to the Tate Gallery as 'vehicle for power, prestige and social climbing'.

Taking Stock uses the oil portrait as a single device that actively unleashes information, generating connections, encapsulating the network of power in Britain today. Conversely, the oil portrait of Reagan in Oelgemaelde, Hommage à Marcel Broodthaers works passively. Here the portrait is one of three elements and, though a symbol of power, the decaying process manifests itself in the passive arrogance of a leader in decline. From behind stanchions and velvet rope, he faces a photograph of anti-war protesters, and the distance between this leader and the masses is marked by a rolled-out red carpet. The first exhibition of this work was in another arena, 'Documenta 7', 1982, and the original photo was of protesters confronting Reagan in Bonn during the largest anti-war demonstration in Germany since World War II. For Saskatoon, this photo is replaced with a photo of a New York City anti-war march of June 1982. Haacke' s strategy of continually exchanging the photo blow-up seems an unnecessary concession to the idea of community action, especially since the relevance of the New York image over the German image is not clear; the citizens of Saskatoon, a prairie city in close proximity to U. S. nuclear storage silos, would be likely victims within the range of the first target-zones in the event of a U.S. / Soviet confrontation. As well, considering issues of free trade, Canadian nationalism and Canada's own peace movement, the American surrogate is totally inappropriate.

Among the other works in this survey, Void Mean has the most visual and emotional impact — perhaps because it brings home Canada's duplicity in tolerating Alcan's involvement in the apartheid regime. It is in works like Void Mean that the full potency and immediacy of the issues reach us (and bravo to the National Gallery of Canada, who arranged for its loan during a moratorium on the loan of works from their collection so that Void Mean could be seen in the one Canadian gallery on the Haacke tour). Alcan's corporate presence is appropriated from its promotional material and juxtaposed to two benign sepia images of a Montreal opera sponsored by Alcan. These images bracket a central, coloured, violent news photo of the dead Stephen Biko. In the accompanying text, Alcan's involvement in South Africa is described: 'The most important producer of aluminum sheet and the only fabricator of aluminum sheet in South Africa. From a non-white work force of 2,300 the company has trained eight skilled workers' (translation from the French). To underline its source, the work is fabricated from aluminum storm windows: the top panels contain Alcan's silver logo; the bottom panels, the images of the opera and Biko, to reinforce the reality of the violence perpetrated.

Metromobilitan ironically examines the linking of corporate sponsorship of the arts with political implications in South Africa. Employing a large architectural façade, replicating the entryway to the Metropolitan Museum, the work appears cumbersome in yet another gallery interior. Banners advertising an African treasures extravaganza sponsored at the Met by Mobil attempt to conceal the moving image of black mourners in procession. In this work, the photograph again asserts its authenticity and commands our attention; the façade of power that major museums project fails to bury the real-life events their sponsors wish to conceal.

The works on exhibit at the Mendel, from the 1971 exposé of Manhattan real estate holdings, Real-Time Sodal Systems, up to 1986's Metromobilitan, demonstrate Haacke's consistent confrontation of power relationships within capitalist society. The installation enforces this power principle with works positioned symmetrically within the gallery. At times this balance is not always effective and a few of the smaller works tend to disrupt the momentum established in the larger formats.

The catalogue, Hans Haacke: Unfinished Business, is edited by Brian Wallis with essays by Haacke, Wallis, Rosalyn Deutsche, Fredric Jameson and Leo Steinberg. It is a highly successful, generously illustrated compilation of Haacke's work. The catalogue essays present an opportunity to examine issues of contemporary art through Haacke's real-time systems of production. Rosalyn Deutsche and Brian Wallis correctly position his work within the realm of possibilities and consequences of accusatory art. Fredric Jameson gets bogged down in a literary theory of postmodernism and is unable to address the concrete examples of Haacke's work, disappointing from the critic who wrote the brilliant collection of essays on Wyndham Lewis, Fables of Aggression: The Modernist as Fascist.

Leo Steinberg's text is not only an elaborate demonstration of an obvious failure to recognize the integrity of social / political art, but contains a perverse attack against Haacke. When reviewing the Real-Time Social Systems, he wonders why Haacke had to choose Shapolsky to illustrate a real estate network in New York City slums. He questions, 'Did this exposé of a stereotypical Jewish landlord express the old gut reaction that resents a non-Aryan presence among holders of wealth or was this the updated anti-Semitism of the New Left?', and writes from a completely cynical position when he flatly declares that, 'The artist knows perfectly well that Mobil will not be induced to retreat from its South African market.' This is totally unlike Deutsche who locates the concepts of specificity and explains why Haacke selected the Shapolsky group as the subject for his work: in 1971 they held the largest concentration of properties in the Lower East Side and Harlem of any group owner. Thus Haacke's reasons were economic rather than racial. Deutsche' s insightful text articulately probes the temporal and relative nature of meaning within works of art to affirm the potential 'education and transformation of the viewer' that further the implications of Haacke's work.

Vanguard, Vol. 16 #4, Sept/Oct 1987

Text: © Jamelie Hassan. All rights reserved.

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