Early last March, London’s Conservative mayor Boris Johnson unveiled Hans Haacke’s “Gift Horse,” the tenth commission installed on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth. Described on the Greater London Authority’s website as a rumination on the “link[s] between power, money, and history,” “Gift Horse” consists of a bronze horse skeleton and a live electronic ticker of the London Stock Exchange. During the unveiling, both Johnson and Haacke evaded questions about the work’s meaning; Johnson acutely aware of the sculpture’s import during a period of harsh economic austerity, and Haacke preferring to leave the interpretation of his work to viewers.
During the 1960s, Haacke produced works concerned with physical systems and processes, an exemplar being “Condensation Cube” (1963–65), a clear acrylic cube partially filled with water. The tumultuous events of the late ‘60s prompted Haacke to broaden his attention to socio-political systems. “MoMA Poll” (1970), the artist’s contribution to the Museum of Modern Art’s Information exhibition, took the form of a ballot in which he asked visitors “would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina Policy be a reason for your not voting for him in November?” Nelson Rockefeller had previously served as the museum’s president and his brother David was the chairman of MoMA’s board at the time. Following the display of this work at MoMA, Haacke’s work was not exhibited at the museum again until the late ‘80s. A survey exhibition of Haacke’s work, which includes a number of the artist’s gallery and museum polls (including “MoMA Poll”), is currently on display as part of the 56th Venice Biennale.
In 1971, the Guggenheim Museum cancelled a solo show of Haacke’s work. The decision largely centered on “Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System, as of May 1971” (1971) an installation of documents charting the business transactions of New York City slumlord Harry Shapolsky. The museum was subsequently subject to a number of demonstrations by the Art Workers Coalition (AWC), an activist group of which Haacke was a member. Haacke’s work continues to shine a spotlight on the business dealings of politicians, collectors, and corporations. His subjects have included Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Rudolph Giuliani, Peter Ludwig, Mobil, Phillip Morris, Deutsche Bank, Daimler Benz, and British Leyland. Haacke is currently a member of Gulf Labor, a coalition of artists and activists campaigning for the protection of worker’s rights during the construction of museums and institutions on Saadiyat Island (‘happiness’ island) in Abu Dhabi. Haacke is one of the most high-profile artists to have adopted the “Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement,” a contract that requires his collectors to pay a 15% royalty on profits each time his art work is subsequently resold. The contract also reserves him the right to veto a work’s inclusion in a public exhibition.
The following interview was conducted at the offices of the Paula Cooper Gallery. The transcript has been edited for clarity and comments have been added at the request of the artist.
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Tiernan Morgan: I read in the Guardian that you were “absolutely flabbergasted” when “Gift Horse” was awarded the tenth Fourth Plinth commission.
Hans Haacke: I was projecting onto London what I assumed the response would have been in New York. After all, the Fourth Plinth is administered by the London mayor’s office, and the municipality pays a good portion of the cost of the commissioned work. I cannot believe that in New York, given the power of Wall Street — no matter who happens to be the mayor — my “Gift Horse” would have a chance to occupy a space as prominent as the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.
TM: I understand that you conceived of the work’s stock ticker component before you settled upon using the skeleton of a horse.
HH: I had worked with a Milan stock exchange ticker in 2010 for a large installation inside a former Franciscan church in Como. For the London application, I initially thought to have a male forearm and hand stand up on the plinth and reach for the sky. The style of the man’s suit would associate him with the City of London. He would wear the ticker as an armband or tied around a raised finger. I abandoned that idea and did some research on the various equestrian statues on and around Trafalgar Square. I had been there many times, but didn’t know how the horses got there and who was riding them. I also thought of George Stubbs’ horse paintings. They were familiar to me from visits to the Tate Gallery. By happenstance, I learned about his incredible Anatomy of The Horse, a beautiful set of engravings Stubbs had produced before becoming the favorite painter of the horse-loving English gentry.
TM: Given the connection to Stubbs and equestrian sculpture, perhaps the work could be understood as a critique of class as well as capitalism?
HH: The meaning of a work is projected onto it by the viewer. There is no ultimate authority controlling it forever. If you see it as such a critique, then that’s your interpretation. You’re perfectly entitled to understand it that way [smiles].
TM: A few critics have lambasted “Gift Horse” for being overly didactic, despite the fact that you continually dodge questions about its meaning.
HH: Well, to have a ticker on a skeleton … [pauses] it’s probably difficult to understand that as a celebration of the London Stock exchange.
TM: What did you make of Boris Johnson’s comments on the day that your work was unveiled? Here’s one such quote: “There will be those that say this undeniably unfed, emaciated quadruped is a warning, a memento mori, a symbol of the pursuit of austerity and the George Osborne [the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer] diet approach to life. But I say no, my friends. This wonderful sculpture stands for the horse in all its incarnations … in these fabulous tubular structures we see symbolized the vital infrastructure — the tube — that must run beneath the surface of any great and beautiful city.”
HH: In the UK, Boris Johnson is well known as a man who enjoys making ironic remarks. He’s very good with language. That is probably one of the reasons why he is quite popular at the moment. He’s not a stuffy politician. I was prepared for something unusual. To jump from the ribs of a horse skeleton to the tube system in London, is, I must say, quite a jump.
TM: The Telegraph’s Ruth Dudley Edwards opined that Johnson attempted to “draw the sting” from your work.
HH: It was surprising that he officiated at the unveiling. I did not expect that. Given his affiliation with the City, he had to manage an awkward situation. Therefore, he conspicuously avoided any reference to the ticker. That was his way of dealing with the situation. From afar it appeared that some people rolled their eyes when they heard him speaking [laughs].
TM: Did you have any concerns about how Johnson’s comments might impact or complicate people’s perception of the work?
HH: I don’t believe his comments influence the interpretation of the work. It appears to be rather popular. After three days I was told that there were over 1,000 Instagrams of the work. I doubt whether that audience knew of or would be impressed by his comments.
TM: How do you personally measure the efficacy of a work such as “Gift Horse”?
HH: I’m pleased if it triggers a public discussion. Of course, I would also prefer it to be more or less along the lines that I align myself with personally. If there’s no reaction, that would be disappointing.
TM: Your 1971 work “Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System, as of May 1971” is one of four works that have been given a room at the Whitney’s inaugural exhibition in its new building, America Is Hard to See. Were you involved in how it was displayed?
HH: I was not involved in its display. I am pleased, of course, that after more than 40 years it is getting such prominent exposure in a major New York museum. It refers to a situation that is unknown to a good number of people simply because they weren’t even born yet. In that sense, it’s part of the history of New York. I’m glad that it’s there. It may add to the discussion about what was, or is, or could be, art that engages with the social environment.
TM: The Whitney has recently sought to readdress and explore the definition of “American” art. Is the question of national identity important to you?
HH: I enjoy my dual citizenship. I still carry with me — and I’m not complaining about it — my upbringing in Germany. I’ve lived in New York for well over half of my life, which has shaped the way I look at the world. I’m a mixed breed [laughs].
TM: How did you get involved with the Gulf Labor coalition?
HH: I’m friends with several of the artists involved in Gulf Labor, particularly Walid Raad who was a colleague of mine at Cooper Union when I was teaching there. I’m a fan of his work. So when I was approached, as so many others were, and asked whether I wanted to sign the call for a boycott of the Guggenheim Museum — I did.
TM: What do you make of the Guggenheim’s public statements regarding the treatment of migrant workers on Saadiyat (“Happiness”) Island?
HH: I often get the sense that it is the Museum’s PR department that is in charge. They have to manage the fallout of a decision that was made about 10 years ago by the museum’s former director Thomas Krens — backed, we should not forget, by his board of trustees. It’s hard to tell what Richard Armstrong, Krens’s successor, privately thinks about all this, nor do I know the degree to which leading members of the present board understand or care.
TM: Have you seen the conditions on Saadiyat Island firsthand?
HH: I went there with a number of artists associated with Gulf Labor while I was participating in the 2011 Sharjah Biennial. The TDIC [Tourism, Development & Investment Company] of Abu Dhabi chauffeured us in several SUVs from Sharjah to the construction site in Abu Dhabi — obviously, for PR reasons. They had built a model workers “village.” Even though it may be exceptional compared to the living conditions of other migrant laborers, it still gave me the creeps. A large portion of the workers aren’t housed at these showcase barracks. This “village” is far from being filled to its capacity. We had no opportunity to speak to any of the workers. As readers of Hyperallergic know from articles and interviews, the workers are subjected to the UAE’s customary kafala sponsorship system, which gives employers inordinate power over living conditions, wages, and their stay in the UAE. Learning more about it and comparing it to the luxury villas and golf courses that were being built next door — all to make this a high class tourist attraction with a cultural veneer — puts the entire enterprise into perspective. Barring the artists Walid Raad and Ashkok Sukumaran, and also NYU Professor Andrew Ross from entering the UAE for “security” reasons says a lot. Artistic and academic freedom apparently pose a “security” problem.
TM: Do you believe that your works, particularly those that examine specific individuals or political circumstances, are capable of effecting change?
HH: Like so much that happens in the world of communication and politics there are many little things that contribute to the larger picture. I often compare it to stones in a mosaic. All the little pieces contribute to the mosaic’s overall image and color. In that respect, the arts shape the way a particular society or culture views the world. And that, in turn, can have political consequences. It’s a long and complicated process. It is rare, if it ever happens, that a single work of art has a traceable impact. Of course, works without an overt political agenda also shape our view of the world. Since contemporary art is predominantly seen by people with a higher education, its reception is primarily among those who — for better or worse — wield power. If their discussions and consensus is shifted from one direction to another, it can matter.
TM: In April 1968, you wrote a letter to Jack Burnham in which you stated that “art is unsuited as a political tool.” “Nothing, but absolutely nothing, is changed by whatever type of painting, or sculpture, or happening you produce.” How did you move on from that far more nihilistic assessment of art’s socio-political agency?
HH: At the time, I was producing works with no immediately recognizable social implications, even though they can be interpreted — metaphorically — as having social overtones. I referred to them in terms of physical and biological “systems.” Like many of my generation I was deeply affected by the Vietnam War, even though neither I, nor anyone in my family had been drafted. It was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that prompted me to say what you quote. It was a moment of total disillusionment. Shortly afterward, students in Paris started a cultural revolution, which spread to other countries and had a considerable impact. Campuses were in uproar in the US. Parallel to that student activism, artists in New York banded together and formed the Art Workers Coalition. It challenged the complicity of museums and their trustees with the politics of the Nixon administration. Artists’ rights became an issue, as did the lack of attention to works by artists of color and women artists. All this led me to expand the scope of my work to include social systems. I started by taking an interest in who goes to see art exhibitions and what opinions they hold. Visitors of exhibitions were invited to produce a statistical self-portrait, as they do in my current poll in Venice. The results encouraged the respondents to consider their role in society and to recognize that there is no wall between the sanctum of the art world and the world at large.
TM: Have you ever attributed specific political and social changes to your art?
HH: That would be megalomania!
TM: Well, to give an example, your portrait of Margaret Thatcher — “Taking Stock (Unfinished)” (1983–84) — sparked a debate on Charles Saatchi’s influence on museums. He subsequently resigned his trusteeship of the Whitechapel Gallery as well as his position on the Tate’s Patrons of New Art Committee.
HH: It certainly triggered that. But to claim that his resignations marked a major change in the political and cultural sphere of London … I’m not sure I’d make that claim. Saatchi is still around [pauses] …
TM: … and still doing his thing.
HH: Still doing his thing. Yes [smiles].
TM: You dislike being branded as a “political artist.” How would you prefer your work to be described?
HH: The problem with terming something “political” art is that it conjures up associations with Soviet Socialist Realism or Nazi art. Both, of course, had terrible repercussions in the world that I belong to. It also risks having your works perceived as “one-liners.” Stamping something as “political art” is almost equivalent to calling it propaganda. It can easily be dismissed. It makes it impossible to see the many facets that a work has.
TM: How about other designations such as “social critique’?
HH: I’m skeptical of all labels. A lot of different labels have been pinned on me. Some of them are mutually exclusive, but they got stuck to me anyhow [laughs]. Inevitably, labels reduce the scope under which the work is looked at and interpreted.
TM: Your current exhibition at the Venice Biennale brings together a number of the museum and gallery polls that you’ve conducted over the course of your career. It also includes a new poll entitled “World Poll.” Have you collated the data of that poll and do you plan on producing a new body of work with it?
HH: Right now I only know the results of the opening week. Of course, I am curious to see the final figures in November, at the end of the Biennale, and see how they reflect the changing demographics of the visitors. I don’t know whether it will lead to something in another context.
TM: Are there certain patterns throughout your years of conducting polls that appear to be consistent? You often ask about a participant’s income for instance. Perhaps you’ve noticed a gradual shift in demographics?
HH: Some of the results seem to be consistent. The overwhelming majority of the participants have some form of higher education. It gets a little difficult when it comes to evaluating income brackets because the student participants aren’t high earners yet. But on the whole, one could say that the income level of the families is middle class, if not higher. It doesn’t surprise me because when I go to galleries and museums, this is the public that I encounter.
TM: In regards to your interest in data and information, has the internet had a significant impact on your practice? A work such as “Shapolsky et al” might of course look completely different if you had conceived of it today.
HH: How I do research has certainly changed. I used to go to libraries where I looked at paper and microfiches. The data for “Shapolsky” was collected at the New York County Clerk’s office, across the street from City Hall. Today you’d click on the files at home. It makes it much easier. At the same time, the seeming availability of things can trick you into believing. That because it’s on the screen, it’s the “truth” [laughs].
TM: Have you ever envisioned producing a work online?
HH: I’ve never done anything on the internet. Maybe it’s generational. It never tickled me. I read the New York Times on paper rather than on a screen.
TM: Randy Kennedy’s profile for the New York Times touched upon your use of the “Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement (ARRTSA),” as well as your refusal to sell your work at art fairs. Can you envision a scenario in which you’d be willing to participate in a fair?
HH: I’ve never wanted to, nor do I imagine I would like to do so in the future. The only occasion I could imagine showing my work at a fair is if I were to make something specifically for that context.
TM: Since your work often criticizes collectors, particularly in regards to the ethics of their businesses, would you ever deny the sale of your work to a particular collector?
HH: I’ve done that. There are some collectors I don’t want to have anything to do with. Occasionally, a collector wants to negotiate the terms of the contract and I say, “well, that’s the way it is. If you want the piece, you have to sign the contract as it is.”
TM: Given that you use Seth Siegelaub’s and Robert Projansky’s ARRTSA contract, are you sympathetic towards the artist’s resale royalty bill (the ART Act) that has just been reintroduced to Congress?
HH: I am sympathetic. But compared to the so-called Siegelaub contract, it doesn’t go far enough. Instead of 15% it would give the artist only 5% of the profit. Moreover, it’s restricted to sales at auction and only concerning sales of at least $5,000. It places a $35,000 cap on profit sharing, even if a work is sold for millions.
TM: So you personally prefer to have your own arrangement with collectors?
HH: Yes. The way I look at it — and the way Seth Siegelaub and Robert Projansky who designed the contract saw it — it’s fair. Sharing 15% of the resale profit with an artist really isn’t that much. At present, visual artists get nothing.
TM: Have there been other propositions or ideas about how to make the art market more equitable for artists that have interested you?
HH: I don’t know off hand. The proposal by Jerrold Nadler — if it were adopted — would introduce the notion that artists, like other copyright holders, are entitled to participate in the gains that people make from the use of their work. Eventually, years down the road, it could lead to other things. It took a while to have an effective moral rights provision become law across all of Europe. But it is in place now.
TM: So you would be pleased if the ART Act was passed?
TM: Finally, are you working on any particular projects at the moment?
HH: If I were, I probably wouldn’t tell you [laughs].
TM: You like to keep your cards close to your chest.
HH: Usually, yes.
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