Magazine article Artforum International

Aye Raising

Magazine article Artforum International

Aye Raising

Article excerpt

LEE SMITH ON 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 Bevolkerung (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 Bevolkerung, 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. …

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