‘Hans Haacke: 4 Decades’

Gift Horse

In Hans Haacke: 4 Decades (2007), Hans Haacke and Jon Bird walk around Hans Haacke’s Berlin / Hamburg retrospective.

The post World War Two story of art has been one of packaging art into galleries, followed by a desire to escape the bounds of the art gallery, and its connected system. Haacke’s work has always existed in and out of the art gallery space.

Hans Haacke started out in the 1960s producing artworks that explored physical and biological systems. Then he turned his attention to sociological systems.

His mid phase artworks explored corporate advertising and art sponsorship (big banks, mining interests, heavy industry... you get the picture). More recently his focus has been aimed at mainstream political hypocrisy.

Back in the 1970s Haacke was creating subversive artworks attacking the hypocrisy of big business. Corporate environmental destruction, and their self-promotion as ethical entities while exploiting cheap labour and supporting apartheid South Africa.

Among my favourite Haacke artworks are his series of mock British Leyland adverts. They showcase images of luxury cars with text highlighting the exploitation of labour in apartheid South Africa. The spoof adverts also use stark comparisons between luxury cars and the police vehicles produced by British Leyland in scenes where government forces are repressing Black people. The series reads like Marcel Broodthaers via Noam Chomsky. The way these images use branding and expose corporate hypocrisy feels contemporary. How much has really changed? (If you like this kind of thing, projects like adbusters have spoofed adverts using a similar technique.)

Hans Haacke’s art is witty and funny. It’s cheeky and occasionally dark. He is clever but never over-intellectualised. While he references art history his goal is to appeal to a general audience.

The Business Behind Art Knows the Art of the Koch Brothers, 2014

What Haacke achieved within the galley system, Banksy later emulated within the street art movement (and even later, within the commercial gallery system, following on from his own success).

Gift Horse is a skeletal bronze horse. It is a slick, Jeff Koons-like sculpture in terms of its high production values. The bow around its neck shows the latest London stock prices. It was displayed on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth from March 2015 to September 2016. The plinth had originally been originally set aside to display a statue of William IV on a horse (the sculpture was never completed).

Gift Horse deals with typically Haacke themes: power (especially when it has a historical connection to art galleries and public spaces where the artwork is being displayed. The skeletal horse originates from a Stubbs drawing); big money (corporations, corporate power, and financial institutions like The City), and; social injustice (racism, the exploitation of workers, and government cuts to social services especially during the austerity period of the post-2007 financial crisis).

When the sculpture was unveiled, Boris Johnson described it as an ‘emaciated quadruped’. He talked-up the greatness of The City, to the amusement of the art world, because he failed to mention that the sculpture was a criticism of City greed, and austerity.

Hans Haacke is one of those great artists who’s hard to pin down. Is he a conceptual artist? Is he exploring systems and processes? Is he a political activist? Is he interested in institutional critique?

Over the years a lot of ‘big’ artists have gone by the wayside. They seem to be ‘of their time’ and increasingly irrelevant. Time has shown that they did not have substance. In the ensuing period Hans Haacke’s work has only become more powerful, and more relevant.