The experience of working as an exhibition guard and art handler at documenta 2 in 1959 was fundamental to Hans Haacke’s understanding of the operative rules of the field of art. Overhearing curators’ conversations dissuaded him, for instance, from ever depending on the sale of his art to cover his basic expenses. He was then a student at the Kunsthochschule Kassel, aiming to represent the dynamic character of the world through painting. It became evident that he could not achieve his goals in that medium, so he started to mess around with reflective objects made of stainless steel and plastics. Experiments with clear containers into which water was inserted, forming condensation patterns in reaction to the container’s environment, were followed by aerodynamic works with lightweight fabrics and balloons, refrigerated works, and steam-generating pieces, leading to investigations with plants and animals. The physical and biological processes in these works followed their own laws, indifferent to the spectator.
By the 1970s Haacke, born in Cologne in 1936, had extended his exploration to include real-time social systems. When the director’s objection to works including Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System as of May 1, 1971—which presented documentation and photographs of 142 properties in a slum housing empire—led to the cancellation of his solo show at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1971, Haacke realized how powerful the presentation of information already at the disposal of any citizen could be in an art context. The censorship exposed the limits of the freedoms avowed by the museum. Haacke’s subsequent work critically assesses the credibility of the values proclaimed by art institutions, with the goal of realizing a nonrepressive context for the exhibition of art: the ideal institution. By the 1980s the effects of corporate sponsorship on museums had become a central concern, and his works questioned the culture that results when institutions are forced to depend upon such revenues.
Much of Haacke’s recent artistic production exposes the damaging effects of the crossover between political, economic, and ideological interests in the creation of public culture. The artist calls for an assessment of what is lost when institutions that were founded as sites for the articulation of knowledge and historical memory are infiltrated by corporate or political interests. The struggle, in his view, is as political as it is aesthetic, and core democratic values are at stake.