April 4, 2008

Haacke’s history promises more than a circus act

More than 30 years ago, he became an art-world renegade when he refused to placate one of the most esteemed contemporary art museums in the world. On Monday, famed and highly controversial conceptual artist Hans Haacke will present an inventive performance entitled Dog and Pony Show at the Court Theatre, followed by a moderated discussion.

Haacke’s performance is one of three residencies sponsored this academic year by the University’s ArtSpeaks Fellows Program. Now in its fourth year, ArtSpeaks gives the University community the chance to interact with prominent artists in an intimate setting. The fellowship, funded by the University’s Arts Council and the Office of the President, includes a presentation and seminars or classes. Theater, opera, and film director Peter Sellars and composer, violinist, and multi-media artist Daniel Bernard Roumain were the other recipients this year.

This won’t be Haacke’s first visit to the U of C campus; a solo exhibition of his paintings was presented by the Renaissance Society in 1979, featuring provocative works that drew upon appropriated images, including altered print ads for Mobil and Tiffany & Co.

Haacke’s often challenging work is frequently criticized by representational-art enthusiasts, who bemoan its use of unconventional materials and decentralization of authorship. Haacke does not employ traditional techniques, but underlying the works are significant and sophisticated thought and analysis. Haacke is known for his intelligent investigations of the relationship between sociopolitical constructions and the politics of the art world. Conceptual art, of which Haacke might be considered the poster boy, is art in which the idea takes precedence over aesthetic concerns or concern for materials. This guy is deep.

Much of Haacke’s work explores the function of systems—both the operation of natural phenomena and socially constructed institutions. Haacke’s incredibly diverse portfolio includes sculptures, photography, paintings, installations, posters, prints, and books. One particularly important early work was “Condensation Cube” (1963). Haacke designed the sculpture to showcase various states of water, illustrating a biological process. As his career progressed, Haacke steered away from the water cycle, and his works increasingly took the form of social critique.

Haacke achieved art-world renown in the 1970s when his refusal to pull a controversial work from a solo exhibition resulted in a cancellation of his retrospective at the Guggenheim. The work in question, “Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971,” was alleged to defy what could legitimately be considered art. The piece consists of itemizations of 140 buildings controlled by real-estate tycoon Harry Shapolsky, who was reputed to be engaged in shady business dealings. In addition to photographic views of the buildings, the piece included typed data sheets and mortgage information. The work was essentially a documentation of suspicious and exploitative business transactions.

Upon its condemnation, the work became an institutional critique of the museum, insofar as it illuminated the censorship of artists and emphasized the complicity of museums with wealthy financiers. In an interview with University of Chicago news correspondent Josh Schonwald, Stephanie Smith, director of exhibitions at the Smart Museum of Art, discussed the relationship between Haacke’s work and investigation of social phenomena. “Haacke has spent decades digging around with the often messy intersection of art, commerce, and politics, and has used a wonderful variety of means to transform that research into powerful works of art,” Smith said.

Haacke’s work has made meaningful contributions to the discussion of the role and relevance of art and art institutions in contemporary society. If his existing body of work is any indication, Monday’s performance is sure to be both interesting and interrogative.

It might even feature ponies.

Dog and Pony Show begins at 7:30 at Court Theatre on Monday. Tickets are $20, or $5 for students with valid University ID.