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Hans Haacke: But what does it all mean?

For his exhibition at the Serpentine, the conceptual artist has made an installation of art from the Victoria and Albert Museum and left its message open

Hans Haacke, the German-born, American conceptual artist, has played a surrealist game with the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), hunting down objects from its collection and reassembling them as a giant cabinet of curiosities. “I act as a ‘social secretary’ who puts together a guest list and a seating order hoping that a sly arrangement of unexpected encounters will bear fruit,” he explains.

For “Mixed messages”, the V&A bravely allowed the subversive artist to raid its galleries and stores, and then move his haul half a mile away to the Serpentine Gallery, where he has displayed 200 items in a most unorthodox configuration. With the V&A having just appointed a new director, Mark Jones (see p.17), Haacke’s show comes at an opportune moment, providing a provocative insight into the challenges of administering a museum with such diverse collections.

In the Serpentine’s main room, against each of the four walls is a single work, representing major world religions. A 13th-century Tuscan crucifix faces an 18th-century Burmese Buddha, with a Dutch 17th-century Torah mantle across from a pair of Turkish prayer carpets. In the centre of the room stands a plaster cast of Michelangelo’s “Dying slave”, presumably seeking salvation.

The Serpentine’s other rooms include museum cases crammed with a bewildering array of curiosities, jumbled together in ways which break all rules of conventional display. For instance, a large 19th-century plaster fig leaf originally made to cover the genitals of Michelangelo’s “David” hides most of a tiny doll. A 16th-century Saracen armour suit engraved with a Jewish star, with a pair of modern Mexican biker’s boots peeking out from below, faces a mesh Versace evening dress, circa 1983. In a corner of another room one comes across a paper cut-out model of Tippoo’s Tiger (marketed by V&A Enterprises), Viet-Hong Lien’s kitsch sculpture of a naughty child who has produced a pile of poo, and a gold-framed Selous oil painting of Victorian dignatories at the formal opening of the 1851 Great Exhibition.

“Objects signify one thing when they are seen alone, but have a very different meaning when viewed in combination with others,” Haacke explains. Masterpieces are juxtaposed with items which he finds “ridiculous or despicable”. There are also constant references to colonialism and racism, reflecting the “echoes of the British Empire” reverberating in the V&A’s galleries. “Artefacts in a museum collection are encrusted with layers upon layers of meaning that countless generations have bestowed on them.”

Haacke has long had a special interest in museums and how their collections have been assembled, and five years ago he curated “Viewing/matters”, using works from the storerooms of the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. He is currently Professor at the Cooper Union in New York.

At last month’s opening of “Mixed messages”, Haacke spoke to The Art Newspaper.

The Art Newspaper: In selecting objects from the V&A, what sort of assistance did you get from their curators?

Hans Haacke: There were several curators who were very helpful and also intrigued by what I was trying to do. They introduced me to things that I could not have known. Others were initially hesitant, but then came around and cooperated. There were some who only reluctantly lent things out. Finally, there were a few who refused any cooperation and did not even want to talk with me.

Some of the objects you brought to the Serpentine had been on view at the V&A, but most of them came from the stores. To what extent was that a constraint?

HH: My knowledge of the V&A was based on what is on display. A number of items I wanted I could not get, and I was asked to accept substitutes from the stores. Not in every case was it explained why, although I understand that curators who had carefully designed their presentations in the galleries did not want to disrupt them.

In the end, only about a third of the artifacts in my show came from the permanent displays. Unless one is looking for something specific and is helped in this search by a curator, it is rather difficult to work with the stores. Many objects were off-limits for conservation reasons.

MB: Was “conservation” sometimes used as an excuse to refuse loans?

HH: It is difficult to say. In a number of instances I felt that conservation concerns were rather extreme. I say this as a layman of sorts, but also as an artist who has worked for many decades with the materials under discussion and personal experience with the hazards of public exhibitions. I have seen a great number of museum shows that differed markedly in their handling of the problems of security and conservation. Of course, I was annoyed to find that conservation rules to which the Serpentine was subjected to were not observed consistently by the V&A itself.

MB: Quite a number of the exhibits are from the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, which is a branch of the V&A. Why did you decide to include so many toys?

HH: At Bethnal Green I found many objects that I thought could put the artefacts from South Kensington into a wider perspective. I believe these dolls, toys and game boards make the artworks speak to us in a different language from the one we normally hear—or, to be more precise, we are likely to project different meanings onto them in this context.

MB: Many of the framed pictures on the walls are not quite straight. How did the technicians react to being told to hang a work at a slight angle? And what was your intention?

HH: The technicians were at first surprised, but as we went along they began to ask me, “Do you want it level or not?” One of the reasons why some of the display cases and frames are askew is that the Serpentine Gallery is an extremely symmetrical building, and architectural considerations determined to a considerable extent how we use the space.

Symmetry is traditionally a symbol of hierarchical order and authority. It is for this reason that, until recently, it was used for temples and churches, for court-houses and opera-houses, and for banks. It was impossible to ignore the symmetrical lay-out of the Serpentine. I “represented” its existence while at the same time ironically playing with it and challenging its authority. I hope visitors will get the feeling that things are right, but not quite right.

MB: But surely you, as the selector, are the authority?

HH: I like to believe that I have left things open-ended. I offer no authoritative reading. Instead I want to let visitors follow their associations and provoke them to draw their own conclusions, which may differ from my own. In fact, my own reactions to the objects are rather mixed, and even contradictory or ambiguous. I very deliberately chose the title “Mixed messages”.

MB: Critics have commented that the exhibition is not as controversial as they expected. It seems gentler than many of your earlier shows, where you put provenance and sponsorship under the spotlight. Have you mellowed or did you feel a greater degree of affection for the V&A?

HH: Maybe I have mellowed a bit. But last year, while I was already engaged on the V&A project I produced two works that caused considerable controversy, one in New York (“Sanitation” at the Whitney Biennial) and another in Berlin (“Der Bevölkerung” in the Reichstag). So whether I have really mellowed is debatable. I approached the V&A/Serpentine exhibition very differently, more like the show I organised with the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum five years ago. It would have been a wasted opportunity had my focus not been on the objects in the collection—and what they reveal about the institution of art history, about museums in general, about human relations and, broadly, the history of the West towards the “others”.

MB: Is the Serpentine show sponsored?

HH: To a minor degree, yes, through Ifa, the German cultural exchange institute, and the Goethe Institute. Both are tax-funded.

MB: In 1983 you did a painting of Margaret Thatcher, which explored the Tate’s relationship with the Saatchis. Incidentally, the chair which you depicted Mrs Thatcher sitting on is one from the V&A and it is decorated with an image of Queen Victoria. The picture, “Taking stock (unfinished)”, has just been on view at the National Portrait Gallery’s “Painting the Century” show. How do you feel about your work having been selected as one of the portraits of the century? And nearly two decades ago, did you expect that the Saatchis would become quite so important in the contemporary art scene?

HH: I am very amused. Yes, I did expect Charles Saatchi to remain powerful in the art world.

MB: What did you enjoy most about “Mixed messages”?

HH: Discovering things at the V&A and then the hanging of the show. Everything in between was agony.

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘But what does it all mean?'