It's a little disconcerting at first glance, perhaps somewhat humorous, maybe easily mistaken for the work of Klaus Oldenburg. It appears to be a six-foot-long open pack of Marlboro cigarettes sprawled out across the naked, hardwood floor of a New York SoHo art gallery in 1990. A second impression might lead one to believe it was some kind of antismoking statement. However upon closer inspection, it turns out the name on the familiar package actually reads, "Helmsboro," while in the centre of the Philip Morris logo is the photo of Senator Jesse Helms. At the bottom of the box are the words "20 Bills of Rights." On each of the monstrous filter-tip cigarettes spilling out across the floor are the words, "Philip Morris funds Jesse Helms." It would appear that neither the tobacco company, famous for its support for the fine arts, nor the senator, famous for his opposition to the National Endowment for the Arts, is a close personal friend of the artist--Hans Haacke.
Haacke was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1936. He grew up knowing firsthand, from a German point of view, the horrors of World War II. After the war, his family moved to Bonn, the capital of West German where he lived until leaving home to study in Kassel, a bombed out, Nazi tank-building city near the border between East and West Germany. There, in 1959, while still a college student, he first became involved in art--and politics. He worked first as a guard, then as a guide for the second Documenta exhibition, an international showcase for post-war, German art. By 1965, he'd moved to New York amidst the powerful swirl of Minimalist art, Environmental art, Process art, Performance art, and dozens of others of lesser influence. One of his early works studied the social culture of black farm workers. It was an ant farm.
Haacke has always been more concerned about the social and political implications of art than by its execution. In Standort, Germany, near a nineteenth-century war memorial, he completely enclosed a carousel in a tall, board fence, topped with barbed wire, visible only through the cracks between the boards. The music emanating from within is especially poignant. So is the comparison between the two structures. His work is designed to raise the eyebrows of viewers and the hackles of the establishment. Philip Morris threatened to sue. (They didn't.) Thomas Messer, director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, cancelled a 1971 show of Haacke's work, and fired its curator, when he realised the show would feature photos and documentation of New York's worst slums and their owners. One of the show's most prominent figures was a slumlord named Shapolsky, who is believed to have pressured Guggenheim board members to scuttle the affair. The show, entitled Documenta X, eventually surfaced at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Hans Haacke is an artist in the broadest sense of the word, where his mixed-media efforts have as much to say about the art world as they do about art itself.