Sam Durant: Would you be willing to discuss any of your recent projects?
Hans Haacke: For the 2009 Venice Biennale I prepared a small work in collaboration with an Israeli and a Palestinian artist. It was part of an exhibition with the title “The Fear Society” in the Pabellón de la Urgencia, one of the official collateral sites of the Biennale at the Arsenale Novissimo. The text I wrote on the history of this piece is an integral part of the work. It accompanied, in English, Italian, Arabic and Hebrew, a photo of a three-year-old boy who is looking straight into the camera. He is wearing a T-shirt with the inscription “Paradise.” Along the bottom of the photo, a single line reads “West Bank, 1994 – 27th Year of Occupation.” The size of the photo and the background text (in four languages) was standard A4. I believe it is worth quoting the text in its entirety:
West Bank, 1994 – 27th year of Occupation
Two years ago, Israeli and Palestinian artists jointly organized “Desert Generation,” an exhibition that called for the immediate end of the 40–year occupation of the West Bank and for a just peace. The 6-day exhibition opened at the Jerusalem Artists’ House on June 5, 2007. “Desert Generation” reopened two weeks later at the Kibbutz Art Gallery in Tel Aviv, and later traveled to Amsterdam and Manchester.
The exhibition comprised hundreds of images sent via e-mail by artists from Israel, Palestine and around the world, in response to a call distributed as an electronic chain letter. The images thus received were printed in size A4 and hung on the gallery walls, without editing or selection. The exhibition was accompanied by a statement: “The images comprising the exhibition represent a generation of Israeli and Palestinian artists doomed to waste their best years in the desert of the occupation. Freedom is indivisible, and as long as Palestinians are deprived of liberty, Israelis too cannot be free.”
“Desert Generation is an artists’ initiative, with no affiliation to political movements. Its organizers are artists who have been involved for decades in joint Israeli-Palestinian activities against the occupation: Larry Abramson, David Tartakover, Sliman Mansour and David Reeb.”
I was one of the recipients of the invitation to participate in “Desert Generation” and responded by sending a photo I had taken of a 3-year-old boy in Deheisheh, a Palestinian Refugee Camp near Bethlehem, in 1994. Larry Abramson, one of the Israeli organizers of “Desert Generation,” had invited me that year to speak with graduating students of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. I knew Larry Abramson had kept in touch and exhibited with Palestinian artists. At my request, he introduced me to Sliman Mansour, who joined him 13 years later as the Palestinian co-organizer of “Desert Generation.” Sliman Mansour and two of his friends took me on a tour of the West Bank. The Deheisheh refugee camp was one of the places we visited 15 years ago — during the 27th year of Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The occupation is now in its 43rd year.
Sliman Mansour and Larry Abramson did the translations into their respective languages.
SD: The work you produced for “The Fear Society” exhibition offers an alternative to the fearful society, the “fear of the other.” You focus on the cooperative efforts between Palestinians and Israelis in the face of the 43 years of occupation and violence. The conflict has far-reaching consequences, reflected in the 2009 Venice Biennale with Emily Jacir’s proposal to add Arabic translations to the names of the vaporetto stops along the canals going unrealized (although she won the Golden Lion for her work in the Biennale’s 52nd edition.) I believe this is not the first time Palestinian visibility in Venice has been diminished while Israel continues to enjoy its pavilion in a prime location in the Giardini. I wonder how you feel about the call by Palestinian artists and intellectuals for a cultural and academic boycott of Israel?
HH: I believe such a boycott would be counter-productive. As the example of the campaign by Larry Abramson and other Israeli artists and intellectuals for an end to the occupation of the West Bank demonstrates, outspoken opposition to the policies of the Israeli government does, indeed, exist within Israel. As much as I understand why Palestinians call for a boycott, I believe it would not help their cause if their sympathizers inside Israel were to be isolated from the world. In fact, the boycott is not observed by a number of Palestinians associated with the art world. Many participated in the exhibition “Desert Generation” (2007) in Jerusalem. And just a few weeks ago, a joint project by Galit Eilat, founding director of the Israeli Center for Digital Art in Holon, and Reem Fadda, a Ramallah-based art historian who co-curated a Palestinian exhibition at the 2009 Venice Biennale, was introduced at the New School’s Vera List Center and presented at Art in General in New York. Of course, such collaborations and rejection of current Israeli policies toward Palestinians is not unique to the art world in Israel. It would be strategically and morally wrong to discontinue exchanges with these critics.
By the way, Emily Jacir’s project was not the only unrealized one at this Venice Biennale. Also Jacques Charlier was prevented by the Biennale from posting his hilarious “100 Sexes d’Artistes” (1973-) around Venice as the official contribution of the Wallonie (French speaking part of Belgium.) He “exposed” them instead on a private vaporetto, which docked every day at the foot of the Via Garibaldi, close to the entrance of the Giardini — amid luxury yachts registered in the Cayman Islands.
SD: Although I have never done artwork dealing directly with the issues of Israeli state policy, it is a subject I am very interested in, particularly since visiting the West Bank and experiencing its effects first hand. Did your visit to the territories make a significant impact on your understanding of the Israeli Occupation?
HH: Yes, it did. But in many ways conditions then were different from what they appear to be today. I was in Israel and the West Bank a year after the Oslo Accords, the first face-to-face encounters and agreements between an Israeli Prime Minister (Yitzhak Rabin) and a Palestinian leader (Yasser Arafat.) I saw Israeli settlements under construction, and I visited a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Quite a contrast! We passed a few roadblocks. I saw Israeli tanks practicing on the way to Jericho. And yet, in 1994, things seemed to be opening up. A year later, Rabin was assassinated by a young settler — and the following election was won by Netanyahu.
SD: Many have called the Israeli occupation one of the most significant “problems” to be solved in the world today, and at least we can say it is the major obstacle to regional stability, with ramifications around the world, not to mention a significant recruiting tool for terrorist groups of all sorts. Within the United States, knowledge of the situation seems to be inversely proportionate to the magnitude of the issue. I wondered if it is an area of interest for you and would you consider doing more work with the subject in the future? I am thinking of some of your previous works that illuminated connections between apartheid South Africa, corporations that do cultural sponsorship and art world figures and institutions, like Les must de Rembrandt (1986), One Day the Lions of Dulcie September Will Spout Water in Jubilation (1988-89), or The Saatchi Collection (Simulations) (1987) where you exposed Charles Saatchi’s PR work for the regime while his art collection laundered the profits and shined his image.
HH: I cannot tell whether other works will follow this small piece. In comparison to the works about the collaboration of major US and European banks and corporations with the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, it is much more difficult to produce works dealing with this region where everyone seems to have signed a long-term suicide pact with everyone else. My having been born in Germany doesn’t make it easier.
SD: I wanted to ask you about a text by Leo Steinberg in the Unfinished Business catalogue from your 1987 New Museum retrospective. Steinberg takes a critical view of some of your works, especially Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971). It is fairly rare to see an artist’s monograph with negative essays, and I wondered about your reasons for including it?
HH: I believe it was Brian Wallis, the curator of my show at the New Museum, who asked Leo Steinberg for a contribution to the catalogue. I took it as a compliment that Leo accepted the invitation. We met and we talked. While I disagree with some of the points he made, I did not understand his text as a “negative” essay. I remember Marcia Tucker’s remarking: “Oh, that is typical of Leo.” Suppressing critical comments on my stuff is not my style. Leo and I have met a number of times since and we had friendly exchanges.
SD: Steinberg accuses you of anti-Semitism for using the Shapolsky group as the focus of the work about Manhattan real estate interests. The accusation is obviously ill- founded; Rosalyn Deutsche makes it clear in her text that they were simply the largest owner of “slum” properties in Manhattan. I wondered how or if such charges have had an affect on your decisions about particular issues or subject matter in subsequent works.
HH: It is not uncommon to be accused of anti-Semitism — or being branded as a self-hating Jew — if one makes critical comments on individuals who happen to be Jewish or policies associated with the government of Israel. From a historical perspective I can understand it. However, I think it is an unhealthy knee-jerk reaction. In fact, it may undermine the fight against anti-Semitism and endanger the future of Israel — an Israel eventually at ease with itself and its neighbors. As you know, I have made a number of works unmistakably critical of the horrific history of German racism: in Cologne, in the German Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 1993, and in the public “arena” of Berlin, Munich and in Graz. And still, over an installation in the Whitney Biennial of 2000, I was accused of “trivializing the Holocaust” when I recognized parallels between Rudolph Giuliani’s pressuring the Brooklyn Museum to censor The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) by Chris Ofili and the removal of “degenerate” art from German museums by the Nazis. Giuliani tried to woo Catholic voters in anticipation of an electoral contest with Hillary Rodham Clinton for the New York State governorship. A Federal judge ruled that Giuliani, a former Federal prosecutor and, at the time, the mayor of New York, had violated the constitution.
SD: In Free Exchange (1995), your conversation with sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, he makes a compelling argument for the unique power that artists have (as opposed to journalists) to interrupt the status quo, to make visible what is normally hidden. He is referring specifically to your ability to provoke the media into amplifying and distributing the messages in your work to a broader public than might otherwise be aware. Talking in the early ’90s I am struck by how both of you seem to predict the strategies that the Yes Men have put to remarkable use. I noticed that they have received an award from Creative Time. It’s gratifying to see such a public embrace of their subversive practice from within the contemporary art world. I hope I don’t embarrass you when I say that I doubt there would be such a situation if it were not for your work. I wonder how you feel about the Yes Men and other “activist” practices such as Critical Art Ensemble; do you see them as perhaps continuing some of the methodologies that you have developed in your work over the years?
HH: The Yes Men are very smart, very resourceful, and they have a great sense of humor. “We’re Screwed,” the banner headline of their fake New York Post of September 21, together with the title of their film “Yes Men Fix The World” (it opened at the New York Film Forum recently) sum it up. Creative Time’s award is well deserved! And you know my sympathies for the Critical Art Ensemble.