Tag: Hans Haacke


Hans Haacke, Condensation cube, Acylic plastic, water, 1963-1965, © Hans Haacke:VG Bild-Kunst

Hans Haacke, Condensation Cube, 1963-65

Condensation Cube is not a ‘sculpture’, but a hermetically sealed plexiglass box measuring 30x30x30 cm and containing a shallow, one-centimetre deep pool of water. In 1971 Haacke described condensation as a ‘real-time process’ designed  to relegate the viewer to the passivity of a ‘witness’[*]. He desired a situation in which the insentient ambience of nature’s ineluctable flux reveals citizen x’s Kantian ‘disinterested’ criticality to be nothing other than an interested compact with the ‘cultural frame’ lurking behind the work (which is itself always bracketed). Condensation here functions as a trigger, alerting the witness to the bland fact that her judgments can only slide off the work, which remains as disinterested as the world itself. Haacke targets the way in which citizen x normatively enforces her social capital by ab-using object x, via what Pierre Bourdieu has termed an act of ‘aesthetic distancing’[*]. By outsourcing the living object, citizen x feels herself as really belonging to the institution < I look over your shoulder>. Something, however, feels wrong with this Institutional Critique: it’s too good looking. The problem, as Robert Smithson declared, might be that ‘confined process is no process at all’[*]. This is not to say that Haacke unintentionally intends to sabotage his own critique by adhering to a central Minimalist motif, but that his refusal to acknowledge the iconographical presence of the Cube could be taken, by the selective vision of citizen x, to be a reverse encouragement of a Kantian disinterestedness.

According to Marx, labour is the metabolic process through which ‘man’ is connected to nature. It is only by labouring through the sensuous exterior world that we are able to realise [verwirklicht] our life ‘purpose’. I think, in order to salvage this critique, we must stop and think about what happens to form when it enters the gallery space. If labour is truly a metabolic process, it is also a mode of purposive movement we read into and onto still things. There is real living labour, and then there is labour that we presuppose through a kind of metabolic vertigo: we need labour to exist for things to exist. Function-less form makes no sense to the labouring eye. We depend upon the tactility of hard edges, of rules. As soon as the machine displaced labour’s sweat, and Capitalism supplanted nature as the world’s noise – at least that’s what the noise on the street feels like – our basic metabolism was re-calibrated, I would argue, to occlude labour, and to promote instead frieze-framed representations of one’s lifestyle as the process to which we must succumb in order to make sense of the sensuous exterior world. From the dissolution of the barrier between art and life, this new metabolism has been legislated and furthered by aesthetics and then communications to such an extent, that we now know nothing else: We no longer labour to survive, today we labour to look good. Could it be possible that an upwardly-mobile, interested citizen x might intentionally assume the lackadaisical face of disinterestedness so as to be artfully transmogrified into the object’s laboured nucleus, knowing that the distance between object and body in space instantiated by classical aesthetics diffuses any ethical commitment to labour? It is my claim that Condensation Cube points up a lack of labour that exposes the witness’ metabolic rift. If aesthetically ‘lobotomized’ form acts as a carrier and compensation for our lack of physical labour, then what happens when that form starts to breath and sweat through its own aesthetic confinement? It is precisely because a ‘real-time process’ is launched at the viewer from the seat of aesthetical power – the cube – that it works, because it lures one into a Kantian disinterestedness that is then divested of its ‘neutrality’ and exposed to be nothing other than a bid to get out of work. Here the bourgeoise-homme-citizen is forcibly alienated by nature’s détournement on one of Aesthetics’ most valorised motifs.

It is only once we face up to ourselves as ‘non-beings’, as living lives without agency in the world, that we can start to collectively labour for the greater good of all.

[*] Hans Haacke, ‘Provisional Remarks’ (1971) from Institutional Critique: an Anthology of Artists’ Writings ed. Alexander Alberro, Blake Stimson (Cambridge MA: MIT Press 2011) p. 120

[*] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction trans. Richard Nice (London: Routledge, 201) p. 26

[*] Robert Smithson, ‘Cultural Confinement’ [1972] from ibid.


Some objects are intended as material supports to real-time processes that occur in and around them, processes like condensation, heating, tree-growth and asphyxiation (rope). Scaffolding, for instance, presents an architectural function, and is not normally considered a permanent fixture (unless you live on the base of Mount Etna, where the ground remains shaky). In fact, one tends to look right through scaffolding, as if it wasn’t quite there. Why is this? Our vision, I would argue, takes process and makes it a precedent over form. Painting, cement blocks, rainfall and wolf whistles are activities that accrue and bleach over the spectacle of scaffolding’s quietness at night. These real-time processes infect the molecular structure in front of us, so that the empty ladders and rungs, after working hours, seem peculiarly out of place against the stalwart building they are there to support. Earlier, I asked the question: What kind of material and formal properties might adequate to Hegel’s outlining of a Synthesis that suspends the moments of its negations; of a Being and Becoming entwined in Stasis?[1] My response would be that a formal structure specifically designed to act as a material substratum to some kind of real-time process (whether it be a sauce-pan or a length of rope in the hands of an Alexander McQueen), is always ineluctably written over by that process, so that a cold pan starts to quiver from a ghostly heat, and its silvery lining appears starched white. Empty form is a carrier for you or me. We relate to the sensuous world by projecting our self-consciousness into things. When we promote forms to ‘thingness’, they are from that time on really nothing but ourselves taken outside of ourselves. I am interested in finding ways of obliterating this kind of solipsistic world-negotiation, by wondering how a real-time process like condensation can actually countermand and take on the subject’s ability to transform form into a mirror. In other words, I want a situation in which condensation takes on the role of you/me, in giving the saucepan its thingness, its static becoming. How can a real-time process have the power to relegate the viewer to a witness, forcing her to stand outside the ring of an object (not a thing’s) own life force? And why is this different to asking whether a falling tree makes a sound in the woods, if no one is there to hear it? Because, I am interested in a situation where the subject is coerced into recognising and reckoning with the force of process, to the point where subject-hood is irrevocably undone. Skeptically, one may reply that, once you begin to depend substantially upon a real-time process to forward a directional agenda – the obliteration of you/me – that process is reified in turn, and becomes another component of the subject’s recruiting of the world. In my next post, I want look at how one artist, Hans Haacke, attempted to use a real-time process to smash through the subject’s relentless insurgency of form, with a work entitled ‘Condensation Cube’, from 1963.

[1] In the Phenomenology of Spirit [1807], Hegel presents a world-view (weltanschauung) in which Spirit precedes Nature. This is a world where objects remain senseless until we have made sense of them, where objects depend upon us for their subsistence. In this situation an object’s being and becoming refers to the internal self-movement of spirit only we can give life to by admixing its senseless matter with our own material concepts. My question is whether real-time processes could take back the sovereign role of animating static matter with the life force of a becoming, by exposing the origin of our ‘spirit’ in the abstract thought of non-being.