Newsletter 510

Published September 25, 2023
Blank expression: Jens Haaning took the money & ran

Last week, Danish artist, Jens Haaning, may have staked out a little piece of art history at the price of his career. Almost two years ago, Haaning was commissioned by the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, to produce updated versions of two earlier works that had highlighted average annual incomes of Austrians and Danes by putting the requisite number of banknotes inside picture frames. The first versions of An Average Austrian Income and An Average Danish Income were created in 2007 and 2010 respectively, making them financially incommensurable. The curators of a group exhibition called Work It Out, probably felt that two new versions would prove more illuminating.

To allow Haaning to fulfil the commission, the museum provided him with notes to the value of US$84,000, with the contractual proviso that he’d return the loot when the show had concluded. But when the works were delivered, the museum found Haaning had sent them two blank canvases as part of a new venture called Take the Money and Run. “I have created an art piece which is maybe 10 or 100 times better than what we had planned,” he said. “What is the problem?”

If the earlier works sought to (unscientifically) highlight differences in income between two European nations, the new work commented on the indequacy of artists’ incomes. Haaning made a unilateral decision to keep the cash and send the two blank canvases by way of a statement. This put the museum in a predicament, as it had a reputation to defend as a hip, progressive, institution. Accordingly, they hung the two blank canvases in the show, and benefitted from the publicity (AKA. “notoreity”), but told Hanning he must still honour their contract and return the money.

By the time Work It Out concluded in January 2022, Haaning had made it clear he had no intention of returning the cash, which he took as payment for the labour he had undertaken

When the case finally went to court last week, the Museum emerged victorious. Haaning was judged to be in breach of contract and instructed to repay the money, plus costs. It’s hard to imagine how else this case might have been decided. In the eyes of the law, a contract is a contract, not a provocation for an avant-garde artwork.

Haaning has complained that his standard artist’s fee didn’t cover the costs of materials, framing and staff wages. Now he is up for legal expenses as well.

While it’s a bit hard to sympathise with an artist who is aggrieved the museum didn’t cover “staff” costs, the institution has not emerged from this saga with much dignity intact. By choosing to commission new versions of Haaning’s rather frivolous conceptual work, it opened the door to a potential problem. Namely: “What happens when your commission doesn’t turn out as expected?”

On most occasions, a museum faced with this outcome would simply put on a brave face and pretend everything was fine. This is largely what the Kunsten attempted, but the $84,000 was a major stumbling block. The usual rhetoric about being “on the side of the artist”, etc, could not be sustained in this case. Faced with the artist’s intransigence, the Kunsten showed it was primarily on the side of sponsors and patrons. To counter Haaning’s anarchic, ‘creative’ gesture the museum was obliged to resort to the implacable logic of the law.

As for Haaning himself, his willingness to do something totally different to expectations is reminiscent of Joseph Beuys (1921-86), who always managed to do something different – especially on his visits to Scotland, when his sudden inspirations put Ricky De Marco’s Art Council grants in perpetual jeopardy.

Haaning is no Joseph Beuys, and whatever modicum of fame he has gained from this exercise may be offset by the unwillingness of museums to take any chances with him in future. No gallery wants to be embarrassed by an artist and end up in court.

If truth be told, the blank canvas is a pretty stale avantgarde gambit – albeit presented here in a new context. It highlights the sad fact that most so-called conceptual works are rehashes of earlier works, and hardly more than intellectual parlour games for an art crowd that refuses to admit such gestures have become thoroughly institutionalised.

It’s significant that this incident has occurred in Denmark, which has one of the most pampered and cossetted art scenes in the world. In comparison with most other countries, Denmark is a cultural welfare state that hands out a lavish amount of cash to artists. It’s only too true to human nature that one of those artists should launch a public protest, complaining about how poorly artists are treated. I’m reminded of an interview I once read with a once-famous French painter, who – from the lounge of his gigantic mansion – announced that it was the artist’s destiny to “suffer”.

This week’s art column looks at Zoe Leonard’s Al río/To the River at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s a show that comes with massive accolades, but is probably not one that’s going to fire the enthusiasm of those folks who pack the streets for Vivid or traipse around the foreshores for Sculpture By the Sea. Leonard, a wellknown artist from New York, has produced an epic series of black-and-white photographs of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo – the river that forms part of the border between the USA and Mexico. Her method is deadpan, methodical, repetitive, utterly antithetical to spectacle. There’ll be a hard core of enraptured admirers, and a large number of viewers left wondering if they are missing out on some hidden profundity. I’d like to say I was in the first group, but I find myself inclining towards the latter category.

The movie being reviewed is Scrapper, an engaging tale of a tough little girl in the working-class suburb of Dagenham, London, who decides to go it alone after the death of her mother. Her heroic bout of self-reliance is undermined by the arrival of her biological father, who has finally decided to face up to his parental responsibilities. It’s predictable that the two antagonists will gradually find common ground, but this doesn’t make the film any less appealing. It’s a story that tells us rather more about hardship than a blank canvas by Jens Haaning.