Looking for a scrap: Andrew Graham-Dixon on Robert Rauschenberg and Hans Haacke
In Downtown Manhattan, back in the 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg had what he called "a kind of house rule". An urban scaven¬ger, he patrolled the city's streets in search of stuff to make art of — anything that took his fancy, gen¬erally the tattier the better, would do. The rule was that "If I walked completely around the block and didn't find enough to work with, I could take one other block and walk around it in any direction, but that was it."
Aside from giving new meaning to the creative block, Rauschenberg's tactics resulted in a series of works that revolutionised American art. His "combines" — most famously Monogram, a car tyre ringing the midriff of a stuffed angora goat which the artist had found, surreally, in the window of a sec¬ond hand typewriter store — rep¬resented an inspired courtship of accident, implying that anything, if the artist so wished, could be designated art. (He rammed the point home with his epigrammatic contribution to conceptualism — a telegram that read, simply, "This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.")
Rauschenberg — still going strong, on the evidence of his cur¬rent show at Waddington — once defined New York as "a maze of unorganised experiences peopled by the unexpected." But he added that those perceptive enough to see it would find in this chaos "an extremely complex random order." Rauschenberg is the city's mystic and mythographer — trawling his urban environment, he finds its divinities in rubbish. Monogram is more than the sum of its parts — the goat, time-honoured priapic symbol, encir¬cled by Rauschenberg's old tyre, becomes an image of the city's copulatory vigour, an icon of the ceaseless, incongruous couplings engineered by New York's compulsive trashing of objects.
At Waddington, the assembled Rauschenbergs ("Gluts" is their generic title) eschew sexual reference, but are still ripe with metaphorical possibilities. For the most part, they hang on the wall, and are made out of tangles of metal debris. Picking through the wreckage, you can occasionally work out the original function of this fragment or that, but these are merely echoes of their tawdry, mundane past, to be forgotten in this, their afterlife Rauschenberg's art is bent on transfiguration. A great curved chunk of scratched orange metal hugs the wall; in its one recess, dead cen-tre, it houses a crushed and bat-tered compressed gas canister, one of the artist's archetypal odd ments, cherished by its framing in what is effectively a shrine or altar. The serial numbers on Rauschenberg's orange casing are legible, but upside down — out of context, like the street signs strung across the wall in Freeway Glut they become occult inscriptions, hieroglyphic mysteries. It is possible that the artist does not take his pseudo-sacred reconfigurations of detritus entirely seriously — it has always been difficult, with Rauschenberg, to know how far his tongue is in his cheek.
Rauschenberg once said he felt "really sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly, because they're surrounded by things like that all day long and it must make them miserable." If that sounds Warhol-like, it is no coin¬cidence — Rauschenberg's early work was a decisive influence on the Pop Art movement. But much of his work is peculiarly nostalgic, refusing to revel in the Pop artists' bright Disneyland of consumer durables. Bent and twisted into abstract forms that bloom horti-culturally, or flow down the wall in metallic pastiche of waterfalls, some of his new constructions seem to yearn for pastoral re¬lease, an escape from the city back to natural origins. Buttercup Runner Glut, a freestanding piece, turns a heap of yellow metal into a luxuriant, decadent mass of pet¬als. Niagara Summer Glut is a cas¬cade of bent white metal that re¬convenes urban waste as an image of Niagara. It is a wistful, citydweller's image of what was once the great symbol of America as an unspoiled natural para¬dise — a second Eden.
A few doors along, at Victoria Miro Gallery, Hans Haacke — himself no slouch when it comes to generating scandals — bas mounted his latest attack on the Saatchis. His installation is con¬ceived as a parody of the new New York abstract art the Saatchis are currently so keen on (for a selec¬tion, see their North London gal¬lery at the moment) — on a shelv¬ing unit, of the kind used by "commodity sculptor" Haim Steinbach, Haacke assembles an accusatory array of objects. Three boxes, roughly the size of deter¬gent packs, bear photocopies of promotional work by KMP-Compton, a South African affili¬ate of Saatchi and Saatchi; a white bucket (alluding to the white-washed sculptures of Robert Gober) contains rolled-up posters produced by the same agency on behalf of the Botha government. On the walls, you find lists of the Saatchis' subsidiaries.
As an image of corporate acquisitiveness, Haacke's work has a certain grim effect (he is himself a bit of an ad-man). But it is less incisive than some of his past attacks on the sinister links between culture and business — for example, on Mobil's attempts to launder its corporate image, stained by much more direct South African involvement than the Saatchis', by sponsoring major exhibitions at New York's Metro¬politan. The Saatchis expand their business; tbeir business bas links with South Africa; they buy art. But, beyond its suggestion of a vague, generalised paranoia, Haacke's piece may leave you wondering, so what? The Saatchis have considerable power in the art world, but there have, so far, been no cut-and-dried examples of deliberate, self-interested mis¬use of that power. From the Brit¬ish point of view, at least somebody is collecting, and exhibiting, large quantities of contemporary art. The main virtue of the piece lies less, perhaps, in its insinuations of corruption, than in the warning it serves: tread carefully, Hans is watching you.