Semiotic Interaction in a Landscape of Reminiscence

Aage Langhelle

Our first archive is our brain. The second is our collective memory. Material is saved and information is stored in a variety of media. Origins are studied and new layers of interpretation thicken. Many contemporary artists use history as an essential component of their work. Few artists are as sharp as Hans Haacke.1 Haacke's 2000 project DER BEVÖLKERUNG (To The People) in the north wing of the German parliament building encourages critical reflection on nation, people, population and identity.

Marc Dion

Hans Haacke's work in the courtyard of the German parliament building) with the inscription "Der Bevölkerung" (To The People) at the opening in 2000. Photograph: Engelbert Reineke

Semiotic interaction

A large trench of earth is installed in the centre of an interior courtyard. Along the middle of the trench are luminous letters spelling DER BEVÖLKERUNG (To The People). The text is visible from all floors and the roof. The font and size corresponds to the 1916 inscription above the main steps of the German parliament building - DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE (To The German People). The essence of this project is the relationship between the 1916 inscription DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE and Haacke's 2000 version DER BEVÖLKERUNG. Haacke believes that demographic changes in today's democratic Europe require one to exchange people for population, or change the understanding of the term people in order to include the entire population, so that all and everyone can feel German. Haacke also maintains that the inscription DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE is historically burdened. Haacke's intention, as with most of his projects, is to expose underlying mechanisms and power structures within society.  The project is included in «Kunst im Reichstag» under the direction of Kunst am Bau). Haacke was invited by a committee of 12 parliamentary members to present an idea for an art project. His proposal was heavily disputed but was eventually accepted by a small majority.

Politician participation

Haacke invited each new parliamentary member to deliver a sack of earth taken from their constituency and sprinkle it over the trench, in and around the letters. A majority of members participated, however some declined on political grounds. Since normally earth is full of seeds and shoots, shrubbery grows steadily and untended, something one can understand either as a homage to «mother earth» or an attempt to «recapture» ritual as the National Socialists did with their «Blut und Boden» (Blood and Earth) mythology. The parliamentary members' names and their times of participation are available to the public. A web-camera allows us to follow changes by transferring video to a website, an integral part of the project.

Marc Dion

The west façade of the parliament building housing Bundestag. Photograph: © Deutscher Bundestag/Lichtblick/Achim Melde

The people or the kingdom

The inscription DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE was proposed in 1894 by the building's architect Paul Wallot. The parliament building was constructed for the German parliament and therefore the architect considered the German people as his employer. It was customary at this time to assign buildings a building master. Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted DER DEUTSCHEN EINIGKEIT as an inscription. The Kaiser later chose to support the building commission's suggestion of DEM DEUTSCHEN REICHE.  The parliamentarians argued for over 20 years before the architect's suggestion finally succeeded. The choice of typography was so much argued that a new font was designed - «Kapital­Unzial­Fraktur­Bastarda».  A dedication to the German people rather than the German Empire was achieved when any hope of success in World War I was lost and the Kaiser had to strengthen his relationship with the people. The letters were cast from cannonballs taken in the war with Napoleon in 1813 in the bronze foundry Loevy, a Jewish family business. The family eventually became a victim of National Socialism. 

National Socialism

The term «Blut und Boden» (Blood and Earth)2 was used regularly in the National Socialistic propaganda machine. The slogan promoted the idea of reciprocal dependency between an ethnic group and a geographical area. Often in a context similar to that of «Dem Deutschen Volke». After the 2nd World War «Blut und Boden» became negatively charged and difficult to split.

History and contemporary

Haacke's use of the words DER BEVÖLKERUNG is inspired by Bertolt Brecht: «In our times anyone who says population in place of people or race, and privately owned land in place of soil, is by that simple act withdrawing his support from a great many lies».3 Haacke establishes discourse on a contemporary theme supported by history. By inscribing DER BEVÖLKERUNG Haacke refers to a process of transformation at work in large parts of Europe, where relatively homogeneous cultural and ethnic groups are becoming a multi-cultural population.  According to Haacke there are approx. 10 million people living in Germany without a German passport, a fact that enhances the meaning of the work.   

Politics and reception

The 2nd World War and the Nazi regime's terrible actions still characterize German society today. Although issues of «Individual guilt versus collective guilt» and «The German people versus the Nazi regime» aren't explicitly expressed, they can be read into Haacke's project. Reception appears to follow established political divide. Many conservative politicians and voters see the project as an attempt to rob the German populace of its identity and right to decide in its own house Bundestag, German Parliament. The Greens, Social-Democrats and the rest of the leftists understand the project as progressive and interactive, encouraging reflection over future society. 


Hans Haacke continues to create debate. He refuses to allow reproduction/imaging of DER BEVÖLKERUNG. In 2006, VG Bild-Kunst (the German equivalent of Kopinor/Bono) contacted SPD politician and blogger Petra Tursky­ Hartmann to point out that she'd illegally up-loaded three photographs of artworks by artists they represented. Tursky­Hartmann was initially offered a commercial licence by VG Bild-Kunst, however the offer had to be withdrawn when Haacke refused them permission. Only works in public space require artist permission and in terms of legality the courtyard is not a public space. Haacke is now negotiating with Bundestag, German Parliament over charging for the right to internet publication.      
There's little understanding of Haacke's attitude in the German media. Social media today, the internet, is wholly based on interaction. Blogging, sharing, tagging or commentary on images, articles or any other content is a natural part of contemporary communication and debate. However despite video transmission from the courtyard, human participation in the project is minimal.  


1 Hans Haacke (born Köln 1936) has been resident in New York since 1965 and considered an important pioneer in conceptual art. He taught at Cooper Union, a well known college in New York, from 1967-2002. Since the late 1960s Haacke has examined the relationship between economic and political interest in society and the art market. In 1971 Haacke was to have a solo exhibition in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. As soon as it became known that he'd show the work «Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971», the museum director cancelled the exhibition 6 weeks before the opening. Harry Shapolsky was one of the administrators of the museum who became involved in a critical investigation of suspicious property deals in Manhattan. After this event Haacke believes he's «banned» from American museums. Two other works deal with German and American interests in Iraq. The photograph The Stargazer shows a person wearing a torture-hood reminiscent of the American flag. German economic interest in Iraq is suitably acknowledged in the work Raise the Flag! presented in very familiar SS style. As in the project DER BEVÖLKERUNG, relationships between economy and ecology, and between collective and historic consciousness, are additional themes Haacke tackles in his complex artistic practice. The works are simple, direct and provocative but he employs comprehensive and extremely precise methods. Haacke's intention is to expose social systems and structures he considers questionable.

2 «Blut und Boden » (Blood and Earth) was an ideological point of view and a political expression that became the slogan for German National Socialistic propaganda before and during the 2nd World War. In «Blut und Boden» ideology «Blut» - «Blood» - was the symbol of origin, family, inheritance and race, while «Boden» - «Earth» - was soil, home-ground and territory. According to this view «Blut und Boden» created a basis of existence for people – seen in the light of traditional farming and country-life. « Blut und Boden » can be traced back to the book Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1922) by Oswald Spengler, however the term was «adopted» by August Winnig and used in the books Befreiung (1926) and Das Reich als Republik (1928). The books begin with the sentence «Blood and earth is the fate of the people ». It was the book Neuadel aus Blut und Boden (1930) by Richard Walther Darré that «Blut und Boden» became central in National Socialistic ideology.

3 Brecht, Bertolt: Fünf Schwierigkeiten beim Schreiben der Wahrheit. 1935


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