“THE FUTURE IS STUPID,” Jenny Holzer proclaimed in 1985, and although this wasn’t one of her Truisms, she certainly wasn’t wrong.
From short and sharp political aphorisms to extended poetic phrases, Holzer harnesses the power of the word both as our basic tool of communication and as didactic image, in an attempt not only to break through our complacency, but to unravel the tangle ofnewsmagazine.com litter our cultural landscape. Taking our everyday nomenclature and attacking it from the side, she shows us that our perceptions cannot always be accepted at face value: political fictions underlie our reading of our world, and culture is complicit.
Born in Gallipolis, Ohio, in 1950, Holzer graduated with an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1977. Soon after, she began using text-based art forms to infiltrate public spaces, starting with a series of posters distributed around New York City. These posters proposed new statements and slogans that interrogated the proliferation of consumer imagery and its dominance of the cityscape, and helped appropriate a new forum for political intervention. Part of an era in which women were using words with a damning effect on patriarchal conceptions of society (think: Barbara Kruger’s 1983 revolutionary feminist claim, “We Won’t Play Nature to your Culture,” for example), Holzer’s Truisms (1979-83) made their impact through their undeniability: “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE.”
Over the years, Holzer’s bold and provocative statements have appeared in public spaces, galleries and international bienniales (in 1990 Holzer was the first woman to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale) in a variety of forms: on posters, t-shirts and condoms, electronic LED signs, park benches, and xenon light projections onto buildings, plazas and waterways. These text-based interventions question the concept of the screen as blank canvas upon which art is laid out or straightforwardly projected. Holzer engages with the heterogeneous implications of her medium—the screen as veil hiding what truth lies beneath; as site of display or sound bite; as distraction or simplified façade; or as arena for projections of simplified truths or statements—and problematizes it even further. If culture is a screen, then we have internalized it, she implies. As a result, everything from our bodies to our skies become sites of projection, inscription and display. The boundaries between the corporeal, material, individual and institution disintegrate from marble bench to marble tomb.
Holzer’s new show, “PROTECT PROTECT,” opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago less than two weeks before the presidential election, amidst much political and economic turmoil. The exhibition title is taken from a PowerPoint presentation of the US Central Command’s plan for the war in Iraq used by Holzer for a recent painting series, but also refers to the infamous sayings from her 1983-85 Survival series: “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT” and “MEN DON’T PROTECT YOU ANYMORE.” Smith explained, “We thought ‘PROTECT PROTECT’ would suggest a variety of meanings, situations and impulses—an idea at the heart of Jenny’s practice—that speak to different social and political conditions.”
Starting in the 1990s, the show excludes Holzer’s iconic work from the ’70s and ’80s, such as her LED projections in Times Square and the Venice Biennale. “My first impulse was to invite Jenny to do a retrospective,” said Smith. “But as we talked about her current interests, Jenny convinced me that it didn’t make sense.” However, these early works are re-presented in a new piece made for the MCA’s collection called For Chicago—a major LED installation displaying a retrospective of her phraseology from the late 1970s through 2001. The glowing light from eleven amber panels lying on the floor pierce through the adjacent partition wall. Holzer said that this new site-specific arrangement gives concrete form to the idea that there are “no limits respected in war.”
The earliest works in the show are from Holzer’s 1993-95 Lustmord series, which explore the differing perspectives of observers, perpetrators and victims of sexual violence during the war in former Yugoslavia. Holzer applied phrases to skin using a mixture of paint and human blood, and statements to bone using metal cuffs. She literally shifted the canvas for her adages from skin to bone in order to emphasize human fragility, showing that war, like pornography, reduces the body to parts.
Holzer has made the absurd relation between desire and death a theme in her work before, writing in 1985, “SILLY HOLES IN PEOPLE ARE FOR BREEDING OR ARE FROM SHOOTING.” However, Smith explained that Lustmord “first directly addressed issues of violence, trauma, victimization, and the horrors of war in the terms of the universal and the particular,” marking the human body as the site of both subjectivity and homogeneity.
Holzer’s light projections of 1996-2007 shift her canvas from the organic to institutional body. In Xenon for Bregenz (2004), the façade of the Kunsthaus wore the self-conscious words “MY SKIN,” possessively asserting the exigencies associated with corporeal boundaries and the anxieties surrounding breaches of both the flesh and the institution. Skin and façade are meant to protect the precious cargo they contain. They form an illusion of armor and safety that masks our knowledge of their penetrability.
Like past projection projects and museum shows, Holzer will install public works throughout the city as an extension of “PROTECT PROTECT.” Signage will appear on the outsides of the MCA (Oct. 29-31), Chicago Tribune Tower (Sunday, Nov. 2), Lyric Opera House (Saturday, Nov. 1) and, the largest building to ever wear her signage, Merchandise Mart (Monday, Nov 3). Smith said the buildings were “selected because of their large scale and significance as public institutions in major areas. Jenny wants them to be seen by a wide cross-section of people.”
Holzer’s exterior projections and interior sculptural light installations recycle her earlier writings or appropriate poems and government documents. Smith said that Holzer “chooses to make or to present different accounts or voices, and multiple perspectives, on the same situation.” Ranging the tone in her own writings from straightforward statements, to literary and poetic styles, to (as she once called it) an “upper-class anonymous” voice, as well as choosing diverse samplings of texts to excerpt from—such as Wislawa Szymborska, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg and the CIA—allows Holzer’s commentary to remain biting, even after thirty-plus years of textual inundation.
Eye-popping forms help Holzer’s text keep afloat in the flood of visual and textual contemporary media imagery. As Smith pointed out, “There was a project earlier this year called ‘Women in the City,’ which demonstrated the differences between thirty years ago and now. The visual landscape of our culture has exploded.” Smith said that the older works in the show by Holzer, Lawler and Kruger, looked “a little bit lost” in a current context, and that “now, it’s much harder to make a statement in public space.” Holzer’s assistant, David Breslin, told F Newsmagazine, “Holzer’s early work used what was cheap and existing. Now she uses gripping structures and language that slips in and out of many registers.” Her recent installations visually seduce viewers with flashing bright lights that command optical attention. Holzer explained that she presents the appropriated texts slowly in order to make it more legible, whereas when she uses her own text, she creates “confusion” and “fury” through quick progression and overlap. “PROTECT PROTECT” presents only six sculptural light installations and spreads these out, thus avoiding competition with each other or overstimulating viewers.
Holzer’s recent paintings exhibit a more contextualized examination of word as image. Her move to painted textual imagery reflects an almost Mark Lombardi-like diagrammatic presentation. These paintings detail US military presence in the Middle East over the past three decades by showing declassified documents: maps, autopsy reports, sworn statements of soldiers, memos and letters. In regards to her MAP series, Holzer explained in the exhibition catalogue that she had “an odd thought that hand-rendered oil grounds were appropriate for silk-screened documents about the Middle East.” She said that “seduction and revulsion are both present” in her paintings, an interpretation which Smith elaborated upon by saying that the purple, green and gray “bruise-like” background colors reflect the trauma of war, yet are also reminiscent of the beauty of Monet’s Waterlilies: “Sometimes Holzer’s color plays against the content in ways that make it jarring to you, while at other times the color works with the content to reinforce a certain idea.”
With the legacy and imagery of Warhol’s Death and Disaster series in mind—which proved that political painting is not necessarily elitist and that repetition of traumatic imagery does not undercut the potency of the catastrophe depicted—Holzer’s silkscreen Redaction Paintings, 2005-06, remind us once again of the fine line between public and private in our society. The formal consonance between Warhol’s newspaper images of car crashes and suicides and Holzer’s government documents blur the individual and the institution, both pointing, through the spectacle of personal and public ordeal, to a wrecked America.
The crossed-out hands in PALM, FINGERS & FINGERTIPS 000406 and PALM, FINGERS & FINGERTIPS 000407 press against the canvas surface as if trapped in a car. The skin’s imprint resists the abyss of atrophy, while the reduction of the palm and fingerprint to documentation diminishes identity to what can be scanned, filed, and crossed out—reflecting Holzer’s expressed desire to represent the “human element,” while remaining factual, rather than sentimental. The six digits in the titles point to bureaucratic abridgment of subjectivity to a number. The use of stark black and white, like a history textbook, dually emphasizes the depth that events lose when translated into the historical record and the significance that we place on these texts as authoritative sources. Holzer said she “screened many documents in black on white paint to emphasize that the documents are real.”
These paintings, along with Right Hand (Palm Rolled) and Left Hand (Palm Rolled), juxtapose hand prints of American soldiers who were, respectively, convicted and wrongly accused of war crimes. Positioned in a gesture of surrender, the palms of these charged individuals sweat under institutional judgment. What these documents make clear is that individuals and institutions are implicated on both ends: as victims and as persecutors. Secretary of Defense (Green White), 2006—a letter authorizing certain forms of torture—is signed by Donald Rumsfeld, who glibly scribbled, “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4?” By the Name of God (Green), 2006, is from the perspective of a tortured detainee’s plea for release.
Holzer said she started looking at these documents because she wanted to understand how and why “torture became normalized.” The documents she chose do not record spectacular images of war but rather absurd, horrifying details. Breslin explained to F Newsmagazine that “[Jenny] wants to put anti-war voices in dialogue with people who say, ‘We should invade. This isn’t detainee abuse. It’s necessary to get information.’ In this election season, any site of information is suspect in terms of source. Holzer’s text mimes the original exactly, providing a full case. Holzer presents a lot of information not to dictate belief but to make sure beliefs are ingrained in as much evidence as possible.”
Smith emphasized that simply providing source material is not preachy. “The avoidance of didacticism is very important in Jenny’s work,” said Smith. “That is something the best artists who work this way are also achieving. I see younger artists paying attention to that and wanting their work to function in that way, rather than being a series of messages or something that seems heavy-handed.”
At the Media Preview, Smith described the nine paintings in the MAP series as history paintings. By appropriating documents, Holzer bears witness to our sociolinguistic reality. Linking the term “witness” (connoting testimony) to it’s Greek and Old Norse roots as “martyr” (or “torture-witness”), and its relation to the Latin for “memory,” these works bear witness to lost presence and preserve remnants of historical reality in the public consciousness. In her catalogue essay, Smith likens Holzer’s Redaction Paintings to “the layered strata of an archaeological dig.” This unearthing reveals the potential individuals have to impact historical records or, in Breslin’s words, to reveal “what slips through the cracks” and “what seems to be determined but isn’t.”
If the future is stupid, then we can only hope to redeem it through better understanding of our socio-political truths. Holzer has shown us one way: by breaking down the screens that hide our complicated reality, not through simplification, but through aggrandizing and exacerbating its minutiae.
“PROTECT PROTECT” will be at the MCA from October 25, 2008 to February 1, 2009. Outdoor Projection Schedule: MCA (Oct. 29-31), Lyric Opera House (Saturday, Nov. 1), Chicago Tribune Tower (Sunday, Nov. 2), and Merchandise Mart (Monday, Nov 3). Projections will be on view 7-10pm, weather permitting.