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Jenny Holzer’s recent survey at the Whitney Museum had the same effect as viewing the film Samson and Delilah: it rendered me speechless.1 Somehow despite the vast distances between both experiences, in visual genre, subject matter, production values and intent, a line was crossed that made them both shockingly topical and aesthetically persuasive. To my mind, nothing else matters as much in visual practice nowadays.
‘Jenny Holzer: PROTECT PROTECT’ was the artist’s most comprehensive show in the United States for more than fifteen years. I made the pilgrimage to Manhattan at Easter to see Alexandra Munroe’s The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia 1860-1989 at the Guggenheim. Disappointed at its ‘academic’ and unapproachable exhibition display on the subject, I left with the catalogue (hardly an accompaniment to the project; more like the main-game). Holzer was altogether different. An immersive and absorbing show, it was organised by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in partnership with the Fondation Beyeler, Basel.
As is well known, the artist’s text installations, which have grown in size and ambition over the years, are frequently played out in non-art sites as well as orthodox display venues. They are a testament to Holzer’s commitment to direct public engagement on issues of social and cultural importance. I still have a sheet of her Truisms from 1977, picked up free around that time from the Printed Matter store in SoHo: ‘Abuse of power should come as no surprise/ Alienation can produce eccentrics or revolutionaries/ An elite is inevitable/ Anger or hate can be a useful motivation force/’ and so forth. For this touring show, the Truisms have been integrated into a new floor-based work using the artist’s characteristic LED (light-emitting diode) strips. This time her idiomatic texts are in bright amber and throb on the retina in the darkened space. In this reformatted mode, there are cryptic phrases from practically all her series using language: Inflammatory Essays, Living, Survival, Under a Rock, Laments, Mother and Child, War, Lustmord, Erlauf, Arno, Blue, up to Oh of 2001. This was the year that Holzer decisively stopped using her own writings in her practice (and instead drew upon readings of others). As the introductory installation, made especially for the survey and titled For Chicago (2008), this LED work reminded viewers that the artist has always wanted ‘to be explicit about things…and the only way…to do it was to use language’.2 However, Holzer’s comment belies the fact that she has consistently found the means to puncture spectator fatigue and the dulling effect on one’s senses of a ceaseless torrent of media information. We have, through necessity, become highly selective as to which injustice to focus on and how much human suffering we can individually bear to recognise.
In PROTECT PROTECT, Holzer helps us to make that decision. The title derives from texts detailing plans for the Iraq war, yet it also alludes to the problematic drive of personal desire. It calls up one of the artist’s best-known statements: ‘protect me from what I want’, exhorting the body politic to take action as well as one’s personal conscience. It is written from a North American’s vantage point with all the privileges of democracy’s educated class and is cognizant of this fact. Holzer works between public and private spheres and between the universal and the particular, increasingly revealing a range of opinions, attitudes and voices, so that viewers may choose to identify with the voice of one particular ‘personality’ or another. In this way she avoids the deadening freight of self-righteousness.
The earliest electronic work in the show is the barrier-like Red Yellow Looming (2004), thirteen double-sided LED signs with red and amber diodes. It is seductive in the sense that Dan Flavin’s light works are, but in its incessant statements of policy-making under the presidencies of Reagan, Bush and Clinton (on issues such as the international trade in arms and oil, the ‘war’ on terrorism, 9/11, and the FBI and CIA concerning events prior to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003) it is clearly an art of social activism, if not protest. These horizontal signs pitched forward above the heads of the viewers, encompassing but not allowing them to pass through. They demonstrated how Holzer consciously employs dissonance between medium and message; even the 2008 LED works such as Monument (with its citations from Truisms) and Blue Cross (with text from Arno 1996) have this effect. The light works are essentially sculptures; they shape a space in both an ominously threatening and seductively inviting manner. With Purple (2008), Judd-like minimalist shapes set along a wall were also part-Rothko/part-Flavin in the way they bathed the room in ethereal light. At the same time, they dramatically disturbed it through the textual broadcast of US government documents.
Before seeing this show, I had mainly read newspaper reports and the Web on the way Guantanamo Bay detainees were subjected to dehumanising interrogation techniques. Like most media documents these were consumed then dispensed with, either in the rubbish or consigned to cyberspace. The ‘aura’ that we continue to attach to paintings (despite the rhetoric of postmodern theory) means that they have a chance to be taken seriously. The fresh departures in this exhibition were Holzer’s paintings from 2005 onwards of ‘confidential’ documents derived from the National Security Archive, the American Civil Liberties Union and the FBI websites. Formerly classified, these government documents have been declassified and ‘redacted’ through a black out process by official censors.3
Holzer’s uniform Redaction Paintings, resembling enlarged A4 sheets, reproduce the documents whole and verbatim. At the Whitney, through their spare black on white statements installed in one long room, the artist relinquished the spectacle of her LED and film projection texts, yet their glow seeped through from the adjacent spaces. Thorax (2008), for instance, a column extending from floor to ceiling, takes the case of an Iraqi non-combatant killed by American forces through testaments provided by US government documents. Reading them, as curator Elizabeth Smith observes, is reminiscent of ‘the tortured scenarios of Franz Kafka or the multivalent realities presented in Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon’.4 They testify to a military machine that is complex and conflicted. To me, the bands of bureaucratic text were indivisible from the visceral effect they had on the body; I felt assaulted by running one-liners, top to bottom, down and up.
By taking the classified documents in toto for her screenprinted Redaction Paintings, Holzer shows how names, signatures, sentences and whole passages have been blacked out by censors in the declassification process. In formal terms, the black/white stretched linen canvases hark back to 1960s Conceptualism, although Warhol’s Disaster series of the same period is also evoked. It is his insistence on seriality and the trauma implied by those deadpan images that take us close to Holzer. The various styles of marking and redacting give evidence to the number of individuals involved in both the execution of the Iraq war and the management of its information and lend a restrained humanity to her works. There are accounts of White House strategies, reproducing maps with texts of possible scenarios of conflict, autopsy reports of detainees in the Middle East, and documents with handprints of American soldiers accused of crimes there. The handprints themselves have been redacted to efface individuating marks. Perhaps the most shocking in the exhibition were the paintings of detainees’ fingerprints that were postmortem and hence distorted through rigor mortis.
To my mind, they are as difficult to stomach as the Lustmord project of 1993-95. In Australia, an early manifestation of this installation, testifying to ‘rape-slaying’ of women in Bosnia through vertically running LED texts and a table laid out with human bones, was a controversial highpoint in the exhibition program of the 1998 Telstra Adelaide Festival. Lustmord was present again in PROTECT PROTECT, represented chiefly by the Lustmord Table laid with its human remains in taxonomically precise rows. Tellingly, it was placed in the centre of the room with the paintings and its installation paralleling the idea of a museum display. While art writers justify the piece on the grounds that it resembles ‘a tabernacle’ and reinforces the idea of direct engagement with the female victim, I continue to fall on the side of deploring this use of fragments of the human body.5 What does it take to express violation of ‘others’ to viewers inured to violence by too much graphic news reportage? Who has the right to place, for public scrutiny, whatever the intention, the remains of anonymous human beings? Perhaps there is some sort of answer in Holzer’s barbed Truism that ‘morals are for little people’ and that this citation may equally be the remark of a person in a life threatening situation as a flung-away line of someone at the pinnacle of a Western power. In light of this, US philosopher James Hillman’s recent book A Terrible Love of War warrants a sober read.6
1. Warwick Thornton’s award-winning film Samson and Delilah, made from an Indigenous Australian perspective, was released during the same period as the exhibition.
2. Quoted in Joan Simon, ‘Other Voices, Other Forms’, Jenny Holzer, Hatje Cantz, 2008, p.21. This book was published in association with the exhibition Jenny Holzer: Protect Protect, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, and Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel.
3. Since the 1966 ‘Freedom of Information Act’ these all are now public record, though many remain heavily redacted.
4. Elizabeth AT Smith, ‘Protect Protect: The Socially Useful Art of Jenny Holzer’, Jenny Holzer, op.cit., p.29.
5. For a thought provoking book on this and other issues, see Fran Lloyd, Catherine O’Brien, Secret spaces, forbidden places: rethinking culture, Berghan Books, New York 2001.
6. James Hillman, A Terrible Love of War, Penguin Press, New York, 2004.