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September 2010, Barbara Kruger @ Sprueth Magers, Berlin


Barbara Kruger, installation view ‘The Globe Shrinks', Sprueth Magers Berlin, 2010
Copyright Barbara Kruger, Courtesy Sprueth Magers Berlin London

 

Barbara Kruger
Sprueth Magers Berlin
Oranienburger Strasse 18
D-10178, Berlin
September 3 through October 23, 2010

Barbara Kruger first made her mark on the art world in the 1980s with her signature text-based works, typically featuring found black-and-white images overlaid with white-on-red slogans. These works have become nearly ubiquitous – you can find reproductions on t-shirts, postcards and posters. This has as much – if not more – to do with the fact that they manage to perfectly replicate the “eye-friendly” visual language of advertising to the extent that they blend in well with the oft overlooked billboard junk culture, than with the supposed potency of the texts, which tend to be the stuff of “politics lite,” deliberately ambiguous messages that, with some strain, could be interpreted as provocative, but are generally vague and inoffensive on the surface, in marked contrast to the sharp and confrontational contours of the Futura Bold Oblique font in which they are typically rendered.

“I shop therefore I am.” “Your body is a battleground.” “Your comfort is my silence.” It all has the potential to mean so much – the evils of consumerism, anti-abortionists, rape, bourgeois marriage, and anti-feminism, for instance – and yet it ultimately expresses so little. The work is one big tease, an anti-climax, without being clever enough to be the mindfuck it is so often mistaken as. Nevertheless, perhaps no other artist comes quicker to mind than Kruger when discussions of ‘80s political art arise. At the same time, her work, while purporting to be critical of the general commercial establishment and the excesses of that decade, is very much complacent with it. It is not incidental that the pieces resemble a magazine layout or a billboard advertisement; Kruger initially worked as a designer for Condé Nast publications, and her art deliberately mines this style of visual language, supposedly in an effort to subvert it. But, of course, the fact that it is so pleasing to the contemporary eye – pleasing, in that we are able to recognize and decipher it immediately, since we are surrounded by it every day – is the “secret” to its success. Kruger’s work lends a lot of credence to the idea that if you stick to one signature style long enough, no matter how bad it is, it will eventually bring you fame and success. It shows how artists inadvertently come to mimic the logic of the corporate world: her signature style became her patent; you can’t not recognize a Barbara Kruger when you see one. Through her not-so-virulent critique of the American Dream, Kruger unwittingly became one of its celebrity proponents in the art world.

More recently, Kruger has moved on to film and video works. The Globe Shrinks is her most recent work, a four-channel film installation currently on at Sprueth Magers in Berlin. The work is impossible to summarize, as it is essentially a non-narrative collage of bad jokes, vague conversations, written messages to the viewer, and short vignettes, all relayed at lightning speed on the four different walls of the gallery, forcing the viewer to shift her head furiously in order to take it all in – this is perhaps meant as a commentary on our short attention span culture. None of it really adds up to a coherent whole in the end – in this sense, it is rather like a bombardment of Kruger’s early slogans raining down without a bucket to catch them in. The only revealing, self-critical moment in the work is an exchange between a male artist and a female interrogator. The former intones that he is interested in making work with people, work that explores “kindness and brutality,” among other banal polarities. His opponent suggests that he watch reality television, which manages to pull it off in a way “more brutal and funnier” than his work. Is Kruger finally coming around to the shortcomings of her ongoing project?

Of course, The Globe Shrinks is stunningly executed – the quality of the filmmaking makes it resemble a shiny, cleanly edited Hollywood production, in fitting in with Kruger’s ongoing “critique” of the culture industry. Anyone who desires a rough aesthetic will always be disappointed by Kruger, who is the antithesis of punk. Indeed, there lies the central problem with Kruger’s work, one that she still hasn’t figured out a way to resolve after all these years. She is still too captivated by the things she despises in our corrupt culture to renounce her privileged role in its star system. In the art world, despite her confused ambitions, Barbara Kruger is about as mainstream as it gets – smooth, vaguely political, easy to look at, and easy to read. Thus, harmless, and in the long run, inconsequential.

 


Barbara Kruger, installation view ‘The Globe Shrinks', Sprueth Magers Berlin, 2010
Copyright Barbara Kruger, Courtesy Sprueth Magers Berlin London

Travis Jeppesen

Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio. 

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