November 2008, Jenny Holzer @ Museum of Contemporary Art
Jenny Holzer, Installation View, Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Jenny Holzer, Protect Protect
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Through February 1, 2009
Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?
The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.
I feel you. I ask you. I don't wait. I won't ask you... The words scroll in and out of the wall in brilliant LEDs, climb up and over buildings, float on vast rivers and shackle bones.
Part lyricism, part PSA, part unbridled reveling in technical indulgence and a love affair with neon glow, Jenny Holzer's work is at its core about processing information.
As we read, the brain's occipital cortex processes the visual information: the words and forms of the letters, the frontal lobe of the neocortex translates the meaning and relational aspects of the text and the temporal lobe gives the text voice; digital whispers from the wall.
Thus, Holzer's work has always commanded attention, using our pavlovian response to words to force us to stop and read. Her early work employed posters wheat-pasted around the city, emblazoned with her Truisms
, fortune-cookie length nuggets of biting wisdom informing pedestrians that absolute submission can be a form of freedom and that surpluses are immoral. The words moved to tshirts and hats, then to large LED screens blazing "Protect me from what I want" from high atop a skyscraper in the middle of a major commercial intersection.
A huge room with LED strips scrolls the words "I walk in, I see you, I watch you, I scan you", readable in the reflective ceiling, the mechanical construct mirroring back our own actions. The poetry in her work is in more than just the words. In some ways, it echoes adbusting, graffiti and other such renegade reclamations of public space. The voice emanating from it is the neutral vocalization of a radio news announcer but the message always carries an edge of urgency. At its most obvious, it stands out as a beacon of sincerity, or perhaps individuality, amidst a heartless sea of advertisements and logos.
But of course, that neutral voice would warn against over-romanticizing as the work does not exist independently from the landscape, but becomes a part of it. Sometimes the words must be read on the ceiling, other times they are etched on skin or projected onto the viewers' bodies. Sometimes you sit on them, walk on them, cover and release them. They are longer if they live indoors, more succinct outside. She knows her readers.
Holzer stopped using her own texts in 2001 in favor of her vast collection of writings of others, running the gamut from poetry to government documents to firsthand accounts. It's a barely noticeable shift but experience of seeing the words of others filtered through her hand gives the newer work an immediacy and relevance that moves beyond philosophical musings. Her paintings are enlarged 8.5 x 11 documents dealing with the Iraq war, detainees, strategic maps and interrogation techniques. The themes of death and violence which have consistently featured in her work are elevated from war relics to large billboards. They retain the throwaway quality of her Truism
posters; the PSA will change tomorrow though the message remains the same.
And yes, Holzer does have a message. It's presented in a neutral manner in perfect screen prints and programmed machines but her hand is visible in the selection of text. It's in the way she strings together the words of others, the way the yellow side of Red Yellow Looming
scrolls government writings about the Middle East conflict and "cost-effective military engagement", while the reverse red side simultaneously scrolls records of community rebuilding and a "stable future". Thorax
, a curved piece resembling a ribcage and mounted in a corner scrolls government documents relating to the war and it's the familiar shiver of watching amber alerts and 9/11 news updates when the words "Chief of Military Justice" slither by.
It's a disservice to lump Jenny Holzer under the umbrella of political artist though the work is socially-charged; perhaps a broad application of the term activist artist is more appropriate. She's anything but a one-trick pony hammering a point home. The words are simultaneously tender and violent, acid burn and soothing balm, promoting power and submission. They are a reflection of the inner turmoils of the psyche – the struggle for control and a desire to yield that play out in every tiny action that ripples into other people, nations, and places across the oceans.
In light of the recent election, where bipartisanship became a fevered end-season game complete with tshirts, anthems, and a colored scoreboard, Holzer's work is a reminder of the dangers of oversimplification and fervent worship of anything. She never presents a solution, nor does she give any specific direction. She presents what is – and all that it entails – the viewer is left to process. Thinking is a mandate.
The MCA show included projections for three nights on three landmark buildings: The Lyric Opera House, the Merchandise Mart and the Tribune Tower. Opening night at the museum incidentally fell on Halloween and included the final night of her projection on the MCA facade. This one scrolled poems by Poet Laureate Wislawa Szymborska, whose writings could be cousins to Holzer's own. There was something quite otherworldy and comforting about reading "The Joy of Writing" as it slithered up the building as bands of costumed pedestrians trotted by. That specific poem is Szymborska celebrating the power of the writer to stop time, to prevent death, to save. One can exercise immense control in literature and art yes, but there is also a delicious release of authority once the words move from the projection film to the building to the eye to the night sky and into the minds of strangers clustered across the street reading for ten minutes a poem composed in a bedroom years ago in Poland.