Digital dreams, text, shooting words on a noose, on a thread. Haunted heads and tormented bodies. Bones laid out to dry and tagged with rings of metal fear. Immaculate carvings into ready to use headstones, marble benches for two, and sad still mausoleums. A sense of unshakable pain, fear and sexual gratuity and a whole host of questions.
Jenny Holzer is an artist who has shaped my work since I first found her book in the A level art room. I think it was Truth before Power, but can’t be sure. Originally a painter, she moved to New York in the 1970’s to take part in the Whitney’s Independent Study Program. From here on in her work featured text; maxims, truisms and aphorisms. She wants her work to be less like artwork and more like popular culture, more like commonly seen advertising slogans; reappropriating the language of the oppressor to reveal who is being oppressed. Holzer is well know for her short provocative statements, which often resemble existing truisms, maxims and cliche’s. These truisms work with familiar language to invite viewers ro question the mass information we encounter day to day in Western society, particularly via politics and journalism. Written word is not only delivered by Holzer in single sentences, but in longer pieces known as inflammatory essays. The content of these pieces is often longer and address issues in more detail.
Key themes run through Holzers work. These include the role of individual in shaping society, the role of the public and the private, the impact of war, power politics and patriarchy. She also examines the outcomes of an authority driven society. Holzer uses objects, assemblage and most frequently Image as text as her main medium. She believes that by using words people have more immediate access to the ideas running through her work. By using minimal statements and comments, Holzer manages to take the personal out of her work. The statements are divorced from her; the artist. They are not her words, but the words of many voices or a shared voice. This approach separates the artist from the content, and enables the text to represent a collective voice, something greater than the authorship of the artist herself. Holzer says
“I want the meaning to be available but I also want it sometimes to disappear into fractured reflections or into the sky. Because one’s focus comes and goes, one’s ability to understand what’s happening ebbs and flows. I like the representation of language to be the same. This tends to not only give the content to people, but it will also pull them to attend.”
The exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, Softer Targets left a bitter and indelible taste. A major solo show by Holzer, the exhibition focussed on the explorations of American documents, noting the persecution and incarceration of suspected terrorists. More broadly, the exhibition suggested, prompted and examined an ambiguous abuse of power, and left me feeling angry with an oppressive society, uncertain of the presence of any sort of humanity and wider notion of justice, and worried about the vicious treatment of suspected targets.
Reflecting on my own practice, Holzer’s use of succinct text, and indeed the use of image as text resounds with my own practice. A love of linguistic structures and tools such as idioms, proverbs, truisms, sayings and maxims is reignited and validated by Holzer’s considered use of language. The spoken and the read, the most immediate format, used to ground the specific and often obscure semantics of contemporary art practice, add a sense of familiarity and everyday to an otherwise elite world of curators, collectors and critics. Her work is grounded in the day to day, for wide audiences and interaction and conversation beyond the constraints of the usual gallery suspects.