The Magazine

Signs of Decay

This is what happens when the medium is the message.

Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By LANCE ESPLUND
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Jenny Holzer

Protect Protect

Fondation Beyeler


Basel, Switzerland

Nov. 1, 2009 - Jan. 24, 2010

Jenny Holzer's artistic aphorisms--her text-laden T-shirts and posters; projected wall-size slogans, and large, running LED signs--at first are cause for alarm.

Read as stream-of-consciousness warning signs, their cryptic meanings and clinical delivery can be sobering. Holzer's language art, which she has been making for the last three decades, fires off its messages--prophetic and apocryphal, public and private, dealing with heartache, politics, religion, and war--like a running ticker tape of all the world's problems. She deploys language so that words are dropped into our consciousness, bit by bit, like Chinese water torture.

When her cautionary haikus are at their best--"Decency Is a Relative Thing," "Private Property Created Crime," "Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise," "With You Inside Me Comes the Knowledge of My Death"--her language is as unnerving for its brevity and bite as it is for its billboard-scale browbeating.

In her recent retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, now on exhibition in Basel, we are treated to a spare yet in-your-face selection of Holzer's artworks from only the last 15 years, which makes it not a proper retrospective per se. Some of her text works, which have been projected onto surfaces including building façades, trees, cliff faces, and ocean waves, have looked more innovative and convincing than they do here. To its credit, however, "Protect Protect," for better or worse, includes no documentary images of previous installations. This exhibition is more concerned with the here-and-now.

Although Holzer continues to re-
cycle her sayings from as far back as the 1970s, "Protect Protect" presents the artist basically as she is today, with her most recent, technologically advanced, and, in terms of subject matter, up-to-the-minute art.

Organized by Elizabeth A.T. Smith at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and Sam Keller, director of the Fondation Beyeler, the exhibit comprises mostly Holzer's large, signature LED installations, eight from the last two years which--generally made up from an amalgam of the artist's sayings, past and present--are the most engaging works in the show.

Holzer's LED installations have the pulse and pull, as well as the annoying demands, of advertising signage. The show's colored, rhythmic lights, difficult to ignore, beckon viewers from gallery to gallery. Forever lingering in "Protect Protect" is the promise that if you stay long enough you will be edified, enlightened, or at least entertained.

That allure is partly what holds people transfixed in the first gallery. There you encounter the mammoth work "For Chicago" (2008), eleven 48-foot-long streaming, yellow LED signs, which are placed parallel approximately two feet apart in a corner on the gallery floor. The layered, yellow text--animating the floor while reflecting and bouncing off the walls--rushes by beneath you like highway dividing lines. In other galleries, tall columns or crisscrossing banks of stacked, curving LED signs race up and across the walls or gallery corners. Or they cascade, like a waterfall of text, from wall to floor and back again. "Red Yellow Looming" (2004), which can be read from opposite directions, comprises 13 signs that crisscross between two parallel walls of a hallway.

"Protect Protect" also includes suites of artworks whose sole subjects are the Iraq war and the Middle East, as well as atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia. The Iraq and Middle East works, titled "Redaction Paintings" (2005-09), are reprinted images of formerly classified documents that were deemed too sensitive for public consumption. They include altered prisoners' handprints and tinted maps of Baghdad, as well as declassified military documents, all with lines redacted (blacked out by government censors), and then blown up by Holzer and silkscreened in oil on canvas.

The Yugoslavia-based works consist of incised marble benches and "Lustmord" (1994), a sculpture comprising human bones--some wrapped with silver bands and inscribed with text, like specimen labels or ankle bracelets--all laid out in rows on a wooden table.