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.

The documentary artworks, text-ridden, make for slow-going gallery viewing. Unlike Holzer's streaming signs, which rhythmically force-feed their information through the medium of colored lights, the documents must be sought out and pored over. They include letters from distraught parents of soldiers, accounts of military engagements, and autopsy and interrogation reports. Surprisingly, although sometimes extremely personal, they are not that engaging to read.

Aesthetically vacant, the documentary artworks have the self-righteous, finger-pointing air--at times verging on invasive or exploitative--of a television-style exposé. The handprints, attempting to humanize the documents but adding little in the way of graphic punch, come off as trite. And the human bones, a common denominator which should provide a shot of morbid reality (if not shock value) here lack the weight even of relics or artifacts, and feel more like store-bought stage props.

Add these works to the exhibit's blitzkrieg of streaming LED text, and the political pulpit-pounding becomes tiresome, almost too much to bear.

Holzer, born in Ohio in 1950, came of age in an art world that, fueled by conceptualism, puts ideas ahead of, and separate from, form--lopping art's head from its body. Like Barbara Kruger, Holzer is a figurehead in a movement that believes that, in art, having something to say is more important than how one says it. Here, as in any political arena, getting the message out there takes precedence over delivery, which is something of an afterthought.

Holzer is anything but subtle. But her work's bullying can be tempered by the cold, factual mechanics of her delivery, which mimics Times Square signage and public information systems, including the ubiquitous news crawl. When she is at her best, her quips, sometimes borrowed from actual poets, are as intriguing and prophetically vague as Chinese fortune cookies.

In small doses, Holzer's art, especially in LED form, can burn, if not brand itself into your consciousness: Her sayings, like patient birds of prey, can glide at the peripheries of awareness. Or they can leisurely trail through the mind like advertising banners sailing behind airplanes. They can also surprise, like machine-gun bursts. But like all art with a message, Holzer's work, especially en masse, can quickly become less than alarming or inspirational; and in large quantities, her messages verge on the strident and ranting.

"Protect Protect" was named after one of Holzer's best-known, recurring statements: "Protect Me From What I Want." The statement speaks to our collective victimhood, greed, exploitation, and self-deception. Yet it also betrays the artist's need to amuse us--to propagate the easy adage, to pay lip service to problems. Yet the job of art and artists, no matter how political, is not to badger or facilitate social change. Art has higher and more mysterious purposes.

On both occasions when I visited the retrospective at the Whitney, an assaultive yet somnambulistic air filled the darkened galleries, some of which were lit only by their carnival rain of words colored red, yellow, purple, and blue. Visitors, like sleepwalkers, looked dazed and confused. One Whitney employee, dressed in coveralls, rushed through the gallery to attend to something. As he passed through the barrage of text, he sheltered his eyes and said, to no one in particular, "This show drives me crazy!"

Lance Esplund is an art critic in New York.