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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.