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The exhibition Jenny Holzer: PROTECT PROTECT demonstrates a renewed validity for the artist’s LED signs, which have long been considered canonical to both contemporary art and feminist discourses. Having made these electronic installations for more than twenty-five years, Holzer seemingly predicted the appearance of the ubiquitous ticker that now streams constantly at the base of television and computer screens. She recognized early on that electronic technology was a crucial site of viewing. The means of delivering information has taken on a whole new significance since the invention of the internet and 9/11. For the exhibition’s stop at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, MCA curator Elizabeth A. T. Smith assembled a powerful series of new LED works, including For Chicago (2008), which was commissioned by the museum for its permanent collection, and a number of paintings from Holzer’s Redaction series, as well as a selection from Holzer’s earlier installation Lustmord (1995). Accompanied by a beautifully printed exhibition catalogue with lush illustrations and essays by Smith and Joan Simon, along with an interview with Jenny Holzer by Benjamin Buchloh, the exhibition provides a compelling moment to reevaluate Holzer’s past works and consider her continuing contributions to contemporary art.
Before entering the two main galleries, visitors encountered two examples from Holzer’s Redaction series. Setting the tone for the serious global-political content that permeates the exhibition, Wish List/Gloves Off Pewter (2007) is composed of four large-scale canvases screened with declassified emails between interrogation officers who debate the term “unlawful combatant” and what is permissible in terms of torture. This Conceptual artist’s return to painting might be surprising for some, but she draws on painting’s ability to command authority in the museum context, commenting that she utilized the medium, “because people study and preserve paintings and take them seriously, whereas the information wasn’t always noticed or taken seriously” (22). The raw quality of the screened emails—appearing to originate from scanned photocopied documents—set against streaks of pewter paint recall the detached quality of Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings, which Holzer examined during the making of this series (122). Smith clearly used these works as points in the exhibition to stop, contemplate, and synthesize the often overwhelming display of information projected at viewers as they moved through Holzer’s better-known LED installations.
In contrast to the exhibition entrance, the two main galleries on the ground floor of the museum suggested a reprieve from the disturbing content of the Redaction series as viewers were bathed in seductive and even soothing red, yellow, purple, blue, and pink lights. However, after spending time with Holzer’s selections of text, a tension is called up between beauty and pain, pleasure and violence. For Chicago (2008) commanded nearly the entire room with long vertical LED strips lining the gallery floor while transmitting a retrospective of Holzer’s own words in a vivid yellow: Truisms (1979), Living (1980–1982), Survival (1983–1985), Under a Rock (1986), Laments (1989), Mother and Child (1990), War (1992), Lustmord (1993–1995), Erlauf (1995), Arno (1996), Blue (1998), and Oh (2001). These texts offer multiple voices, clichés, contradictory phrasings and points of view, but always conveyed with firm authority as they pulsate, overlap, change direction and fonts, and at times go black and disappear into the wall at varying speeds.
The vast scale of the LED signs beckoned visitors to explore the length of the space, which lead to a smaller gallery where the work appeared to continue through the wall and end abruptly. Here, the approximately foot-long LED signs could no longer relay the full quotes from the other room, but they did dramatically throw light on seven of Holzer’s MAP paintings (2008), another instance of the MCA’s insightful installation. Derived from a PowerPoint presentation given by the U.S. Central Military Command to the White House, the screened maps illustrate proposed phases of the invasion of Iraq beginning with a “Running Start” and culminating in “Phase IV—Post Hostilities.” Holzer noted that the maps are punctuated by concise language, such as “protect,” “exploit,” “defeat,” “destroy,” “degrade,” and “suppress” (24), which echo the texts in her LED signs. It is extremely difficult to reconcile these images, especially as the clean and efficient quality to the PowerPoint contrasts with knowledge of the daily and bloody violence in Iraq; this, in turn, has lead many visitors to question the authenticity of these documents (23). Therefore, Holzer’s aesthetic seduction of the audience often ends with polar reactions of guilt and doubt, potentially leading viewers to wonder to what degree they participate in or permit these practices.
The second large gallery featured several LED pieces from 2008: Green Purple Cross, Monument, and Thorax. Simon quotes Holzer as saying, “People talk about the content, and that’s right, but very few mention how the stuff looks and that’s important” (11). Here, however, the reverse occurred to a certain degree as the visual qualities dominated the subject matter. Luscious pinks, purples, blues, and reds tended to overwhelm the curator’s thoughtful pairing of texts. For example, Green Purple Cross and Monument provide a further compiling of Holzer’s earlier writing, such as Truisms, Erlauf, and Arno, while Thorax projects material from U.S. government documents that outline the protocol to access classified data and examine collected forensic evidence. Holzer’s own words, which stress the surveillance of the body, specifically in the gendered terms of authority as inherently patriarchal and the female body as site of violence, amplify intersections with the excerpts from official U.S. documents. Unfortunately, minimal wall texts and an explanation of works that was limited to a one-page handout meant that many viewers may not have benefited from an understanding of these persuasive comparisons. This was also the case with the juxtaposition of Lustmord and Red Yellow Looming (2008). However, when examined individually, Holzer’s use of repeated LED arcs in a vertical format, especially Thorax where the forms suggest the core of the human figure, does give pause and creates a direct connection between a viewer’s body and how she or he chooses to act on the projected words.
Behind this space Smith offered another successful pairing of Holzer’s paintings and sculpture. Composed of thirty-three LED arcs that move from floor to wall in a horizontal pattern, Purple (2008) was set across from the artist’s thirty-six panel installation of HAND (2008). In these paintings, viewers are confronted by the handprints of terrorist suspects who died in detention (23). While Purple spells out security procedures for investigating a bomb discovered on a construction site and questioning suspects, it simultaneously illuminated the numerous handprints and names crossed out with black magic marker and, ultimately, the human consequences of these investigations.
In addition to the MCA installation, Holzer created projections that were shown at different points in the exhibition on the facade of the museum as well as on the exteriors of the Lyric Opera, Merchandise Mart, and the Chicago Tribune building. As sites of cultural, economic, and political influence, Holzer explained, “many of the buildings chosen as projection screens have occupants and histories worth highlighting, and projections can invite benign gatherings at night” (120). For many critics and historians, this is where Holzer’s work is most effective as political and activist art in engaging a public who may not normally enter the museum. However, one of the most powerful moments during my visit to the exhibition was listening to docents giving tours to Chicago high-school students and asking them— “How do you use the web?” “What newspapers do you read?”—thereby utilizing the opportunity to address the fact that the internet is frequently relied on by young and old alike as a source for entertainment, whether celebrity news or shopping, rather than gathering materials for informed political decision making.
The exhibition’s intriguing political timing, opening just prior to President Obama’s election and closing just after Illinois Governor Blagojevich’s impeachment, further highlighted Buchloh’s assertion that Holzer’s art gives spectators considerable responsibility (119). By using the museum as a space to question complacency in the face of the War on Terror, the exhibition asks viewers to give greater thought to what role they might take in this new era. Holzer’s work is a reminder that political art and dialogue need not always take place outside of traditional art institutions, and the MCA’s willingness to serve as a venue for such discourse is most welcome.
Associate Professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, DePaul University
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