decency is a relative thing
even your family can betray you
fake or real indifference is a powerful personal weapon
humanism is obsolete
it’s better to be naive than jaded
lack of charisma can be fatal
moderation kills the spirit
people are nuts if they think they are important
talking is used to hide one’s inability to act
Above are some of the Truisms, aphoristic statements on politics, sex, social justice and human behaviour that Jenny Holzer used to project on large electronic billboards high above public places when she was rising as one of the most thought-provoking artists in the 1970s. Four decades later, she is still making art in the form of her trademark LED installations but the focus has now shifted from the ambiguities of consumerist spectacle and one’s position in the society to the atrocities of war.
Hauser & Wirth’s solo exhibition of Holzer’s generations spanning oeuvre presents older and newer pieces and notices especially how the artist critically enters territories of military crimes and violations of human(e) code through declassified US documents published on the National Security Archive website which Holzer painstakingly (and patiently) researches. She appropriates reports, testimonies, investigation files and plans of action into colourful flashing screens, offering snippets of communication that has finally become visible. The text rolls on from left to right and right to left, friezes, pulses and rhythmically marches on before one’s eyes. It is psychedelic, uncomfortable and irritating and yet, only a muted preface to what is to come.
The exhibition next moves on to much more horrifying evocations, if not physical evidence of war in the work entitled Lustmord Table (1994). Here, human bones are neatly laid out on two tables, alluding in particular to brutal, deliberate violence perpetrated on women during the Bosnian war. (Marina Abramovic’ performance Balkan Baroque (1997) is also structured around the bones and the war in the Balkans.) It brings into the material realm what ‘Lustmord’ denotes on the semantic level- it stands for ‘rape murder’ in German. Simultaneously, it also brings to mind Holzer’s older truism that ‘murder has its sexual side’ and attests to the artist’s long-term preoccupation with both, personal and political issues.
Lustmord Table (1994) can be taken as an extension of her 1993-1994 series Lustmord which featured photographs of rather disturbing text inscribed on human skin, some of which blended women’s blood with ink. Softer Targets, however, includes many more characters- detainees, American soldiers, politicians, officers and civilians, all of whom became entangled in Afghanistan and Iraq interventions and whose roles are far from clearly visible, understood or ready to be penned down.
This, I believe, is conveyed in Holzer’s ‘redaction paintings’, four of which hang in the Rhoades Gallery alongside two LED works. The artist recreated pages of once secret documents as oil paintings in which she preserved the obscured paragraphs and blacked out phrases, on one occasion leaving in a single legible sentence: ‘Shifting to Softer Targets’. ‘Shifting’, primarily when occurring in the meaning of (available) information communicated by language, resonates throughout the texts and forms of the whole exhibition. The difficulty of seeing the context and the impossibility of grounding or stabilizing fragmented intelligence is apparent in columns hanging from the ceiling, installed in dark rooms or designed to move away as soon as the visitor wants to come closer. Holzer this way seems to propound the notion of distance that is inserted between us and the governmental or media narratives, the notion of truth that is shrouded although it keeps rolling on daily news, knowledge that is blocked even if the sources become freely accessible. (The desire to avoid the one-dimensional view of the Syrian conflict and to open up a wider range of perspectives, for example, manifests itself in the ‘emergency cinema’ of an anonymous Syrian film collective and is going to be discussed in the next days, between 22nd and 24th October 2015 by Vera List Center for Art and Politics, NY.)
Contrasting with the transience of the fast-moving LED extracts and their bruise-like palette of red, purple, green and blue, Holzer situated sturdy stone benches and bronze plaques around the interior and the exterior, respectively, of Hauser & Wirth’s new rural premises. Chilling coldness and material resilience permeates these sculptural forms in such a way that their textual inscriptions, too, become somewhat permanently present and impossible to erase from your mind.
Jenny Holzer: Softer Targets closes on 1st November 2015 at Hauser & Wirth, Somerset.
PS- Jenny Holzer on ‘Writing and Difficulty’:
PS 2- Jenny Holzer’s redaction paintings:
PS 3- Marina Abramovic describing her work Balkan Baroque: //www.moma.org/audios/embed/190/1988
PS 4- article ‘Syrian Film Collective Offers View of Life Behind a Conflict’ in New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/19/movies/syrian-film-collective-offers-view-of-life-behind-a-conflict.html