Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Jenny Holzer - The Meaning of Everything

There once was a man who wanted to discover the meaning of everything.
He wandered across the world, searching for someone wise enough to explain to him what all this was about, what was the meaning of everything.
After many years, in a distant land, he was told there is one Sage who knows the secret, the meaning of everything.
So he traveled to the huge house where the old Sage lived. He knocked at the door, but there was no answer. He tried opening the large wooden door. It was not locked. The traveler entered the house, to find himself in an enormous hall with walls covered in shelves with books. He walked further in and entered a large room also filled with books. He moved to the adjacent room - and discovered that there, too, shelves were everywhere, and on them - only books. He approached one of the shelves and picked up a random volume. He opened it, and inside it, he saw the letter N, filling the pages. The pages of the book were all but rows of NNNNNN...
He picked up another book, opened it - the book was filled with TTTTTTT.... He tried another one, and another, and each of them was filled with but one letter.
Flabbergasted, the traveler wanted to sit down, when the Sage came in. He was an old, grey-bearded man, just as the fairy-tales have it.
"Sir, said the traveler, I don't understand, there is... I don't understand!"
The Sage smiled, and replied, "Now all you need to do is connect the letters."

Although text is at the heart of her work, Jenny Holzer is not really a writer. She is rather a reader. Her work is not so much about text, as it is about giving body to text. But, as the authorship becomes blundered (Holzer signs the work, but none of the texts that compose it), writing is always re-writing, and thus, it is fundamentally about the embodyment reading.

Somewhat following the path suggested by the likes of Barthes, Baudrillard or Foucault, Holzer is a semiotic DJ, reconfiguring and re-shaping the meaning that seems to have been there long ago. If her own words appear in the works, they seem to remain transparent, undistinguishable from external sources. (Remember the famous line, "Protect Me From What I Want"? Can you say if it was Holzer's own sentence, or an appropriation of someone else's?).

In one of her recent projects included in the Protect Protect exhibition (read an insightful review here), Holzer takes on Iraq and the question of torture. In a work showcased at the TimeOut NY site, she reproduces original, recently declassified documents of the US Army. What is the artist's role? How different is it from strictly political work?

Yes, this is Warholesque. And yes, it is somewhat controversial to have an artist of Holzer's renown decide that this was the right approach and means for this specific subject.
One excellent and cruel review puts it bluntly: if it is about raising our awareness, Warhol's works were good proof that in terms of political awareness this can hardly be a success.
But we can see it from another angle: contrary to Warhol, Holzer gained her reputation on working on questions of morality, and contrary to what she herself claims, values have always been a crucial issue in her work. Thus, as her work can already be seen from this engaged perspective, can't we interpret the careful selection of documents as a sort of curatorial answer precisely to warholian esthetic relativism?

Yet the question remains: do we really need this reader? Do we not see the same documents elsewhere? Our performativity-sensitive eyes are accustomed to seeing the terrific game of language that, say, the map of the Iraq invasion represents. What does purple paint and canvas change in this reading, for us, today?
(image on top from here)


multiple monitors said...

Great blog...very interesting...cheers!


Holzer is a great precursor to remix practices in general. The very process of choosing texts from disparate sources and juxtaposing these to generate new meaning is at the heart of remix culture.

Anonymous said...

fantastic blog for contemporary art!!! jenny holzer for artlout and your blog for jenny holzer !!!

LEMAR said...

love digital arts???

Folks, you have to have a look at the website these guys (i think they´re from germany...) did the right thing. a platform for buying digital art an design for the 100% usage on screens off all kind. forget your old aquarium-visuals! ;)) damn, i like that...

SUPER PC said...


Maria Rodriguez said...

Jenny: Your earlier work (truisms) left me feeling quite cold and projected you as an aloof, arrogant artist. Your face showed a certain sadness...but then the last picture I saw was taken a few years ago. I know you and I know that that is not your true nature. Your newer work and the fantastic colors you have imbued in them have given your art such dynamic energy while still allowing your message to come across. Keep using the magentas and especially the purples...they are so spiritual, powerfully significant and have the highest vibrational power. I'm so proud of your achievements. Perhaps the next time you come to South Florida we'll be able to finally get together. Much more success in the future. Your friend, Maria.


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