Jenny Holzer: "Multidisciplinary Dweeb"
redistributing wealth is imperative
sloppy thinking gets worse over time
repetition is the best way to learn
the idiosyncratic has lost its authority
using force to stop force is absurd
violence is permissible even desirable occasionally
These are just a few lines from Jenny Holzer's Truisms, a series of epigrams and maxims that she has called, half-jokingly, "'Jenny Holzer's Reader's Digest version of Western and Eastern thought." Occasionally cliché-like and sometimes contradictory, both the truisms and her methods of presenting them have been influence by the world of commercial art and advertising, appearing, often, to be no more noticeable than a conventional ad.
Since 1979, Holzer has been using texts like these as the core focus of her art—she began her career by printing them on posters and putting them up, guerilla-style, all over New York City. More recently, she has employed a variety of media to make her point, including billboards, theater marquees, marble, banners pulled by airplanes, light-emitting diode (LED) displays, neon lights, xenon projections, and virtual reality environments. For Holzer, text and art are indistinguishable. A conceptual artist featured in nearly every major modern and contemporary art museum, including New York City's Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim, Holzer believes that the environment is her greatest canvas, and seeks to blur the boundaries between daily and artistic life. A self-described "multidisciplinary dweeb," she chooses to use words because text "lets you be very explicit about your subject matter. For all the glories of abstract painting, you can't be explicit about war or whatever your preferred subject is."
Two older projects that focus on text as her primary medium are Survival (1983-1985) and Lamentations (1989-1990). Survival is similar to Truisms in that Holzer used a list of cryptic sentences and phrases to comprise her core message. But in Survival, the text is stranger, and more poetic:
bodies lie in the bright grass and some are murdered and some are picnicking
you hover near lovely unconscious life-forms that offer no immediate resistance
when someone beats you with a flashlight you make light shine in all directions
In Lamentations, however, the text was more involved, and the medium was different; both inscribed into stone sarcophagi and projected from LEDs, the thirteen texts in Lamentations chronicle the thoughts of men, women, and children before death. Presented with a single spotlight and all natural light blocked out, one chilling text begins:
WITH ONLY MY MIND
TO PROTECT ME
I GO INTO DAYS.
WHAT I FEAR IS
IN A BOX WITH FUR
TO MUFFLE IT.
Since 1996, Holzer has been projecting large texts onto buildings, including a 2004 work that projected government documents made available under the Freedom of Information Act. Many of these documents, which included official communications, reports, and letters were previously classified or confidential. In one of Holzer's most recent projects, she has collaborated with poets to make their work visible in a new context, including Henri Cole, Wislawa Szymborska, Yehuda Amichai, Randall Mann, Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca and Walt Whitman, projecting their poems in scrolling xenon onto architecture. These larger-than-life poems have lit up skies around the world in cities such as New York, Buenos Aires, Paris, Miami, and Madrid. Randall Mann's work was projected onto the Freedom Tower in Miami. Because the projections are made large enough to read, and scroll, only a small portion of each poem is visible at a time. One selection of Mann's poem "Postscriptum" read:
There is no rain, or rain of fire, or fire—
actually, the Seventh Circle's rather nice,
and all my friends are here. The truth? It's buried
somewhere beneath the surface—there lies Dante,
over on the sand, wearing a thong.
While Holzer's works often have a political intent or message, they are kept from didacticism through her kindness and humor; she prefers to jar or surprise onlookers rather than teach or lecture them. The poetic texts are no exception, making poetry available and noticeable to a public that has long ignored it without lengthy explanations or the usual (sometimes distancing) context in which we might read or hear poetry. For Holzer, words, politics, poetry, and art are as unavoidable and real as the cities we live in.