For Jenny Holzer, language equals art

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For Jenny Holzer, language equals art

Jenny Holzer, an American conceptual artist who uses language as a central part of her work, laughingly says she came to use texts on electronic screens instead of drawing, “because I failed as an abstract painter.”
Holzer, 54, is known for projecting cryptic messages in public spaces, from posters on telephone booths to electronic displays in such places as Times Square.
“I always wanted to have concrete content in my work,” says Holzer, who was in Seoul last week for her first exhibition in Korea at Kukje Gallery. “And I didn’t want to be a realistic painter.”
Her comments on innumerable issues, ranging from child abuse to war to violence, can create an alarming effect on those who encounter her work in unexpected places. Sometimes these are pure images and at other times critical political messages. In August 2000, she created an installation in Philadelphia to coincide with the Republican national convention being held there.
But often Holzer’s work presents both explicit content and minimalist aesthetics that make profound statements about the world of advertising and consumer society today. By presenting an assemblage of phrases that mimic advertising slogans through vehicles commonly used in advertising, such as electric billboards, coffee mugs, and commercials on cable and network television, Holzer questions what our eyes can see and what we can’t see in media ― whether consumers today have any real control over the information that is provided to them.
The artist plays with the idea of communication, or miscommunication, incorporating and subverting various strategies used in advertising to manipulate certain ideas. She questions the imperfection of language through the use of technology, mimicking the ways that media control the color, motion and speed of signs in public spaces to catch viewers’ attention.
She presents her text in an arresting form so that it dominates the site where the works have been installed, as advertising slogans are meant to dominate consumers’ psychological space.
Audience reaction to Holzer’s works has varied over the years. Some viewers have passed by her works, unaware of their artistic content. Others have stopped to stare at the images. Overall, however, her art has intrigued audiences in an age where advertising slogans, headlines and sound bites dominate an important part of our urban landscape.
Holzer’s texts question the artist’s position within the message, but often they end up sounding like general statements about the social values of contemporary society. The artist admits they are “inevitably” autobiographical in that they reflect her experiences, but they are “not like a diary.”
Her Truism series, which first appeared in New York City in the late 1970s as sheets of paper posted on buildings, is filled with provocative statements. Some are common myths while others are just phrases on random subjects in the form of slogans. The sayings include: “A man can’t know what it’s like to be a mother,” “Men are not monogamous by nature,” “Money creates taste” or “A lot of professionals are crackpots.”
The phrases from the series were extracted and presented on LED screens and xenon projections on historical sites in major cities around the world, including Rome, Venice, Buenos Aires, Paris, Oslo, Berlin, Washington and Miami.
Going back to her years as a painter at the Rhode Island School of Design, Holzer says she was influenced by the “clean, simple variations” of minimalist aesthetics in artists like Donald Judd, Mark Rothko and Morris Louis.
Indeed, overlaying a message that speaks directly about a subject are abstract elements in the presentation of Holzer’s recent works that carry their essence, which is often open-ended and meditative. These sensibilities are emphasized further in some of Holzer’s recent art, particularly her gallery installations.
Even in her Seoul exhibit, the meditative character of her art comes through with the installation of two sandstone benches carved with the artist’s writings, which exist both as chairs and as art pieces by themselves.
The artist has carefully arranged the atmosphere of the gallery display so that viewers “won’t feel as if they are in Las Vegas” as they enter the room installed with electronic screens.
As an artist whose works have always dealt with critical consciousness about the state of the world, Holzer did a project for the New Yorker magazine last year in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
The work incorporated texts by the Nobel prize-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, projected at Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center. “Could Have,” the title of the poem and the installation, was the first public art project Holzer produced in New York after the attack. It took that long, she says, to comment on the event.
“I watch the news, read the paper and try to hear people around me,” says Holzer. “Now that I am using other people’s texts I’m really prolific.”


by Park Soo-mee

The exhibit is on display at Kukje Gallery through Jan 23. For more information, call (02) 735-8449.
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