It isa common conception that art usually contains a message. Observers commonlyassume and speculate what the artist intended to express. This idea is stressedto great extent in some cases, however in others, artists clearly state there isno message at all. But how about cases where the art is the message? Language hascommonly been used as a medium in the world of visual art. A separate case is wordsas art in itself, as in literature and poetry.
Looking at the work ofcontemporary artist Jenny Holzer, we explore the communicative power of words,the use of language as a medium, in the context of its method of presentationand the environment it is placed in to see how the most impact-full works ofart often lay in between fields of social interests in the form of ‘non-art’,thus making art more accessible to public discourse and society. JennyHolzer is an American conceptual artist, whose work from the late 1970’s onwardshas been related to public space art. Born in Chicago in 1950, she studied atRhode Island School of Design1.
She was the first womanto represent the United States pavilion at the 44th Biennale inVenice (1990)2.Prominent to her work is the use of language, usually displayed in unexpectedpublic places, where a large-scale audience is confronted with an unusual, yethighly emotionally charged statement, usually concerning social issues -values, mentality, relationships and responsibilities. Nowadays, her work isdisplayed in various public spaces all over the world. Her early work datingfrom 1977-9 is called Truisms3. They represent contradictorystatements displayed on unusual mediums, commonly associated with digitaladvertising and branding. Initially they were displayed as posters, scattered aroundlower Manhattan, Truisms grewsteadily in number of phrases, popularity and methods of presentation.
Fig.1 Truisms Poster 1978, Jenny HolzerSince the late 70’s they have evolved to being presented inits current form, as isolated single statements. As her work grewin popularity, so did the various ways in which it was presented, throughclothing apparel, to taxi cabs to performances. Her work really incorporatesthe positive aspects of democratic values-accessibility to all, strive forequality and unexclusiveness, based on social status. What is remarkable in herapproach is the targeting of a non-art oriented public4, totally in contrast toexhibiting your work at a carefully curated museum, where those specificallyinterested in the display would (usually) pay a fee to look around. Her method ofplacing her statements on the streets of the world, in advertising boards (nota typical artistic medium, perhaps a ‘non-art’ medium) is revolutionary.
Yankelovich,a market research firm, estimates: ‘a person living in a city 30 years ago sawup to 2,000 ad messages a day. Nowadays marketing specialists state that theaverage person living in a big city is exposed to up to 5,000 ads or brandingmessages per day5’.Advertisingboards themselves exert agency, people look at them for the possibility ofacquiring something new, however in this process one does not expect toencounter something that makes you question the nature of contemporary reality. American art critic Hal Fosterdescribes Holzer’s work as a ‘situationist strategy’ that is ‘site-specificallycritical of the ideologies of everyday life. All her work’, Foster states, ‘isinvolved in a delegitimation of power. The site-specificity of the Truisms is not so much the street, theycould be on any street in any city, as it is mass media, or public discourse’6.For critics like Foster, context proves ‘Holzer’s site of intervention islanguage7’This strive for deligitimation ofpolitical power is apparent from her early work.
It is confrontational andthought provoking with statements such as ‘Symbols are more meaningful than thething itself’, ‘Raise girls and boys the same way’. ‘The mostprovocative American art of the present is situated at such a crossing—ofinstitutions of art and political economy, of representations of sexualidentity and social life, all themes of Holzer’s work8’.Understood to take ‘incompatible and contradictory ideological positions indirect conflict, and in so doing to exposing the mechanics by which linguisticpower catches hold’9 hermessage is directly concerned with issues of modern political debate – genderroles, economic inequality, class division, alongside issues of personalstruggle such as conflicting self-images, or an individual’s place in consumersociety. Although some refer to her work as elitist, due to its massive, costlydisplay, those are rather qualities of the advertising boards that she employs.Her work is believed to have itsroots in Pop Art, sharing its characteristics of exploring the language andmediums of advertizing, with repetition and irony10. Fig. 2 Truisms series, LEDlight installation, 1982, New York Times Square Her workinitially resembles just another advertising sign, it blends with the othersand relies on the fact that the audience – not an art-oriented group, butrandom passersby, engaging their everyday schedule, unintentionally wouldnotice and experience this message. It initially seems unimposing and familiar,however once having received the message, one cannot help but be phased by it.
It resembles a revelation, an intervention, perhaps a vision that interruptsthe constant unquestionable flow of everyday life. Something that addressesthat which we don’t usually address, but take for granted as standards ofpatriarchal society is repeated over and over. Her statements lack follow-up orconclusion. They are anonymous, which (she comments herself is a crucial part11) contributes to thedematerialization of the author and object used for presentation of hismessage. Holzer, in fact, is not the author of many of the texts. Even in caseswhere she is, there is never a name displayed with the statement. When loosening the ‘unilateral tiebetween author and text’, as Joselit describes it, the viewer is confrontedwith a series of ‘astounding contradictions’ that expose the structuralmechanics of power as an ideological function’12.Thisleaves space for a lot of subjectivity, thus impact of the viewer is prolongedas he would continue trying to make personal sense of the message through itsunusual medium.
Jeanne Siegel comments that ‘Context is crucial to theimpact of Holzer’s work in its underlining and relating of the political systemsof the “art” world and the “real” world’13.This piece in the form on ‘non-art’ containing messages of political nature,are derived from her interest in merging various philosophies, sciences andideologies14. Althougha truly contemporary, democratic idea, Holzer’s approach of adjustingstatements to fit various contexts and environment is no novelty. Rene Magritte’sbelief of the communicative power and use of words is visible in his practice.
Themessage and its comprehension by the audience is of more importance than theobject itself. Everybody with a basic knowledge of art history knows Magritte’s’Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ line and would expect to see this statement at hisexhibition. At his first exhibition in the U.
S. Julien Levy Gallery in New Yorkin 193615, the audience was greetedwith the English translation in place of the original French-‘This is not apipe’, making art more accessible and comprehendible to a mass public, takingaway an elitist aspect that has been assigned to the field for a long period oftime. Some would saythe pieces when exhibited in a different country, were altered, making themdistinct from the original object of value, however the authors themselveswould disagree. Holzer adapts her statements to better suit the locals. Herpieces in Brazil are in Portuguese, her pieces in Germany- German. Fig.
3Site: Urca Hill,Rio de Janeiro, BrazilMay 7, 1990Projection:Skypictures; Aubert LeePhoto:Emmanuelle Bernard Striving foruniversal accessibility seems logical and promising of greater effectiveness,however not much importance is placed on the process of translation. One mustremember that much of a statement’s information is lost in the process oftranslation. Translating encounters multiple obstacles due to the culturalcontext of language. How do we put out a controversial, yet universal message,independent of subjection to cultural interpretation? The work of these artistsgoes much deeper than just presenting an object they created, but aims to sendout a message, or a piece of information. All of them rely heavily on theaudience receiving and interpreting it, to such an extent that the artist mustlose attachment to the ‘original, or ‘initial’ piece. In the art world, muchimportance has been stressed on the original.
A similar example is the work ofDuchamp. When he first made the Fountain,a piece of art focused entirely on one object, one would expect that one objectto be the artwork, as it is only that one urinal that the artist intended to bemade into a piece of art, however with his exhibitions and placements invarious museums, the urinals multiplied. It was not the case that one wastransported all over the world.
The original urinal is now lost, but hisurinals still lay displayed in multiple museums. Each replica painted withgreat precision to resemble the original16. Byexploiting public spaces Holzer’s work permeates the public discourse, leavingspace for an element of surprise, intensifying the piece’s emotional value. Thefact that her signs, statements and installations are commonly placed on ‘thestreet’, in the form of an advertising board, reminding us of the familiarmessegaes we are exposed to, yet it is so utterly controversial, somehowmenacing and alienating, disassociating it from everyday life, forcing societyto wonder and question its very pillars. Highlighting the consumerist,separatist nature inevitable to ignore. Her statements are of a kind thateverybody can relate to, by feeling ‘targeted’, as we are all subject to class,gender, race divisions and we all suffer from them, some definitely more thanothers. Holzer’s work exposes this division and makes us ponder about not just ourindividual stance on these issues, making art for the masses.