JENNY HOLZER

You know you’ve grown up when you’re embarrassed by things you used to aggressively admire. But something really is a stayer when it doesn’t get disowned, downplayed or prefixed with a phrase like “uh, but the reason I like it was ‘cos I was 14 at the time”. When I was in high school, making extremely earnest, hopeless (but well-intentioned) art, I ‘discovered’ the work of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Their work used the look and wording of advertising to subvert the idea that everything was for sale (in particular, Barbara Kruger’s work, “Love For Sale”). Barbara Kruger had this easy-to-get bluntness that I really liked, her works flaunted pithy slogans like “It’s a small world but not if you have to clean it.” Her most famous work features a woman’s face split in two, and says “Your body is a battleground”. (I knicked this sentiment for my final year artwork which was about body image and that weird idea of “fighting fat”, like it was some military regime needing to be deposed.)

I liked Jenny Holzer too, but less intensely. The first art of hers I saw was a billboard that said: “IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO SURVIVE AND YOU WERE FULL OF JOY”. The idea you could randomly be confronted by this profound and quite personal thought while casually driving impressed me. I remember writing it down in my journal, which was pasted with not-so-profound pictures of good-looking, moderately-angry (yet power ballad-happy) bands. Another artbook showed a series of Jenny Holzer’s LED text-works which quite convincingly stated the case that the news was the hottest sex show around (context is everything!)

Fast forward to now and I find Barbara Kruger kinda obvious and less illuminating (particularly at that ACCA installation; naff anti-consumerism slogans don’t hold when you’re flogging your branded merchandise in the foyer). Jenny Holzer, however, I now totally love. I love that feeling of watching her text reveal itself slowly over LED screens - I remember seeing one in Basel about the evolution (and de-evolution) of a romantic relationship and every line was so loaded and spot-on. One of them just said “YOUR MOTHER KNOWS”. You can feel the disappointment and tragedy in that one lone line; it so economically evokes a situation of wanting to censor your emotional breakdown from people you know, only to feel like a failure cos you couldn’t contain it.

I love the double-meaning of some of her text-based works too:

IT IS IN YOUR SELF-INTEREST TO FIND A WAY TO BE VERY TENDER

Is that meant to be read cynically? Or is that meant to be well-intentioned advice?

And I wish I’d known this in time for my Year 9
Romeo and Juliet essay:

EXPIRING FOR LOVE IS BEAUTIFUL BUT STUPID

Sometimes her observations are so shard-sharp, they’re kinda frightening:

WHEN SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAPPENS PEOPLE WAKE UP

THE IDEA OF REVOLUTION IS AN ADOLESCENT FANTASY

ABSOLUTE SUBMISSION CAN BE A FORM OF FREEDOM

She’s projected her text over buildings (like the Louvre) in cities around the world. Her work is really public - seen by people walking out of a Jay-Z concert or found on benches and stickers.

I also love that she calls herself a “multidisciplinary dweeb” and when asked how she feels about people who don’t ‘get’ her work, she says, “I'm sorry then... Genuinely!”

Lee Tran Lam

Baby Spinach, October 2006