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)