Culture | Protect me from what I have

Text artist Jenny Holzer explores language pushed to its limits at DHC

After immersing herself in themes of brutality, oppression, and violence  for almost 40 years, conceptual artist Jenny Holzer decided to stop writing. Research into various gruesome stories had come to disgust her.  Now her work is comprised solely of the words of others – usually projections of texts onto a variety of surfaces,  from small plaques to enormous public buildings. She placed a poem by Henri Cole on the façade of a feared wartime Venetian police station, the words “into some desiccated realm of beauty” slowly creeping up the doorway. For her show at DHC Gallery, Holzer summons the words of the U.S. Army for a series of chillily violent representations of the Iraq War, pushing her brand of text art into new extreme proportions.

The gallery also prominently features Holzer’s “Redactions Paintings”: enlarged silk-screens displaying the titular blacking-out of classified information in Army dossiers released per the U.S.’s Freedom of Information Act. Torture becomes a matter of semantics in these presentations, as two army officials communicate regarding the status of an Iraqi prisoner as a “lawful” or “unlawful” combatant, and hence the type of detention he will receive. Language (or explicitly, in the case of “Redactions,” the lack thereof) begins to neutralize violence into a matter of classified jargon or even the trappings of an email conversation, complete with appropriate headings and obligatory psalm as a signature. Water Board black white redacts everything from a military document except the words “water board,” a clever if ghastly flipside to the decidedly apolitical text-based conceptualism of American artists like Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari. An interrogation transcript calmly relates that “the decedent was shackled to the top of a doorframe with a gag in his mouth at the time he lost consciousness and become pulseless,” in the standard letterhead format. To print is to distance.

In other pieces, Holzer returns to her most famous kind of work – scrolling LED messages in the style of those ubiquitous in the metro and above airport customs desks. Rib depicts a soldier’s account of his accidental shooting of an Iraqi civilian in a manner typically used to announce stock prices on Wall Street. Public language seems most problematic to Holzer, who gained renown predominantly from public pieces, like the words “sex differences are here to stay” emblazoned on a Hollywood marquee. Rib confronts the viewer with a barrage of incongruous ambiguities: the text presents private visceral horror as disembodied and formalised army protocol (arguably, a reality of any military system) in the guise of a public announcement. Rib is a presentation of trauma in an inappropriate context, something Holzer herself can’t avoid. Despite her eagerness to convey her conviction that the way we use language isn’t suited to documenting trauma, Holzer herself cannot transcend this very problem. Her show-and-tell technique in “Redactions” stumbles in Rib, especially when coupled with the blatant arrangement of human bones in the nearby Lustmord Tables.

Holzer (and DHC’s) penchant for theatricality is ramped up with For Chicago, an enormous panel of vertical slats with the same LED letters scrolling downwards. A yellow glow permeates the columned room and the result is an aesthetically impressive confusion. Holzer again focusses on the gruesome with her text (“her head explodes in the fire”) but the writing is difficult to read vertically and at times moves too fast. Language is certainly a poor choice for representing horror, but unlike the sobering effects of the “Redaction” pieces, For Chicago overwhelms. The glaring mustard tint combined with the threatening yet meaningless sets of dizzying words quickly alienate any viewer trying to decipher who precisely is saying what.

In an interview with Art21 on PBS, Holzer stated, “I hope the installations are atmospheric. I want colour to suffuse the space and pulse and do all kinds of tricks.” The texts she presents become visual elements both insistent on and devoid of meaning. Any instinctual reaction to the scope of the project is soon displaced by the result of Holzer’s indecision between presentation and content.

Check out Holzer’s work at the DHC Gallery (451 St. Jean) until Nov 14.


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