To acquire a political meaning
THINKING BIG Jenny Holzer’s 2008 projection at the Guggenheim, New York.
you don't even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed,
or crude oil.
Jenny Holzer is not an architect, but in 2004, when she projected those words onto the stone facade of the Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan's Times Square, the historic building acquired a character it had never before seen.
For Holzer, everything is politicized. Taken from a translation of the poem "Children of Our Era," by Wislawa Szymborska, the Hotel Pennsylvania projection acquired considerable weight from its context. Taking work written in 1986 by a poet in Eastern Europe, Holzer repurposed the message onto a monolithic structure symbolizing comfort in the cultural epicenter of the West, one year after the Iraq War began.
The Ohio-born conceptual artist uses LED lights to project large, block-lettered scrolling text across broad stretches of public space — usually buildings of particular importance — in international cities. She's been doing so since 1996, from Singapore to San Diego. On December 7, Portland joins the list, when Holzer will project a text onto the facade of the Portland Museum of Art.
Text has been Holzer's preferred medium for more than 30 years. In 1977, she wrote "Truisms," a collection of short, epigrammatic phrases (long predating the 140-character window of present-day communication) that were equally sardonic and moralizing. They dealt with themes of forbidden sexuality (YOU CAN UNDERSTAND SOMEONE OF YOUR SEX ONLY), feminism (ROMANTIC LOVE WAS INVENTED TO MANIPULATE WOMEN), ironic concessions (IDEALS ARE REPLACED BY CONVENTIONAL GOALS AT A CERTAIN AGE), and moral prescriptions (REDISTRIBUTING WEALTH IS IMPERATIVE). The phrases weren't bound like a book: rather, Holzer projected them in real-time scenarios, onto telephone booths and buildings. Later, she wrote the Survival series, a similar concept, but with more militant phrases. In the '80s and '90s, Holzer's work appeared as a sort of situationist art, using a culture-jam ethos in creating site-specific events (in one of her most famous pieces, she projected MEN DON'T PROTECT YOU ANYMORE onto a display of condoms).
The poetry of Szymborska — a Polish poet born in 1923 who wrote through World War II and Stalinist rule — has been one of her most enduring and fitting subjects. Szymborska's poetry is political in the way rock music is social — not incorporated by design, but inextricable from the final product. Holzer also uses the similarly charged work of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Henri Cole, and Samuel Beckett.
Today, her work translates unevenly with the dimensions of the Web, where her "truisms" are disseminated without any trace of the impact derived from their projections. Perhaps that is why she now almost exclusively uses the text of other writers. With the focus of her work existing in tangible space, Holzer's Web presence functions like a running documentary of her works. To a curious effect, she participates herself, keeping a Twitter feed that, as an online form of mega-projection of text, issues truisms every other week. That's @jennyholzer. While not many others are projecting text onto buildings, she has, apparently, inspired at least a couple people to culture-jam her style — check out @notjennyholzer and @fakejennyholzer as well.
Nicholas Schroeder can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
"WORDS TEND TO BE INADEQUATE" | Jenny Holzer's projected text installation at Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Sq, Portland | Dec 7 | 7 pm | 207.775.6148 | artist talk at Holiday Inn by the Bay, 88 Spring St, 6 pm | Free