Fighting words

By GREG COOK  |  May 29, 2007

Holzer presents an Army translator’s report in which Special Forces troops are alleged to have shocked a prisoner with electricity in Afghanistan in 2002. A military medical examiner’s report concludes that a dead Pakistani man was most likely kicked to death in American custody in Afghanistan later that year. An Iraqi high-school student and his uncle report that he was beaten by the American troops who arrested him in May 2004, only to be released two days later. FBI agents report that Guantánamo prisoners were kept from sleeping with strobe lights and loud music and “baptized” by an interrogator posing as a Catholic priest. When an agent sees a prisoner on a cell floor crying, his nose apparently bleeding, American interrogators claim that he “had become upset with them and threw himself to the floor.” An agent reports: “I had heard previously that one of the female military personnel would wet her hands and touch the inmates as part of their psych-ops to make the inmates feel ‘unclean’ and upset them.” It all reads as if the lunatics had taken over the asylum.

This is the kind of shameful behavior Romney is supporting when he promotes “not torture, but enhanced interrogation techniques.” The kind Bush promoted when, last September, he praised the results of the CIA’s “alternative set of [interrogation] procedures.”

Holzer’s texts are so powerful that they can distract you from how these paintings work as paintings. She earned her master’s degree from RISD in 1977, then moved to New York, where by the early ’80s she’d hit on her signature all-text posters and LED signs. Since then it’s often seemed that she was fishing for new vessels for her words — official-looking metal plaques, granite benches, coffins, stone walls. But it’s only in recent years, with nighttime projections of texts onto buildings, that she’s found a medium for her words that has the charge of her posters and LEDs. And her work has taken on a new formal beauty — especially in projections on waterfront buildings, like the ones she created in Providence last October, so that words scroll across façades and reflect in the water below.

Holzer first presented these government texts as projections onto George Washington University and New York University buildings. As screenprinted paintings, they’re small enough to fit over your couch, but the medium reinforces the message. They recall Warhol’s ’60s screenprints of fatal car wrecks, electric chairs, and police siccing dogs on civil-rights protesters. Holzer reproduces all the schmutz of the photocopies for the grit of authenticity. Mug shots of prisoners become black silhouettes, words are redacted by government censors, four pages are completely blacked out. (It brings to mind a 2005 Onion headline: “CIA Realizes It’s Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years.”) By reproducing them untouched, she finds a visual metaphor for the government’s efforts to hide its bad behavior.

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Related: Documentary evidence, Sticking it to the man, Who’s the real Dem?, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Mitt Romney, U.S. Armed Forces, U.S. Armed Forces Activities,  More more >
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