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At the Crossroads of Politics and Art, Jenny Holzer is Waiting

01/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With the C.I.A. in the news, Obama's Iraq exit-strategy on the table, terrorism in India and brutality on the rise seemingly everywhere else, the exhibition Jenny Holzer: PROTECT PROTECT at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art is timely indeed. Not to mention alarming. Even sickening. Here, the atrocities confronting visitors have already occurred (although you might not have been particularly aware of them) and are presented in the form of found texts paraded before your eyes through a range of media: eye-popping L.E.D. displays, looming silk-screened canvases, even human bones, all used to convey Holzer's singularly intense texts. You'll find yourself reading about torture techniques, autopsies of murder victims, and brutal military interrogations ... yes, there's quite a wallop packed in these words. And considering that many are cadged from declassified U.S. Government documents, suddenly all those congressional hearings, all the official hedge-speak, all the repeated denials of the past eight years come into tight focus.

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Jenny Holzer is a bona-fide groundbreaking artist whose language-based work has always orbited political, social, and cultural issues. While her own writings are employed in some of the pieces in the show (her first major museum exhibition in the United States in over fifteen years), for pure shock value it's the letters, emails, and official reports Holzer unearthed on websites maintained by the National Security Archive and A.C.L.U. that will really rattle viewers. No doubt these military documents were never intended for civilian eyes, and the notion that they'd eventually turn up in an art context would surely have appalled their original authors. Maybe even as much as they appall a museum audience now.

Still, it's not just the secret residue of war in Iraq that permeates the show, but the details of humanity's very worst impulses through all manner of trauma, emotional and physical. In fact, Holzer's earliest piece on view, Lustmord (1993-1995) was created in reaction to the systematic rape of women during the Bosnian War, its rows of silver-banded ribs and knuckles, scapulas and vertabrae arranged on simple wooden tables in juxtaposition to the surrounding high-tech displays. Whatever the response to this visceral sculpture -- or any of Holzer's work (confusion? disgust? fury? ambivalence? all of the above?) -- it's each viewer's personal relationship to the statement being made that truly completes the piece.

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"Jenny's work isn't just about war per se, although it's a central theme," explains Elizabeth Smith, Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Programs at the M.C.A., who organized the exhibition, on view until February 1st before traveling on to New York and Europe. "But it's really about power, and the relationship between the individual and society. She doesn't take a position, but presents the information in a way that works on the mind and the senses."

This is territory the fifty-eight year old Holzer has traversed her entire career, and it's her ability to build on earlier themes and materials that maintain the work's relevance. Back in the late 1970's, the young Conceptualist shunned traditional painting, preferring to confront the public directly in a time-honored way: armed with a humble bucket of glue and reams of cheap paper, Holzer spent many surreptitious hours plastering posters around downtown Manhattan like some 17th-century town crier with armloads of edicts. Only, Holzer's edicts were her own writings, including the pungent Truisms -- lists of ambiguous statements and aphorisms of seemingly anonymous origin and questionable accuracy, like "Abuse of power comes as no surprise"; "Children are the most cruel of all"; "Eating too much is criminal"; "Money creates taste" and dozens of others, which led viewers to examine their own reactions to the often conflicting and provocative sentiments expressed.

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Holzer slapped these texts on t-shirts and baseball caps, plaques and stickers before embracing the brave new world of technology in 1982, when she co-opted the enormous Spectacolor electronic billboard in Times Square and programmed it with her slogans. That catapulted her public art to an entirely new level, and also inspired Holzer's seminal use of the smaller-scaled L.E.D. signs -- a ubiquitous, gimmicky tool of the advertising world -- which she could program with any combination of sentences and in various colors that raced, crawled, or otherwise jangled before a viewer's eyes.

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This became Holzer's signature medium, bang-on appropriate for melding commentary with accessibility, always with an eye for public discourse (race cars, marble benches, M.T.V. ads, airplanes, condoms, movie marquees and recently, Twitter, have all disseminated her messages).

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Now, those 1980's progenitors seem dinky compared to the recent versions, which are positively baroque in scale, color, and complexity as Holzer pushes the medium to its limits.

"She has responded a lot to advances in technology, doing bigger, site-specific pieces scaled more to architecture," says Smith. "Public space today is so much more animated than when she started in the 1980's, with many more moving signs and images. So Holzer had to adapt her medium in ways to be seen, or it would be absorbed into the whole spectrum of what's out there".

Holzer adapted in other ways too, and gave up writing her own texts years ago, although still incorporating them in her work. But in turning to a variety of other sources, she discovered the declassified documents that appear throughout PROTECT PROTECT.

"This is not what I came into the Army to support," rails an anonymous observer in Thorax, configured like an abstracted torso, words rocketing across the ribs. With the flashing lights and running text of military lingo and X-ed out names, comprehension is an effort requiring some patience, as you absorb the account of an apparently casual murder by an American soldier of an injured Iraqi non-combatant. Disorienting to track, the description is nevertheless riveting and the presentation gorgeous in the way of kitsch, Las Vegas casino ads.

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But it's Holzer's recent, even surprising segue into painting that returns this work to her early terrain, calling to mind the confrontational posters of thirty years ago. Now, these silk-screened canvases resemble type-written file pages enlarged to colossal scale at the corner Kinko's and, like the L.E.D. pieces, require intense observation. In Findings, printed in thirty-two parts on bile-green backgrounds, there are detailed "secret" F.B.I. descriptions of aggressive interrogations at Guantanamo, while the pages making up Homicide come from an Army Medical Examiner's jottings about the brutal deaths of men held in U.S. detainment facilities in Iraq. Offered up in stark, unembellished text (included the redacted sections, some of which obliterate an entire page) these descriptions are much tougher than the L.E.D.'s, with none of the formal distraction of glowing lights. Refusing to read or turning away is the only option -- Holzer's challenge throughout the show.

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The group titled Wish List/Gloves Off Pewter, though, exposes a specific and ghastly ethical dilemma that apparently played out in a series of 2003 emails: several individuals plead for the army to use more "coercive interrogation techniques" (the literal "wish list" includes, for instance, low-voltage electrocution and phone-book strikes), while one, lone, pacifying voice advises to "take a deep breath and stay on high ground."

Considering the subsequent work in this show, no one took this humane suggestion. But in identifying and presenting these moments of conflicting choices, these alternating points of view, and battles over "principles," Holzer demands that we keep trying. And no doubt hopes we won't keep turning away.