Aside from the coronavirus pandemic, still very much present in our lives, the current situation of public unrest affiliated with protests over the murder of a Black man, George Floyd, is the expected consequence of the systematic racism that has been tormenting the American society ever since its foundation three centuries ago. As many times before, the street has become the site of social and political struggle where activists and ordinary people coming from different communities strive to challenge reality and impose a much needed and long overdue change.
Various public figures instantly activated themselves in this critical state of emergence by critically articulating the whole situation that has become unbearable. One of them is Jenny Holzer, the renowned installation artist whose text-based artworks inseparable from the public space, especially the streets, are made to tackle different social and political issues. Her interventions, installations, and objects merge the visual and the textual into a unique experience that is often engaging both the body and the mind.
Coming to prominence throughout the 1980s along with a few other and equally influential artists such as Louise Lawler, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Sarah Charlesworth, Jenny Holzer gained critical attention for the authentic dissemination of narratives rooted in feminism. The artist used various means to present her ideas spanning from large scale advertising billboards, and projections, to illuminated electronic displays, and LED signs that become her most visible medium.
In recent years, Holzer has produced several series to addressed the government’s role in manipulating information of public relevance, and the current online exhibition organized by Sprüth Magers emphasizes her engagement with the street as the political arena by focusing on the series Truisms (1977–79), and Trucks (1984 - 2020).
During her studies at the Whitney Independent Study Program, Jenny Holzer developed this series consisting of hundreds of short sentences or unpretentious truthful statements. She started posting them anonymously on the streets of New York City tending to tackle the passersby.
Truisms aim to communicate in a simplistic manner but to show at the same time paradoxes and ambiguities that create tension and misinterpretation. Furthermore, these messages in public space drew questions concerning the origin, ultimate meaning, and authorship.
As a matter of fact, this series marked the development of Holzer’s process; she starts by writing out the words and invents a physical form for them which can be anything from a poster to a light projection in a public space.
Throughout the years, Truisms were presented in different forms and formats including T-shirts and large-scale projections on the facades of buildings, while the artists simultaneously released other text-based works such as Inflammatory Essays (1979–82) and Expose (2020).
In 1984 for the purposes of the new work, Holzer rented a truck equipped with a huge TV set and parked it in New York. Sign on a Truck, as the work is called, was the artist’s reaction to the American election candidate Ronald Reagan and his populist rhetoric. The screen displayed edited footage taken from different media along with the videos by other artists such as Keith Haring, Barbara Kruger, and Claes Oldenburg.
Almost three decades later, Holzer released equally provoking work called It is Guns (2018 - 2019), which supported protests and student demands for increased gun control after the Parkland shooting. The images of black-and-white writing (Red Blood, Whites of Eyes, Stay with me Child, etc.) were projected on mobile LED screens installed on trucks that were circulating through American cities.
Less than a month ago, the artist sent trucks to Washington, DC and New York City with a new message as a response to the American government’s complete lack of tactics in the handling of the Covid-19 crisis. The glowing red stream of isolated words such as bloviate, rage and rant, along with the sentences such as Unnecessary death can't be policy, aims to empower the populace as the crucial period in recent American history unfolds.
For more than three decades Holzer has been rightfully holding a respectable position of a socio-politically engaged artist who is well aware of the notion of the street as the site of various contestations. The way she transcended the linguistic explorations of Conceptual art and used text in public space to spread simple, yet critically charged messages, make her probably one of the most important artists of the second half of the 20th century.
Trucks and Truisms will be accessible on the Sprüth Magers webpage until 12 July 2020.
Featured image: Jenny Holzer - COVID-19 PRESIDENT, 2020. LED truck. © 2020 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Ray Alvareztorres.