Parsley’s Guide to Gallery Survival (for dummies) rule no 3; If you’re going to accidently knock, touch or move the art work then try to do so in the most ironically named gallery space you can find and above all NEVER ever, ever return to the scene of the crime...
That’s right, my friend’s rogue art-altering scarf decided to go awol and fractionally move one of the tiniest bones on the table of installed work by Jenny Holzer in the ‘Pigsty’ gallery of Hauser and Wirth, Somerset during our visit early last week. Oh calamity! A complete accident of course but had said scarf knocked one of those bones onto the floor the gallery assistants ‘may have had to close the gallery’. Queue lots of walkie-talkie communication, man wearing white gloves to move bone two millimetres back inline....and breathe. Crisis adverted! There is a LOT of one eyebrow-raising to be had; this is a level of Art attention to a standard seldom seen!
I’m fascinated by the elite spectrum of the art world. When a urinal, a fence, a glass of water, a bone becomes so precious that we react to its place within the work it resides with such caution and reverence. I would be curious to know if the reaction to our moving of the bone wasn’t as much out of respect that it was a human bone and more that it was a component in a highly expensive piece of art work? Perhaps a bit of both, the ethics of that question and indeed the politics of it are highly sensitive baring in mind this piece of work does contain human bones used to signify (note they aren’t the actual bones) bones of victims murdered for sexual pleasure (hence its name ‘Lustmord’) in the war in Bosnia. It is a tenuous line for discussion indeed but I am more belligerent to challenge the issue of how we 'treat' art works in gallery spaces. Broadly speaking, to the commendable gallery assistant charged with the art works ‘protection’ it is part of the job to treat art as though it were sacred, as precious as gold or as hazardous as a radio-active substance such is the halo of security that surrounds artwork when it reaches the level of being financially a cultural asset. And whilst my opening anecdote quite cheekily mocks the absurdity of this behaviour I am very seriously interested in just how powerful, how reverend and important art can become to infect our behaviour in this way. To the extent that we as the audience also partake in the acceptance of the ‘bones’ becoming or being considered as art so that we either partake or not in our attention for those few minutes. This opinion is not formed out of immaturity, naivety or lack of respect as no matter how much art I have seen, I am ever conscious of how the art world is perceived from those who may experience it for the first time. Perhaps I never want to feel too comfortable, familiar or settled with any of what the art world has to offer and that my appreciation of it comes from that we must still question, still scrutinize what every artwork brings balancing our own interpretations with that of the art institution within which it resides; never buying into one completely irrespective of the other.
One should celebrate that there is a respect for art in this way albeit to an extreme zealousness but I think that there is a balance to be had with respect, common-sense and an unpretentious humbleness that grounds artwork into not loosing sight of the reality and intention for which is was made and that is very often to be seen/experienced irrespective of the monetary value it accrues under its ‘art’ status.
American born artist Jenny Holzer’s offering to Hauser and Wirth is mixed and showcases the breadth of the artist’s work the likes I had not previously known about. There are the familiar LED text-based works known as the ‘Truisms’ from the 80s and many new works including paintings, drawings and benches in bronze and stone. Titled ‘Softer Targets’ the work is based upon her ongoing examination of the ‘war on terror’ and is the title of a redaction painting from a classified Federal Bureau of Investigation report, ‘The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland’ in which the former classified text was made public although heavily redacted so not all details were disclosed.
Censorship and/or the lack of it is a reoccurring theme and in the hand-painted works which aesthetically have a look of an early abstract expressionism about them (early Jasper Johns?) but feature the text from those reports, soldiers accounts, autopsy reports, torture diaries. It is a quietly unnerving read with our attention drawn to what is concealed within these texts often more poignant and unsettling than what is revealed.
The Truisms presented on flashing LEDs laid on the floor or curving-up the wall robotically reel out programmed messages such as, ‘Your oldest fears are the worst ones’ and ‘Everyone’s work is equally important’. They inform us in the language of train-station monitors and signage that we are familiar with but also ironically now feel almost retro from the 70s/80s when the works were first created. The newly commissioned LED work titled ‘Move’ in the opening gallery takes the familiar technology synonymous with Holzer’s work but adds a new level of surveillance as the mechanised LED bar suspended vertically moves and follows the viewer in response to their movements. If the affect in Holzer’s original Truisms was confrontational than this was even more so.
In the 70s Holzer began her Truism body of work by posting them as flyers around New York, today maybe she’d be tweeting them? How artists today, like Ai Wei Wei have used online media as a political tool for ‘the truth’, freedom of speech and liberation. It does beg the question whether we have all become too media-savvy, too self aware to respond to the original Holzer 'Trusims'; the older technology creating new challenges for the viewer to engage in the same way as previous audiences may have? If the ‘medium is the message’ then I think it is going to be harder to digest Holzer’s messages in this exhibition as personally I found the amount of text to read too much to digest, looking more at the power of the lighting, its colour, its movement or physical qualities of the carved out of stone words rather than actually reading them. The messages within the text of what Holzer is communicating is however still incredibly relevant, they are sort-of universal slogans, statements that continue to prompt engaging thought and discussion about consumerism, feminine identity and our relationships with one another but I personally feel the way we assimilate this information has changed and I find myself listening more and thinking more deeply about these messages in her work reading them in my own time, on paper or online after the initial experience of seeing them in the gallery. I think I question whether Holzer’s work is a bit superfluous in a gallery context and actually works better out in the world, in isolation so we read it for what it is saying and not read it as ‘art’. Hmmm...
There is something of a duality that is formed in discussing Holzer’s work. On one hand I find her reserved aesthetic a bit cold and a bit tedious but this is often counterbalanced by passionate political reasoning. The ideas are very emotive and in some of the work even quite poetic. There is a contrast in the hardness/mechanical-ness of the stone benches or LEDs with the softness of what are often very revealing, humanly relatable texts. Or as I found in one review online, the ‘Hardness of material meant to endure what humans cannot.’
The truth can be confrontational, ‘hard to swallow’ or it can ‘set you free’ and there is something in the directness of Holzer’s work which cuts out the metaphor and trompe l’oiel and presents a clear narrative and way in to quite literally reading her work. Here is the message, now what do you think? I tend to be more reflective and enjoy the smoke and mirrors of in arts ability to lie, to mimic, to play with reality it allows for more imaginative, deeper, perhaps more subconscious types of ‘truths’ to be revealed that I just do not think can be manifest with the forcefulness of Holzer’s work. In the true language of advertising, I think about it in that moment and then I’m gone. I am yet to experience any subliminal after affects! The Truisms on the stone seats and LEDs don’t last with me as long as perhaps the paintings or indeed, room with the bones in do.
It will take a while to forget the bones! Though in truth probably not for the reasons intended.
Jenny Holzer’s ‘Softer Targets’ is on at Hauser and Wirth Somerset until November 1st.
With thanks to friends for supplying some of the images. Image marked with * sourced from: http://www.independent.co.uk
Text copyright of Spannerintheworkz, Natalie Parsley ©