Shapes for words

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We weren’t the only ones who came to hear Jenny Holzer speak at the Institute of Contemporary Art Wednesday.

The event sponsored jointly by the ICA and the Penn Humanities Forum packed the small auditorium there as well as seats lined up in the space beyond the double doors. With such a crush of humanity and the chock-a-block folding chairs, I felt like a sardine undergoing pasteurization in the can. Whew (image top, the crowd at the ICA taken over my shoulder).

Holzer, it turns out, was a lot funnier than her art, which sometimes barely cracks a smile (the antithesis of mr. ho-ho himself, conceptualist John Baldessari, but a virtual comedian compared to the ponderous Lawrence Weiner). I was surprised to learn she was no longer fracturing aphorisms but was relying solely on others’ words. She relies on poems and she relies on documents. That discovery spotlighted for me the physicality of how she handles the words. After all, where would the art be if there were no surprising medium for what is someone else’s message (right, “Inflammatory Essays” posted on the street)?

Some highlights included a t-shirt modeled by grafitti artist Lady Pink, with whom Holzer has also collaborated on street art (left, art by Lady Pink and Holzer).

And speaking of collaboration, in some sense all of her work requires it. She gets lots of help from people with technological knowledge, horticultural advice, research and various forms of fabrication support. You gotta admire an artist for acknowledging her posse of helpers. Well I admire her for it (right, an electronic sign with Holzer’s words).

I was unfamiliar with her gardens which appear to be a hit in Germany. Also in Germany she has put words (English and German) on a number of buildings, including on the Bundestag and on a Mies van der Rohe building. More and more, recently, architecture has become a part of the message, and therefore in a sense part of the collaboration.

I loved her saying the projection of words on architecture gives her words a sculptural shape. See Creative Time blog by our buddy Brent Burket for some great pictures (left, a photo by Burket of a Holzer projection for Creative Time).

Unlike most question sessions at the end of talks, this one was loaded with info.

There’s a political edge to Holzer’s work that’s really great. “I’ve always been interested in what is not spoken about but should be,” she said, vis a vis the projection of declassified government documents about torture on the side of the NYU library. I think that quote covers a lot of the territory she hoes (right, a shamelessly political Holzer piece).

She also said she was thinking about where people were looking these days–cell phones–and how to put the text in front of them. “Most of my work in public is anonymous. It’s better if nobody knows who’s saying it and why,” because it makes them pay more attention, she said.

She also said she didn’t have much of an art education and went to a lot of different schools–Duke, University of Chicago and Rhode Island School of Design, for “more of a Liberal Arts than an art education” (left, a Holzer piece on a brass plaque).

As far as making a living goes, she said, she sells enough to support the “irregular art.” And in response to a question about how her business method compares to Christo’s, she said, “I definitely could use his dynamic wife.” The line got a laugh.

An architect in the audience was concerned that she was using the architect’s creativity without getting permission, without the architect getting enough credit. She said, however that she only used buildings when she had permission. “I’m a bit of a coward,” she confessed, and added that in Berlin, the authorities tried to arrest her, but she had the permission document with her (right, Holzer’s words spiraling around the Guggenheim atrium).

Hey, Roberta and I had a similar experience in City Hall courtyard. But we had our official letter of permission, too. There’s a lesson here–if you’re a coward.

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