Arresting the Gaze: Jenny Holzer at DHC/ART in Montreal


With the daily iterations of war, security, terror, violence and privacy in the media, stories relating such content have started to fade from focus over the past 9 years. I, for one, have noticed that I’ve stopped listening, stopped reading, stopped caring. Yet, a well curated Jenny Holzer show at DHC/ART in Montreal (co-organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and Foundation Beyeler in Riehen/Basel, Switzerland) has me listening again. Anthropomorphic LED installations and silkscreen paintings act as supports for found text culled from declassified documents of the National Security Archive pertaining to the Iraq war. In stunning display, Holzer arrests the gaze of the viewer.

Jenny Holzer, Thorax, 2008. 12 electronic signs with white, red, and blue diodes. Text: U.S government document. © 2010, Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Attilio Maranzano

The American conceptual artist has taken declassified military documents and transferred them to linen canvases via silkscreen, a medium which Holzer is using for the first time. Maps and emails, transcripts and autopsies – all are monumentalized in paint.  Because they are paintings, and not documents shown on the news, the interaction is different. The viewer stops to gaze, to examine the photocopy-quality of the transferred document, to read some words, and not read others, due to intended omission. Censorship strikes down hard, as in Waterboard black white (2010), in which two paragraphs have been completely censored, leaving two solid black blocks on a white page with the word Waterboard left standing untouched in between. This re-presentation of public information as work of art to be considered, and not a document to be retrieved, highlights the accessibility of once-classified information, yet also underlines its opaqueness. Some information will never be known.

Jenny Holzer, Phase III Complete Regime Destruction purple, 2007. Oil on linen. Text: U.S government document. © 2010, Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Updating her Lustmord Tables (1994), also on display and which presents two tables full of bones with silver bands imprinted with quotes from accounts of the war in Yugoslavia, Holzer has abstracted the skeletal form in LED light displays broadcasting transcripts from Guantanamo Bay interrogations.  In Thorax (2008) and Ribs (2010), text scrolls by on multiple thin screens in bright colours, sometimes flashing, sometimes difficult to read. The form of Thorax and Ribs, while skeletal in intention, also reminds me more of shackles (especially ribs which consists of ¼ curved bands installed between floor and wall). The form seems ironically simple, deceptively commercial, for the severity of the documents involved.  And maybe that’s exactly the point. In Thorax, text flows into and out of the wall. Looking at unconventional angles, placing my head to the ground and to the wall, I observed that the purple glow behind the screens was being created by more text on the screen behind, just beyond legibility. Poignantly, Holzer creates an aesthetic and visceral translation of the impenetrability of censorship. The viewer conducts his own vain search for information.

Jenny Holzer, Lustmord Table, 1994. Human bones, engraved silver, wood table. Text: Lustmord, 1993–95 © 2010 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Christopher Burke

Flashing light fills the rooms housing both For Chicago (2007) and Monument (2008), respectively. The strongly political, incendiary texts of For Chicago stream upwards (words are spelled unconventionally by stacking letters) across the room on thin screens placed on the floor. This piece presents Holzer’s texts from 1977-2001, each work using a different animation, the presentation of which would take innumerable hours to read completely. Presented in isolation, Monument, a column transmitting Holzer’s Truisms and Inflammatory Essays, was beautifully striking. The column, a nod to Tatlin’s Tower, looked infinite when reflected in the floor. Up until mid-November, this piece will undoubtedly become an even more immersive environment as light wanes, the reflections in the window and floor growing more distinct.

Jenny Holzer, For Chicago, 2007. 11 electronic signs with amber diodes. Text (pictured): Arno, 1996. © 2010 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Attilio Maranzano

Regardless of the time of day, this excellent display of Holzer’s recent work remains incredibly distinct and strong. It is a privilege to have Holzer’s politically engaging and arresting work in Montreal; DHC has certainly distinguished itself with a show that demands its viewers to engage with an art that challenges our perception of news media and reporting.


dhc/art, jenny holzer



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