Sacha Craddock - critic & curator

Jenny Holzer

The Guardian 1989

Flash talk 

Jenny Holzer uses words. Her art can be read in the most unexpected situations. Her invented truisms appear at odd times sandwiched between advertising and public information. She shows in art galleries, but much of her power lies in surprise. She inserts incongruous thought into everyday life. She uses the electronic board, the computer-programmed ticker tape that moves fast from left to right. She exploits the machinery of corporations using the fake simplicity of language normally manipulated by copywriters. Holzer's desire to seem authoritative and direct to a more general public has led her from painting her own pictures to adopting the methods of mass communication. Truisms such as "You can't count your chickens before they are hatched", "It takes all sorts" or "Don't put all of your eggs in one basket" are usually said, not written; they are not part of a grand literary tradition. Holzer made up some of her own in the late Seventies; she printed them and plastered them on New York walls.
People are fond of quick insight, fake wisdom and vague truths. When Jenny Holzer first showed her poster-form truisms on New York street corners, people would write on top, underlining one while disagreeing with another. She used to eavesdrop on the conversations that the writings would provoke. Her cliches were delivered in bland capital letters, a straight-forward tone and, among so many, there was something to please everyone.
By presenting such a range she was speaking without specific voice and, as the work is anonymous, it was impossible to tell whether they were the thoughts of one or many, male or female. Soon, the more clever, catchy one-liners such as "Protect me from what I want", "Abuse of power comes as no surprise" or "Money creates taste" were seen on T-shirts and baseball caps. Holzer saw she had the rest of the world to play with. She made up other series of words, "Essays" that made an almost solid squares Of writing, which were glued on walls from Seattle to Toronto. "Living", another set of truths of a more detailed and personal nature, went on electronic boards and civilized plaques.
olzer's position is secure and her talent lies in envisaging show-places and negotiating with authority. Large companies want their Holzers, their advertising is strangely enhanced by her work.
Local authorities, baseball managers, even Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, have a Holzer on their signboards. It is as if Holzer is using the methods of an ad campaign herself. Soon she will use television — actors or "talking heads" will appear between soaps and news to speak her lines. The idea is to surprise, to catch unawares. It is a play with power, using the methods of power. Important to its success is the non-commitment of the ideas and one-liners. The generality allows all but the totally illiterate some sense of apparent insight. Politics are restricted to words like power and torture, sex to words like sex, and social ills to "If you are considered useless no one will feed you any more".
With the exception of the gallery shows, the surprise is two-fold; first in the location of the words and second in what they say. It is candid camera art, it depends on a sense of something familiar, strangely placed. Partial truths suit a society that personalises everything, educated to think that anything is possible, even your own small thoughts and dreams.
Ironically, Jenny Holzer's success with a public conditioned by the smooth manipulation of advertising lies in her genderless voice and partyless megaphone. In London you can catch a Holzerism or two at Piccadilly Circus or spot them on the back of record shop receipts.
She also has an exhibition at the ICA of a recent series called Under a Rock. Seemingly contradicting herself, she uses that old fashioned material, granite, as the ground for her writing. Static, eternal, dour granite benches are engraved with vague, hintingly spiritual text. The benches are arranged as if in a garden of remembrance somewhere off the Basingstoke by-pass. The atmosphere is of dreary municipal mourning, so instead of our attention span being limited to a few seconds, you can dwell on these tablets of stone. Holzer's gallery shows are for different people, naturally, but what sort of manipulation is going on here with such a railway book-store vocabulary? The institutionalised graffiti is much more fun. 

© Sacha Craddock - Jan 1989
Instagram @sachacraddock


Executive Member - AICA
Member of Faculty - British School at Rome
Chair - New Contemporaries
Trustee - Shelagh Cluett Trust
Trustee - Braziers
Trustee - Art House Foundation
Arts Advisor - Royal Borough Kensington and Chelsea





- back to the top -