Speaking To Us: Jenny Holzer—Artwork in the WCMA Collection and Upcoming Artist’s Lecture
We often refer to art in linguistic terms. A painting, we might claim, “speaks to us.” Sculptures in a gallery are said to be “in dialogue” with one another. Artworks, we imply, have voices—or at least the power to communicate with their own compelling language.
Contemporary artist Jenny Holzer takes this connection one step further, mediating and manipulating the space between art and language. First emblazoning her self-described “truisms”—pithy yet provocative phrases that engage, incite, and inspire—in the public arena of Manhattan in the 1970s, Holzer continues to employ words as her primary medium. Their context, however—a type of secondary medium—shifts, making material and site significant aspects of her work. Migrating from massive billboards to intimate plaques, from memorial benches to LED-wrapped ceilings, her texts capture the fleeting attention of passers-by and the contemplative focus of gallery-goers alike.
WCMA is fortunate to own four of Holzer’s linguistic interventions. One of the works in our collection allows particular consideration of the impact each different medium has on Holzer’s messages. Drawn from a larger installation entitled Laments (1989) that was originally exhibited at the Dia Art Foundation in New York, I Go To Schools… is an elegiac meditation on passing—a physical and textual manifestation of mourning.
In this work, a vertical LED sign accompanies a carved granite sarcophagus, both of which communicate the same series of phrases. The last lines express solemn defeat: “I am waiting for everyone to die/Because that is the point.” While the stone component signals memorialization and implies longevity (we do, after all, say something is “carved in stone” to indicate its permanence and fixity), the fleeting LED lights are a medium of impermanence—most often associated with advertising and entertainment. Both registers of time are embedded in visitors’ experience of the work. (Please note: this work is not currently on view in our galleries.)
Though I Go To Schools… is heavy—emotionally as well as physically (the sarcophagus weighs 1,100 pounds!)—some of Holzer’s work is less weighty. A number of her phrases are hopeful, politically charged, or even playful. Holzer contributed an iteration of her Survival series to a portfolio of works gathered to advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness. In this context, her work is uplifting:
Another object in the WCMA collection is more socio-politically oriented. Simply stated and unceremoniously cast onto a modest plaque measuring 10 x ½ x 6 inches is the phrase:
In its current life—on view in our exhibition The Object of Art at the entrance to WCMA—the plaque is placed to remind viewers that what constitutes an “artwork” can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. Alongside such objects as ancient Greek platters and Pakistani Buddha heads, Holzer’s plaque is not merely text, but signals a broader conceptual artistic language.
Holzer’s latest work at Williams signals an even more dramatic shift in linguistic form. In 715 molecules (2011), a new mode of communication emerges as both medium and subject: chemical molecular diagrams.
The work was created in memory of beloved Williams chemistry professor J. Hodge Markgraf ’52 (1930-2007) and is installed in the science quad of the Williams College campus. (See the entry on this project in our Public Art at Williams module.)
Partly to honor this recently-inaugurated work, we invited Holzer to deliver our Fulkerson Leadership in the Arts Lecture this Thursday, March 15, at 7:00 pm in the Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall. At this event, we will have the opportunity to witness the artist return to her source: words. Holzer’s artworks continually communicate their messages, but on Thursday the artist herself will speak to us.
- Miriam Stanton, Interim Assistant Curator