Jenny Holzer at ACCA, Dec 2009

A news story condenses and converts the myriad pieces of discrete data a journalist (ideally) sifts through in the course of their work, and hangs them from a narrative structure. It frames some elements, and blocks out others- by way of creating meaning out of the confusion of events as they occur in real life- multifaceted, chaotic and indistinct as they often are.

A great headline is like a supporting beam- simple, direct and bearing much.
A bad one may grab your attention, but serves only to reduce meaning.

These were some of the thoughts that hung in the background at the Jenny Holzer opening on Wednesday night at ACCA- a concise, but generously – and beautifully- housed survey of works from the last 5 years.

The soaring ceilings and vast depth of the spaces available at ACCA are definitely an advantage with an artist like Holzer. Her work consists of so few elements, words being the main medium, that the space around the work becomes just as important as the space within. In this case, the deceptive spareness of the work actually engulfed the giant maw of ACCA aptly- bathing it alternately in milky light, epileptic flashes, and gigantic screeds.

All of Holzer’s work, both directly and indirectly, is powerfully political: this is most clearly seen in the Iraq series.

In the front left gallery were a sequence of massively blown up emails- drawn from photocopies and screen printed onto canvas. These are pulled straight off a military computer- complete with thick black redactions of identifying or sensitive details. Over 4 large canvases, covering a whole wall, a trail of emails between various levels of army command maps a conversation regarding a “wishlist” of torture methods previously unavailable to US army officers.
It’s amazing how much is revealed in this formally bland document- small details, such as a bible quote in an email signature, the subtle but menacing reference to “the gloves need(ing) to come off” and the unabashed claim that “we are American soliders, heirs to a long tradition of staying on the high ground” reveal both the gradiosity of the American vision of itself, and the desperation of men operating in chaos. It’s unclear if the murky backdrop is a remnant of thermal fax paper, or if Holzer has coloured it in to reflect the territory into which these officers are wading.

On the opposite wall are an equally vast series of “redacted” hand prints. It is not clear if these are of US soldiers, enemy prisoners, civilians or inmates- location, date, name have all been blacked out, as have the uniquely identifying sworls and lines of their palms. For the most part, this obliteration of the identifying mark seems perfunctory- a cursory, rote action. Except for one, where the officer in charge of blacking it out has taken care to cover the whole print with black texta. It leaves you wondering: is this just the type of person who spreads the butter evenly all the way to the edge of the crust? Were they bored and killing time, the way you might doodle on a scrap of paper during a boring phone call? Or is there some sinister reason this person’s print had to be completely hidden from public view?

The next room contains more screen printed documents- these ones smaller in scale but larger in impact- they are incident reports from Guantanamo and Iraq. Some are written by officers, some by detainees. In their simple language, spare of hystrionics or drama, they detail abuse and torture, disregard for human rights, and even allude to deaths at the hands of US officers.

You don’t need to dress this up. Blowing these administrative forms up, without any other further mediation demonstrates that even the most banal documents of war reveal it’s horror. You walk around the room shaking your head- outraged, upset, gobsmacked. Even on bland white and grey, with Xerox smudges dutifully reproduced, it echoes around the room.

Past these two front galleries, deep in a plunging black void, is “Torso”. A classic Holzer form- a stack of LED ribs, a column of pulsing light in the centre of an empty room. The words on the tickers are case files of American soldiers involved in war crimes. Again- the language is banal, perfunctory, punctuated by strings of numbers, and the words run into each other, a seemingly endless & mindless stream of beaurocratese. On one level you can simply stand in front of the onslaught and let the flashing fluoro lights assault your eyeballs, looking as much around the piece as directly at it (a significant metaphor), or you can try to catch the detail of each case- strain against the ceaseless flow of words to piece together each story.
And a piecing together it must be- because data is drudgery. This is what sits behind the news reports, the headlines, the glamourised heroics of cinema- forms, reports, documents, files, emails, numbers, hand prints- this is really what history consists of and of what history is made. As a separate reflection, it occurred to me that by this rationale, as suggested by Heidegger’s notion of “enframing”, the nature of our beaurocracy largely determines what our future histories will consist of .

The front room houses the only piece that breaks from the Iraq suite – “PROJECTIONS”. This is more in the personal/political and poetic vein of Holzer’s practice. A massive, humming projector is lodged in the entrance to the room, radiating pungent heat and an equally massive projection of pithy, semi-narrative phrases- loosely themed seemingly, around perceptions, beliefs, attitudes and judgements. These start out on the floor in front of the projector, where you can read them clearly if you remain stuck awkwardly in the doorway. IF you move into the space and take up a spot on one of the hypercolour (yes! Hypercolour!) bean bags strewn around the space, you are forced to crane your neck into all sorts of cruel positions to be able to make sense of the now distorted sentences. Sitting there, as my arse created a tellingly large white stain on the slate grey bag, I alternated between this futile attempt to read the phrases in whole, in sequence- to make sense of it- and just letting it all wash over me. When resorting to the latter, the effect was strangely calming- – you feel the words and the weight of them passing over your head, as you would under the flight path of a zeppelin.

This is a beautiful and profound and confronting showing of work, and it’s amazing that Holzer, after all these years, and certainly in contrast to post modern contemporaries, (including Barbara Kruger and Australian Julie Rrap) she seems to not only to have been able to still find the energy, the rage and the discipline, but also the focus for the careful challenge of wielding such heavy weights without bludgeoning her work to death with them.

Jenny Holzer on the Web

ACCA Website


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