Hauser & Wirth Somerset announces ‘Softer Targets’, a major solo exhibition by Jenny Holzer, featuring both new work and a selection of significant pieces drawn from over three decades of the artist’s career. The renowned American artist is best known for using language to make art, utilising a range of techniques to employ the power of words. Since 2004, Holzer has explored the use of text from declassified and other government documents.
The title of the exhibition refers to a ‘redaction painting’ from a classified 2004 Federal Bureau of Investigation report, ‘The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland: An FBI Assessment’. Relatively few pages of the 45-page report were declassified, with its text heavily redacted, before release to the public. Faithfully rendered, but enlarged and realised in a palette of whites, greys, transparent red and black, the painting received its title from the single surviving line on page 26: ‘Shifting to Softer Targets’.
All five gallery spaces are devoted to the exhibition, creating a succession of environments; some sun-lit or illuminated by the kinetic programming of LEDs (light-emitting diodes) and sombrely keyed to set the mood of the works that Holzer presents. The pieces range from the ‘Truisms’ that first established her reputation in the 1980s to her thoughtful ongoing examination of the ‘war on terror’.
A selection of paintings and LED installations, benches and other works in stone, plaques in bronze, and the artist’s preparatory carbon lettering on tracing paper provide the visitor with a sense of the diverse media that the artist has employed over the course of her career. Also present are the extraordinary variety of voices and individual perspectives she has utilised to show, at times, the darker side of the world.
Entering the first of the gallery spaces, the 18th-Century Threshing Barn, the viewer encounters ‘MOVE’, a new eight-foot LED work suspended from the rafters in vivid juxtaposition to its surroundings. The slender four-sided LED column senses the presence of the visitor and moves in response. Text from declassified and other sensitive US documents is programmed on each of the column’s sides, including text drawn from censored U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Reports detailing the investigation into Afghan soldier Jamal Naseer’s death whilst in US custody.
The next of the five gallery spaces houses a selection of the artist’s hand-painted works in oil on linen, including ‘There were eleven of us’ (2015), ‘young adult female’ (2015) and ‘Window’ (2015). Taken from US government memos, the documents have been painstakingly reproduced using hand-traced text upon layers of oil paint.
Crossing the threshold into the Pigsty gallery, the viewer is confronted with two wooden tables covered in carefully displayed human bones, some with inscribed silver bands. ‘Lustmord Table’ (1994) is a work conceived in response to conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, continuing Holzer’s themes of sex, war and death. The genesis of Holzer’s ‘Lustmord’ text series was an assignment for Munich newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Published in 1993 as colour photographs of handwritten text on skin, and a special white card printed in blood ink, it represented the artist’s reaction to the war and reports that rape was used tactically. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights had begun recognising crimes against women, such as rape, as war crimes. The ‘Lustmord’ texts of 55 sentences are the imagined voices of the perpetrator, the victim and the observer. The German word ‘Lustmord’ denotes a murder committed for sexual pleasure – the use of real body parts is a reminder that people were hurt in ways beyond the physical.
The largest of the gallery spaces, the Rhoades Gallery, is devoted to two LED works, alongside four stark black and white ‘redaction paintings’ from 2009 and 2010, which are derived from documents about waterboarding. The first of the LED works, ‘Purple’, displays texts of US government documents on a wall-to-ceiling array of curved surfaces, the shapes reminiscent of human ribs. ‘FLOOR’, a brand new LED work conceived for Hauser & Wirth Somerset, is 40 feet in length and is programmed with a rapid and reversing cascade of Holzer’s best known text series, including ‘Truisms’ (1977 – 1979), ‘Inflammatory Essays’ (1979 –1982), ‘Living’ (1980 – 1982), ‘Survival’ (1983 – 1985), ‘Mother and Child’ (1990), and ‘Arno’ (1996).
The final room, the Bourgeois Gallery, and the passage before it, houses a selection of paintings and various of the artist’s works in stone, including a granite sarcophagus and a selection of benches. Some of these works trace their exhibition history to two important early solo shows – New York’s Dia Art Foundation in March 1989 and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in December 1989.
Outside in the Cloister courtyard, four of Holzer’s granite benches are installed amongst the shrubbery. During the course of the exhibition, further outdoor works will be placed in and around the site of Durslade Farm, along footpaths and hidden in the woods. Jenny Holzer has selected text from poet and classicist Anne Carson’s book ‘If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho’ to be cut into the surface of seven boulders by a local stone carver. The text is a translation of the ancient Greek poet Sappho. The boulders are all stone from the South West.
Jenny Holzer was born in 1950 in Ohio, USA. She studied painting and printmaking (BFA) at Ohio University, and received an MFA in painting from Rhode Island School of Design in 1977. Much of Jenny Holzer’s education was in the Liberal Arts at Duke University and the University of Chicago, and she believes this broad education had an impact on the work she made. Although much of her work focused on painting, she was already using text in her pieces at this early stage. Holzer works with language as an artistic medium, employing it across a variety of formats, from printed posters to LED displays. Her work is part of the public domain, equally accessible in museums and galleries as in storefronts, on billboards and T-shirts, and even electrified in New York’s Times Square.
In 1976 Jenny Holzer moved to New York and enrolled in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program (ISP). Her text pieces started in the 1970s with the New York City posters, a series she called ‘Truisms’. In the 1980s Holzer began using LED lights and electronic billboards on public buildings and monuments, in place of her posters. Other significant series of works, after the early ‘Truisms’ are ‘Inflammatory Essays’ (1979 – 1982), ‘Living’ (1980 – 1982), and ‘Survival’ (1983 – 1985). In 1990 Holzer became the first woman to represent the USA with a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale, for which she was awarded the Golden Lion prize.
Since 1996 Holzer has been using light projection – in which a powerful film projector casts scrolling texts onto architecture or a landscape – as another way of presenting texts in the public realm. The texts and light are dramatic but unobtrusive, adapting to varied projection surfaces, from the mountains and ski jump in Lillehammer to the Pyramide du Louvre in Paris. In recent years Jenny Holzer has returned to painting, making reference to Abstract Expressionism and Suprematism and reinforcing the continued relationship of art with politics.
Jenny Holzer: Softer Targets – Hauser & Wirth Somerset until1 November 2015