Jenny Holzer’s twenty large works got their starting point from government documents concerning the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11 related to the global war on terror. These documents were released under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which provides public access to military records. The documents include memoranda, diplomatic communications, autopsy reports, planning maps, interrogation records, and the handwritten cri de coer of detainees themselves. Each was heavily redacted prior to its public release.
Fourteen pieces are on view in room 32 of Museo Correr. Most are presented on the wall, with one canvas propped face-up at slight tilt on the floor. The works were hand-painted over two years between 2012 and 2014. Holzer’s six silkscreens from 2006 to 2009 can be found throughout the museum, infiltrating the permanent collection.
The pearly sheen of the “War Paintings” gives them an almost a precious quality in relation to the black and red censor boxes, writings, and marks that are the central focus. There is a balance between their carefully handled surface and stark reductions. These are not works that are in love with paint as a mode of communication. They use the medium as a tool to express the time and care Holzer used when dealing with the content.
I hesitate to call them paintings; they push beyond that category into objects that carry a weighty responsibility. Their glow illuminates the accountability that the artist feels as a citizen of a country that perpetrated the acts documented in the works, in response to a deep-seated fear of its own vulnerability. This accountability extends to the viewers. We are each held liable for participating in a culture that has enabled such incidents. In creating these works Holzer acknowledges her own responsibility and confronts the viewer about their own involvement.
During conversation with journalists post-press conference, Holzer recounted watching the television from her home in upstate New York, as the planes hit the World Trade Center. In response to a question about the rippling effects of 9/11 on recent events, Holzer agreed to the boomerang nature of our output into the world in her reply: “This will sound trite, but violence begets violence.”
Words: Lauren Gidwitz
Photos: Top. Xenon for the Peggy Guggenheim, 2003 Light projection/ proiezione luminosa Palazzo Corner della Ca’ Granda, Venice Text: “Blur” from Middle Earth by Henri Cole, copyright © 2003 by the author. Used/reprinted with permission from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Photo: Attilio Maranzano
Middle L. in (JIHAD) time, 2014 Oil on linen/ Olio su lino Text: U.S. government document © 2014 Jenny Holzer R .XX 7, 2013 Oil on linen/ Olio su lino 203.2 x 157.5 cm Text: U.S. government document © 2013 Jenny Holzer
Jenny Holzer (Centre) at press conference in Venice. Photo: Lauren Gidwitz © artlyst 2015
Jenny Holzer “War Paintings” on view May 7 – November 22, 2015 at Museo Correr, Venice, Italy a collateral event with the Venice Biennale.