Thursday, August 5

Jenny Holzer: “When a work of art is great, you find meaning, emotion and mystery” | Culture


Jenny Holzer (Gallipolis, Ohio, 70 years old) opens the door of her studio in Brooklyn with a smile as frank as the view offered by the two windows of the room. Reflections of the sun slip through the windows as trains pass over the Manhattan Bridge, whose structure the study seems to be part of, such is the closeness. The American artist receives EL PAÍS on the occasion of her new work for the Guggenheim Bilbao, a titled mobile app Like Beauty in Flames, that combines textual art with augmented reality (AR). Of the three experiences in the sample, two can be seen in situ and the third, anywhere in the world. Short texts, verses by different authors encapsulated in LED lights, which challenge the visitor.

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“Years ago I met the poetry of Anna Świrszczyńska [autora polaca fallecida en 1984] and it was a discovery, because it is moving, intelligent, it talks about the things that sustain us or kill us, ”explains Holzer. “The title of the work is taken from his poem Beauty Dies (Beauty Dies), about the burning of a museum during the Nazi siege of Warsaw. With a dramatic, lacerating verse ”.

Holzer’s exhibition texts are sometimes a tower of Babel; in Bilbao they are written in English, Spanish, Basque – with verses by Bernardo Atxaga, among others – and French. Bridging the distance from the language seems an added challenge to the formulation of the installation, but it also explains the creative process of the artist. “There are wonderful translations of Świrszczyńska’s work. Not from other poets, and we went to experts to give us a rough interpretation that I could read, understand and represent. Yes, I go to experts to learn what I could never know or find on my own. “

A father and daughter contemplate an installation by Jenny Holzer at the Guggenheim Bilbao in October 2019.
A father and daughter contemplate an installation by Jenny Holzer at the Guggenheim Bilbao in October 2019.VINCENT WEST / Reuters

Venturing into the new field of mobile applications is the umpteenth challenge in her career, a challenge that does not seem to bother her. “I try to work with as many experts as possible, because I am inquisitive, but extremely incompetent. Haha! Great, this phrase will be engraved on my grave ”, he jokes. Holzer’s grim appearance, dark shirt, black sneakers, quickly melts away with the first of many laughs that will punctuate the talk.

Holzer has a great love for print, which she does not limit to literature. “I studied literature, but I am not a specialist. I would almost say that I like to write. However, when I took it seriously I started to hate it, that’s why I started reading other people’s texts and concentrating on what is most natural to me, which is the presentation itself. [de los textos] showing them in the light, for example, of certain colors or in combination with architecture ”.

Regarding his readers’ tastes, he answers again with a laugh: “I read everything, from government reports to newspapers, poetry, novels and also garbage on the web, it is very abundant.” Confessed weakness for poetry? “Poetry, when it is good or great, is like art. In the case of visual art, when it is good or great you not only find meaning, you also feel emotion and also the most majestic thing, which is mystery. You don’t know how anyone could do that. But you know it excites you ”.

Provoke the viewer

Holzer likes to stimulate the viewer, provoke them to reflect or, simply, provoke them; also to arouse emotions. Getting it through a mobile application seems a contradiction that the artist rejects. “Technology can be completely stupid and destructive. Or it can be in the service of good things, uh, like most of the things that people do. In the first piece we made for Bilbao, the technology was to present the content, but it also transformed the atmosphere of the room, it even changed the shape, the solidity, of the museum ”.

Holzer began to experiment with the form of expression of aphorisms in the seventies and eighties of the last century; an involuntary foretaste of the brevity and conciseness of the tweets. “I had never thought about the relationship with tweets, I will have to reflect on it [risas]”.

Holzer, in his study.
Holzer, in his study. E. T.

The artist defends the brevity of the messages. “That was the challenge, how to try to reduce to a single line big issues that might otherwise be intimidating or difficult to understand.” Largely oblivious to the vertigo of social media, she is more interested in the other public space, the agora, where she began to experiment in the 1970s. “[Entonces] it could seem very crazy for someone to stand in the public square and pronounce on something. But I wanted to offer ideas to people in the hope that they would be of some use. That was what led me to the street, not the lack of access to a gallery or museum. It was a desire shared by a group of people that I met when I first came to New York to work on the streets ”. From Times Square he arrived at the Tate Modern in London or the Venice Biennale, where in 1990 he received the Golden Lion.

The exercise of democratic expression suffered a considerable setback during the term of Trump, against whom Holzer does not spare invectives. “After four years of Trump, truthful freedom of expression is a precious thing, a treasure … after so much false news, that was crazy.” For those who staunchly defend civil rights and human dignity, the Republican’s defeat was a relief. “It is delicious not to see Mr. Trump on television. Or not see him on Twitter, for example, although I am forced to mention that in recent years we have collected his worst tweets [para nuevas obras], an arduous task … But yes, America is much better now. He shouldn’t have been president, in my opinion. I think there is a lot of empirical evidence in that regard. Like several commentators, I call him the ‘ex-person’, it is very appropriate [risas]”.

I read everything from government reports to newspapers, poetry, novels and garbage on the web, it is very abundant

Holzer has a palette of recurring themes, and almost all of them revolve around pain. “The tragedies of women and children, of any vulnerable person … I am also interested in suffering and pain, of course, but that goes with another of my recurring themes, murder or torture.” Perhaps for having been a victim of sexual abuse as a child, as she has publicly confessed? “The experience of sexual abuse, as a child, gave me a perspective on the world that I would not have had otherwise. I do not recommend or justify it; It was not a lesson, but something that gave me perspective to immediately see the dimension of human behavior ”. And he continues: “I hope he has done something empathetic to me. At least I want to be aware of what happens to other people. And maybe it also gave me impetus to represent, and denounce, the atrocities against young women in the Bosnian war or Syrian refugees or children anywhere. “

The montage that he presented at the Guggenheim Bilbao in 2019, under the title of The indescribableAs part of an anthology, he used skeletal remains to portray the odyssey of the Syrian refugees. “We have used human bones in various contexts, including Bilbao, to show what happens to people, what is done to people in Syria. But not only then, also during the war in the former Yugoslavia, when women were attacked, raped, sometimes murdered or later committed suicide… In fact, I wrote a text, but I felt that it was not enough and I turned to human bones ”.

Holzer’s conceptual ossuary did not generate controversy – the artist buys the bones from legal suppliers of medical teaching materials – but did use the blood of Yugoslav and German women in another project for the German newspaper Southgerman newspaper, in 1993. “There was controversy because we used some human blood donated by women, but the absurdity was that that was the controversy and not the attacks on women. The bones are not the problem. They are rape, murder, torture, imprisonment and starvation that people suffer. They are the subjects on which I ask myself ”.

Like several commentators, I call Trump the ‘ex-person’, it is very appropriate

The experience of the bones or the blood returns the interview to the realm of political correctness. Does it limit us? “Well, some limits are good because humans can be horrible. I think that political correctness, which in my opinion is a way of being inclusive, of saying that everyone deserves respect and food, employment, security, courtesy, is just a good thing. It’s used as a pejorative, but usually not by the nicest people, right? ”

In Holzer contrast, like night and day, the theme of his work and his affable and enthusiastic character. Are you optimistic about being human? “You have to be a bit optimistic to get up in the morning and take a shower, eat something healthy instead of something terrible. Try it. I have always liked living in good faith and trying what you believe in. Whether you succeed or not, do your best and get up again. ” And with regard to women, is he just as optimistic? “I must answer that you have to be double, because it is unfair and horrible what women suffer, and it is also stupid because it hurts everyone, men and women,” emphasizes the artist, who remembers the role of women, “especially those of black race ”, in the elections that evicted Trump. “What they do is vitally important, whether it’s fighting sexual assault or getting people to vote.”

In an interview two years ago she said: “I can only see things as a feminist; in this sense, my work is militant ”. The artist laughs frankly again when she hears the phrase. “What a good statement. I don’t remember it, but I assume it, I could have said it, yes ”. Feminist and, by extension, activist. “I hope to do practical things to good ends in response to what happens. But other times I am an eccentric artist with my own concerns, I am not just one thing all the time, it would be very tiring ”.

Holzer says goodbye, praising the museum that welcomes her, as if it were her home. The pandemic has slowed her movements, but she advances the projects that will take her to Europe: curating an exhibition dedicated to Louise Bourgeois – “probably my favorite artist” – in Basel and a collaboration with the Serralves Foundation in Porto. “Having the privilege of reviewing Bourgeois’ work and showing it with emphasis is great,” he says goodbye.


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