Destabilizing cultural assumptions : language and images in the art of Jenny Holzer
Jacobson-Leong, Davina R.
Since 1977, when Jenny Holzer first introduced her Truisms signs to the public, the surreal quality of her art has increased with her successively more dramatic installations and messages. Juxtaposing light and dark, impersonal media with personal texts and the future with the past, Holzer's ability to fill and command large areas of space (both public and private) has won her international acclaim and recognition. The sites for her installations have included sections of the Dia Foundation in Manhattan, as well as an immense 535-foot electronic, spiraling sign along the walls of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1989). Holzer's most ambitious project to date is The Venice Installation ; in 1990, she was selected to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, a prestigious international exhibition. There, Holzer's installation won the elite Golden Lion Award for Best Pavilion. Jenny Holzer currently lives and works in New York City.1 Whether in a public or private forum, Holzer's signs and installations manipulate the "official voice" of public announcements, which are accepted by the general public as important and true. Through verbal dislocation--placing familiar words in alien contexts--she undermines the unwavering authority of this official voice, thereby jolting viewers from complacent acceptance of any information. In this thesis, I hope both to illustrate the artistic and social contexts from which Holzer's works developed, and to suggest the ramifications of Holzer's provocative texts from a greater perspective. As in any historical research and documentation, it is difficult to gain a global perspective on any subject from a contemporary point of view. Generally, it is only in retrospect that one can recognize the impact an individual and/or movement has had on their society. However, working with the assumption that much can be learned about a society and culture through the art it produces, I hope to demonstrate through my research how art is used not just as a means of contemplation or "abstract personal expression", but that it is also used to catalyze action, and if necessary, political action. With this idea, the actual product of an artist's creation is secondary to the revolutionary consciousness that it can awaken in its viewers, the far-reaching, political result of artistic provocation. In addition, I shall examine--both in theory and practice--the creative process behind a work of art. Rather than simply turning to life, Holzer's art seems to be compelled by life, and it is this element of immediacy and provocation in her works that I would like to explore. Holzer's works demand a creative response from viewers, and while this response will generally remain on a cerebral level-rethinking cultural assumptions that are made daily--in this thesis will take my own personal response one step further. Verbal analysis of art is ultimately an analysis "at arm's length", therefore my final goal in the scope of this paper is to produce a creative (i.e., artistic) response to Holzer's works. This will consist of a series of drawings/collages and explanatory notes, an artistic interpretation and response to the many questions raised in the course of my research on this subject. Some of the issues or topics I will address concern: the use of language itself as an artistic medium; the creation of semantic meaning in words and images; the conflicting and fragile relationship between cooperation and corruption; and the struggle against power relationships in society from an inside and outside perspective. By responding to Holzer's artistic provocation with my own artistic interpretation, I hope to demonstrate the chain-reaction dialogue that art can catalyze. For, as one critic describes, art "can do what has always been within its province to do: offer a unique insight, vision or perspective which can heighten or resonate with one's own consciousness. "2