Jenny Holzer, the American conceptual artist best known for her politically charged ‘truisms’, took part in Abu Dhabi Art this week. As her thoughts turn to leaving a permanent legacy, she talks to Nick Leech about her work
Well chosen words
The artists, exhibits and galleries may be international, but art fairs, like the cities that host them, have identities that are unique. This year, London’s Frieze Art Fair celebrated its 10th anniversary and did nothing to dispel its reputation for the carnivalesque, while the 55-year-old Venice Biennale reaffirmed its position as one of the world’s most bewildering and encyclopaedic. Abu Dhabi Art may be an infant by comparison, but the fair already displays a personality that is recognisably its own.
One of Abu Dhabi Art’s defining characteristics is an intimacy that dealers say is absent from art events elsewhere and this was displayed most visibly at the fair’s gala opening. The great and the good had assembled – artists, gallerists, curators, administrators and VIPs – and stood, shoulder to shoulder, in an atmosphere of relaxed conviviality, with the public at Manarat Al Saadiyat on Tuesday night.
One guest in particular seemed to appreciate the opportunity. Jenny Holzer, one of the world’s most private and paradoxical of artists, moved between the exhibits like any other member of the public, which is exactly as she would have wished.
Despite being one of the undisputed stars of the contemporary art scene and producing work that has been writ large in the public realm on furniture, signs, monuments and landscapes, Holzer has spent her four-decade long career trying to remove herself from her work.
“There’s no need for me to give my pathetic opinion,” Holzer recently explained to The Guardian journalist Stuart Jeffries. “I think the material speaks for itself.”
To a certain extent, Holzer has succeeded, because while her face may not be immediately familiar, her work almost certainly is.
Holzer uses the techniques and materials of the mass media – LED signs, large-scale projections, posters, slogans, caps, T-shirts and even condoms – to deliver her messages, aphorisms with the pith and punch of headlines.
“I used language,” Holzer once told her fellow artist Kiki Smith, “because I wanted to offer content that people – not necessarily art people – could understand.”
Despite her choice of audience, and the use of language as her medium, Holzer remains an intensely private person and a woman of few words. Although she is self-deprecating, polite and patient in interviews, a conversation with Holzer feels very much like a case of life imitating art, something that should come as no surprise from a woman who has made a career out of feats of linguistic brevity.
Holzer, now 63, lives in Hoosick Falls in upstate New York, but she started to write in the late 1970s in an attempt to distil the information she was bombarded with while studying at the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York.
The epigrammatic phrases that resulted predate our current 140-character window of present-day Twitter feeds by more than three decades and ranged from deadpan aphorisms to suggestions threats and mordant meditations on the human condition. Holzer calls them Truisms and has been working with the form ever since. She started by pasting anonymous posters onto fences, walls and buildings around the city, insinuating statements such as “Protect Me From What I Want”, “Romantic Love Was Invented to Manipulate Women”, and “Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise” between the instructions, directions and demands of corporate capitalism.
“I wasn’t sure what I was in the 1970sin New York,” Holzer explained in a BBC TV interview with the critic Andrew Graham-Dixon. “I wasn’t certain I was an artist. I thought maybe that I was a crackpot, that I needed to declaim things and I think the Truisms reflect that. I became an anonymous demagogue!”
“I would sneak around the morning after I’d pasted them up to see if anybody would stop,” Holzer recalled in a later interview. “That’s the test of street art – to see if anybody has stopped. People would cross out the ones they didn’t like and would stare at others. I liked that people would engage with them.”
Holzer has had her fair share of critics, most notably Robert Hughes, the former art critic of Time magazine, who once likened her to a 17th-century New England matriarch, sewing puritanical platitudes onto samplers; however, Holzer has always been careful to keep a distance between her own views and the proclamations she makes.
“I wanted to set up a situation where there are hundreds of sentences,” she told Graham-Dixon, “all of which were plausibly true, but to then pose the question, ‘What do you do, how do you govern, when there are all of these conflicting opinions?’”
Holzer has always been a political artist and, throughout her career, she has repeatedly been drawn to issues and material that she describes as “being difficult to live with”. An engagement with war and how it is mediated has also been a long-running theme in her work.
The brutal civil war that tore Yugoslavia apart in the early 1990s moved Holzer to employ a new material, actual human bones sourced from anatomist’s suppliers which she used in Lustmord, an installation inspired by the conflict’s systematic use of rape. It is one of Holzer’s most harrowing pieces, but its origins can also be traced back to her early Truisms, which included phrases such as “Murder has its sexual side”.
“I’m not a reporter so it’s not reportage, but its some form of, I hope, empathic reflecting on what happens to people in war and, in this instance, what happens to women and little girls in particular and some men, too,” Holzer explains to me just before she makes the trip to Abu Dhabi.
“I found that ghastly. It happens all over the world, of course, but at that time and in that place it was remarkable in the worst possible way so I tried to re-present it in a manner that was true.”
Since 2004, Holzer has felt compelled to respond to America’s involvement in Iraq and the Middle East. For this, she read declassified US war documents – including autopsy reports – FBI emails from Guantánamo and letters from detainees. As she once explained: “I wanted to provide as much information as I could, so I read tens of thousands of pages to come up with ones that were summaries of sorts and I guess these hands seem to be that, at least by way of their image quality.”
When asked where her need to engage with such dark matter comes from, Holzer is remarkably candid. “Nobody really knows, but I can hazard some guesses,” she tells me. “I had a tricky childhood, as many people have, and I’m certain Freud was right that that has something much to do with what happens subsequently.”
Holzer’s other reason for engaging with material that she describes as being “difficult to live with” stems from a belief that there should be some “utility” to her art. “I absolutely defend the right of art to be utterly useless – I think that’s one of its strengths – but at large I’d prefer to be useful in the sense that I have proffered something of meaning that is also lovely and generous,” she says to me. “Why not try? I think I’m telling the truth when I say I’d like things to be better. I really would like things to be better and I don’t want to believe that’s impossible.”
Holzer was invited to this year’s Abu Dhabi Art to take part in a public panel discussion about the relationship between art and architecture alongside the architect Jean Nouvel, the president of Centre Pompidou in France, Alain Seban, and the Austrian gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac.
Even though Holzer is not an architect, she has been effectively transforming high-profile (and Saadiyat Island-related) buildings such as the Guggenheim in New York and the Louvre in Paris with large-scale projections and installations since 1996. Holzer has also worked with Nouvel before, providing a permanent installation, Sans titre (Untitled), for the architect’s Palais de Justice in Nantes.
Given this web of connections, Holzer’s status in the art world, and the fact that she wasn’t actually exhibiting any work at Abu Dhabi Art, speculation soon started to build that her arrival would coincide with an announcement about a major new installation for one of the Saadiyat Island museums. None has yet been made.
Despite the absence of news, the idea that Holzer would travel all the way to the UAE just to take part in an hour-long conversation would seem to be spurious, especially as the artist has now reached a stage in her career where she is starting to consider her legacy. While she has no regrets, she tells me, the fact that much of her work for the last three decades has consisted of installations that were ephemeral is a consideration.
“That the work is fleeting is, at times, appropriate for the subject matter but it has dawned on me, especially in my ‘senior years’ that a lot of my work will be lost. So be it. If it was right when seen, then those are the breaks.”
Not all of Holzer’s recent output will be lost. She particularly values her recent collaboration with the Canadian poet, essayist and classicist, Anne Carson. “I was so lucky to be able to borrow her translation of Sappho and to carve those texts into rocks … I’m noticing that perhaps the greater part of my work goes away and will exist in memory – if at all – it feels good to carve Carson’s fabulous translations in stone so that that won’t be fugitive.”
Holzer’s work on the declassified material from Afghanistan and Iraq also marks a return to painting for the artist, as each document she reproduces is meticulously rendered by hand. Some resemble the Russian Suprematist paintings by the artist Kazimir Malevich, while others are reminiscent of the black paintings by the artist Ad Reinhardt, another of Holzer’s favourite artists. Her comments about the American abstract expressionist provide an interesting insight into much of Holzer’s own work. “I have been and still am intrigued by how he [Reinhardt] can be an absolutist but also soft and so intelligent. Absolutism, softness and intelligence don’t often go together!”
For Holzer however, the form that her work takes is ultimately determined by a combination of the material she is using and the site where it will be exhibited. “The early writings of mine really wanted to be street posters and were appropriate for that, some needed to be on stupid hats and they are,” she explains. “Sometimes a text will need a particular medium, other times I may be driving past a particular structure and I will look and think “Oh I’d love to project there” and the text can follow.”
Whether she has seen anything in Abu Dhabi during her brief visit that will inspire her in the future is yet to be seen. Even the possibility is hugely exciting.