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Jenny Holzer.

Whitney Museum of American Art | New York, New York

Jenny Holzer, like many young artists in the late 1970s and early '80s--Keith Haring for one--began her career pasting anonymous offset posters on building walls, garbage can covers, postal boxes and fences around New York. Truisms (1977-79), her very first public work, consisted of 257 alphabetized statements printed in bold italic lists, culled and condensed from her readings of literary classics. With statements such as "MONEY CREATES TASTE," "ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE" and "MURDER HAS ITS SEXUAL SIDE," her intent was to provoke and elicit public debate. "I am someone who likes to blurt things out desperately," she once told an interviewer. Following in the wake of Truisms, Holzer's writings took a more serious turn, using different voices, whether original or borrowed, personal, authoritarian, journalistic or candidly confessional, to deal with big-ticket items like sex, death, power, and war. "I want to tell you what I know in case it's of use," she writes in a 1988 LAMENT. In recent years, Holzer, outraged both by continuous war and the excesses of the Bush administration, started using giant Warholian silkscreen paintings to get her message across.

Organized for the Whitney by Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art in partnership with the Fondation Beyeler near Basel, Switzerland, "PROTECT PROTECT" (through May 31) presents eight of Holzer's LED signs from the 1990s onwards, along with declassified U.S. government documents. However, for an artist whose eye-riveting messages flashed from walls, floors and kiosks once stopped people in their tracks, in this museum survey they tend to come across as techno drones, like R2-D2 putting on a light show. It's not that Holzer's often beautiful and intricately programmed LED signs don't have strands of truth still clinging to their bones, but that the technologies for sending and receiving messages have begun to outstrip her means, making her devices seem as quaint as Whistler's mother. Today, Googling and twittering, Blackberries and iPhones bring us the news faster, more efficiently, and in much more viscerally exciting ways. Compare the jaw-dropping phantasmagoria that lights up city squares around the world, the adrenalin-pumping televising of the last two Gulf Wars, the triumphal opening ceremony of Beijing's Olympics Games, and you get the point.



While Holzer's colorfully flashing LED installations, with running texts shooting every which way, are momentarily diverting, especially given the Whitney's melodramatically darkened galleries, what leaves a truly lasting impression are her abstract-looking silk-screened blowups of the redacted official documents, heavily censored with black markers. Just reading these texts, some of which detail prisoner abuse and homicide at Guantanamo Bay and other detention camps, is bone chilling. We are treated to stories of heads being wrapped in duct tape, shacklings, gaggings, low-voltage electric shocks, pierced lungs, as well as one harrowing account of a soldier who killed an Iraqi child in self-defense. Other images feature the large black palm prints used to identify prisoners. Most unsettling of all is Holzer's MAP series from the 2007 Venice Biennale, especially Protect Protect deep purple, the document from which this survey takes its title. Here we see Iraq drawn and quartered like a piece of meat, with terms like "seize," "exploit," "isolate," "protect" and "fix" plastered across it, long before the first shot was fired. By making us so immediately aware of her sources and linking them to today's headlines, Holzer's intervention is, as she herself realizes, a bold move, perhaps even a dangerous one. When asked if she had received any government feedback concerning her work, she answered, "Just silence. But who knows on what lists I now appear."

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Author:Rubin, Edward
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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