In The Be­gin­ning Was The Word

Fresh from her takeover at Blen­heim Palace with her epic in­stal­la­tions, Jenny Holzer con­tin­ues to ex­plore the power of text that is as chal­leng­ing as it is in­spir­ing.

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) - - Contents - By So­phie Elmhirst.

“The first thing peo­ple saw,” says Amer­i­can con­tem­po­rary artist Jenny Holzer, stand­ing in the cen­tre of Blen­heim Palace’s vast court­yard and ges­tic­u­lat­ing to­wards the en­trance, “was any num­ber of clay pots filled with mondo grass.” The spiky black-and-pur­ple plant— rem­i­nis­cent of a sprout­ing of dark knives— lined the route to the palace and filled enor­mous pots in the wa­ter gar­den, re­plac­ing other, more dec­o­ra­tive fo­liage. “We took out the cheer­ful flow­ers,” says Holzer, beam­ing.

Blen­heim—in all its ex­trav­a­gant, ab­surd, baroque glory—was her can­vas. For three months last au­tumn, Holzer ex­e­cuted a quiet trans­for­ma­tion, cov­er­ing the palace, gar­dens, lake, is­land, forests, fire­places, walls, and cab­i­nets of cu­riosi­ties with new work. She is the fourth artist, and first woman, to be in­vited by the Blen­heim Art Foun­da­tion, af­ter Ai Wei­wei, Lawrence Weiner, and Michelan­gelo Pis­to­letto, who sank a car in the foun­tain two years ago. The project was noth­ing less than an oc­cu­pa­tion, start­ing with the mondo grass, and ex­tend­ing to light pro­jec­tions, benches, in­scrip­tions, paint­ings, and hu­man bones. Words were ev­ery­where—they were Holzer’s paint. Verses by the Pol­ish poet Anna Swir, a re­sis­tance fighter in World War II, were beamed on to the palace façade, as well as quo­ta­tions from re­cent Bri­tish army vet­er­ans whose voices she had gath­ered through the Not For­got­ten As­so­ci­a­tion project. Con­flict is one of Holzer’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. She knew she wanted to take on the com­mis­sion when she learned that the palace had orig­i­nally been a re­ward to the first Duke of Marl­bor­ough for vic­tory at the Bat­tle of Blen­heim in 1704. “I was like, ‘Oh, I can do war.’” Holzer, 67, is strik­ingly tall, but some­how dis­ap­pears in a black shirt, jeans, and train­ers. She likes—and has al­ways liked—to be un­de­tectable. Al­though she’s now con­sid­ered one of Amer­ica’s lead­ing con­cep­tual artists, it was never an as­sured tra­jec­tory. Holzer has said in the past that she “drew madly and hap­pily un­til I was 5 or 6 years old, but in my teenage years I tried to be­come nor­mal”. Her fa­ther was an un­suc­cess­ful car dealer, her mother a horserider (Holzer’s de­scrip­tions), her grand­par­ents a doc­tor and a nurse. Art seemed friv­o­lous and im­prac­ti­cal by com­par­i­son. Holzer toyed with be­com­ing a lawyer, un­til, even­tu­ally, she made it to the Rhode Is­land School of De­sign and then the Whit­ney Mu­seum In­de­pen­dent Study Pro­gram. There, while strug­gling to paint, she im­mersed her­self in po­lit­i­cal ide­olo­gies—hard left, far right, and ev­ery­thing in be­tween—and be­gan to write sen­tences com­posed from her read­ing. These be­came the Truisms, one-line apho­risms printed on posters that she pasted to Man­hat­tan walls and fences in the mid­dle of the night. (“Abuse of power should come as no sur­prise”; “A man can’t know what it’s like to be a mother”, and so on.) The idea was to make peo­ple stop, look, won­der where on Earth they came from. “It’s my favourite thing when peo­ple see some­thing and go, ‘Oh, what is that?’” says Holzer. “And then they read it and then re­ally say, ‘What is that? What does it mean? Who left it, to what end?’” she grins.

In­side the palace, Holzer made the red mar­ble benches to match the walls. They appeared in­nocu­ous, un­til you leaned for­ward and read the provoca­tive quo­ta­tions carved into the stone. Paint­ings of for­merly se­cret gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments about “en­hanced in­ter­ro­ga­tion tech­niques” rested ca­su­ally against fire­places and mir­rors, next to grand fam­ily por­traits by Joshua Reynolds and John Singer Sar­gent; hu­man shoul­der blades slipped into the palace’s dis­play vit­rines. This was art in dis­guise, art by sub­terfuge, re­ward­ing the close ob­server. Holzer even wanted to hide a gi­ant in­scribed boul­der in the an­cient wood­land in the grounds, “but then I un­der­stand that they want peo­ple to find things,” she says, shrug­ging. “I tend to like things that no­body will ever find for an­other cou­ple of thou­sand years.”

It’s not all so se­cre­tive. Some of the work were un­avoid­able, epic in scale. On the is­land in the lake op­po­site the palace, there were huge light pro­jec­tions of Swir’s po­ems and Not For­got­ten As­so­ci­a­tion vet­eran quo­ta­tions. When it was tested on a damp day, they could see the beams of light trav­el­ling all the way to the tree­tops. But there was a vul­ner­a­bil­ity, in­evitable given the typ­i­cal Bri­tish au­tumn. Na­ture also in­ter­vened dur­ing previous such in­stal­la­tions: a dust storm in a Mex­i­can canyon; or a fog in Liver­pool, which at first ru­ined the piece, but then, says Holzer, “it got so foggy it made a wa­ter screen in the sky and so for the first and last time we had text on clouds”.

As much as Holzer is fond of the ephemeral—words that can shine and then dis­solve in Liver­pudlian mist—she also likes to by­pass the for­mal­ity of a mu­seum or the un­touch­a­bil­ity of a picture frame. At Blen­heim, in case of a to­tal washout, she made vir­tual-re­al­ity ver­sions of the pro­jec­tions that vis­i­tors could see, and keep, on their phones. “Peo­ple can take them away like a pizza now,” she says, and then pauses as she con­sid­ers the com­par­i­son of a Swir poem to a margherita. “A spir­i­tual pizza. A dif­fi­cult pizza.”

Dif­fi­culty is Holzer’s diet. She’s drawn to po­ets like Swir be­cause they are bru­tal and un­com­pro­mis­ing. (Take these lines from ‘I Knocked My Head Against the Wall’, one of Swir’s best-known, au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal po­ems: “I waited sixty min­utes/to be ex­e­cuted./I was hun­gry/for six years.”) Holzer likes the medium of light be­cause, by con­trast, it is simple and del­i­cate. Pol­i­tics is never far away. While in Bri­tain for one of her many Blen­heim vis­its, Holzer watched the hor­ri­fy­ing chaos of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion un­fold. Part of her is pure ac­tivist, but her pro­fes­sion isn’t quite suited to the task: “Art can be very good, but it’s not very fast.” She is, how­ever, de­lighted by the wit in ev­i­dence at protests. “The signs are fan­tas­tic,” she bright­ens. “It might be in­ter­est­ing to pick the best of those and an­i­mate them and make them for peo­ple’s hand­helds ... maybe some­thing to spread through so­cial me­dia, would be at least cheer­ing.” And so a new project is born.

In mo­ments like this, Holzer seems to be at a peak of cre­ativ­ity—ideas form­ing and evolv­ing. But she de­scribes her­self as a “wannabe per­fec­tion­ist”, con­stantly frus­trated by her own lim­i­ta­tions. “If you’re an artist in good faith, you should know you’re not go­ing to get ev­ery­thing done that you should,” she says. As a young artist in the late ’80s, Holzer re­ceived near-si­mul­ta­ne­ous com­mis­sions from the Guggen­heim, the Dia Art Foun­da­tion, and an in­vi­ta­tion to be the first woman to rep­re­sent Amer­ica at the Venice Bi­en­nale. She also had a baby. “By the time Venice came around she was mad at me,” Holzer re­calls of her daugh­ter. “And she had cause to be. I wasn’t the sea of tran­quil­lity for her. We’re good now, but it took some re­me­di­a­tion.”

Now, Holzer is at a dif­fer­ent stage—her daugh­ter has had a baby, and she has be­come a grand­mother. Her own mother is of­ten on her mind, too—a vi­tal in­flu­ence, teach­ing her both how and what to see: “She would get re­ally ex­cited about see­ing things or know­ing things. Spring flower, leaves turn­ing, a dog that had been hit by the side of the road. She would say ‘Look!’ and then we’d stop and help it. So there was aw­ful­ness in there too, but it was at least tied to think­ing that one could ad­dress the thing.”

And that was Holzer’s vi­sion for Blen­heim. That peo­ple would pass by a bench, or glance into the trees, or look up at the flam­boy­ant façade, and see some­thing be­yond the ob­vi­ous beauty that made them pause. Per­haps it will be a sol­dier’s mem­ory of Afghanistan, or a stark line from Swir. Ei­ther way, she wants her art to make them cu­ri­ous, an­gry, maybe be­mused. Ideally, they will echo her mother, “pok­ing some­one and say­ing, ‘Look!’” And, just as in childhood when she stopped to help the in­jured dog, per­haps it will lead to ac­tion of some kind. Look­ing, says Holzer, need not be pas­sive: “It can lead to mercy.”


Jenny Holzer in Blen­heim Palace’s Great Hall

Xenon for Venice, 1999, Jenny Holzer

Sur­vival, 1985, Jenny Holzer

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