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.
“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