STATE­MENT OF IN­TENT Bar­bara Kruger on her anti-es­tab­lish­ment artistry

Bar­bara Kruger first sent a mes­sage to the world in the 1980s with her fear­less, provoca­tive art, and she con­tin­ues to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo to­day

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - By FRANCES HEDGES

‘No com­plaints, ex­cept for the world.’ Who other than Bar­bara Kruger could say so much in so lit­tle? Speak­ing to me on the phone from New York, she is ev­ery bit as eco­nomic in her lan­guage as her pithy, as­sertive art­works would sug­gest. This is not a woman who wastes her words.

If you don’t al­ready know Kruger’s name, you will al­most cer­tainly know her work. Ren­dered in white Fu­tura or Hel­vetica type on a pil­lar-box-red back­ground and over­laid on black and white pho­to­graphs, her eye-catch­ing apho­risms have per­me­ated the pub­lic realm and seeped into pop­u­lar cul­ture, of­ten spawn­ing bad im­i­ta­tions in the process. Whether em­bla­zoned on buses or plastered on bill­boards, they call for wide­spread in­sti­tu­tional change while chal­leng­ing view­ers to re­flect on their in­di­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tions as cit­i­zens. ‘I try to make work that is about how we are to one an­other – the ado­ra­tions and the con­tempts, the dam­age done and the love made,’ says Kruger.

It’s an am­bi­tious project for a woman who en­tered the work­ing world with no uni­ver­sity de­gree and lit­tle for­mal artis­tic train­ing. Aban­don­ing her stud­ies at Par­sons School of De­sign af­ter a term, in the late 1960s Kruger took a job as a de­signer at Condé Nast’s Made­moi­selle mag­a­zine, which in ret­ro­spect she says she was for­tu­nate to se­cure. ‘At that time, Condé Nast and Hearst were about the only places where women had some sort of agency over what they were do­ing – they could ac­tu­ally work rather than just make cof­fees for a male boss.’ None­the­less, she strug­gled with the idea of prop­ping up the ma­te­ri­al­ist so­ci­ety whose flaws she was al­ready be­gin­ning to recog­nise: ‘I didn’t have what it took to cre­ate so many clients’ im­ages of per­fec­tion.’ She gave up graphic de­sign in favour of mak­ing art (ini­tially a series of woven wall hang­ings), pho­tograph­ing ar­chi­tec­ture and even pub­lish­ing po­etry – a pe­riod of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion that paved the way for the adop­tion of her mod­ern col­lage prac­tice in the early 1980s.

Many of Kruger’s early works can be un­der­stood as a di­rect re­sponse to her dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the mag­a­zines she had worked on. By jux­ta­pos­ing provoca­tive slo­gans with main­stream im­agery, she sought to rein­vest con­ver­sa­tions con­ducted through the mass me­dia with mean­ing. ‘I shop there­fore I am,’ reads the irony-laden mes­sage on her 1987 silkscreen print, blend­ing mer­can­tile and philo­soph­i­cal reg­is­ters in a sim­ple yet crush­ing as­sess­ment of con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety’s de­vo­tion to the false god of con­sumerism.

That kind of di­rect lan­guage is at the heart of Kruger’s ap­proach: de­spite be­ing ex­cep­tion­ally well-in­formed (her more re­cent works ref­er­ence a range of writ­ers in­clud­ing Vir­ginia Woolf and Ge­orge Or­well), she shies away from talk­ing about her in­flu­ences. ‘“In­spi­ra­tion” is a very flow­ery, baroque word for some­one like me,’ she says. ‘I ba­si­cally en­gage with the ev­ery­day and how that fil­ters into our ex­pe­ri­ence.’ For the same rea­son, when she started out it seemed nat­u­ral to ex­hibit in the pub­lic realm rather than in the more pri­vate set­ting of a mu­seum or gallery. ‘I didn’t know much about in­di­vid­ual art prac­tices, but I did un­der­stand mak­ing mag­a­zines and watch­ing TV and go­ing to the movies, so it was a way for my work to func­tion through these very pub­lic fo­rums,’ she says of the bill­boards, mu­rals and cov­ers she made in the 1980s and 1990s. It was also a method of at­tack­ing the sta­tus quo as vis­i­bly as pos­si­ble: in 1989, her now­iconic ‘Your Body is a Bat­tle­ground’ poster for the Women’s March on Wash­ing­ton, which shows a woman’s face bi­sected into pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive ex­po­sures, be­came totemic for pro­test­ers fight­ing to de­fend le­gal abor­tion.

In the era of Trump and his pro-life bri­gade, it’s hard not to look at that poster with­out a shiver. Still, res­o­nant though it is with our trou­bled times, Kruger is con­temp­tu­ous of those who pro­fess us to be worse off now than we were then. ‘There are no good old days – it wasn’t bet­ter 30 years ago for women or peo­ple of colour,’ she points out. ‘These are the good old days, not be­cause they’re good by any means, but be­cause we’re alive to ex­pe­ri­ence them and per­haps change them.’ She is mod­est about her own re­form­ing power – ‘Peo­ple have writ­ten in the past that my work is sub­ver­sive, but I make no such claims’ – em­pha­sis­ing that it is pre­cisely the van­ity of self-pro­fessed change-mak­ers that has failed to pre­vent the rise of so­cial con­ser­vatism. ‘Those peo­ple who be­lieve they’re think­ing the right thoughts and pol­ish­ing their haloes make me sick, be­cause the world is big­ger than their nar­cis­sis­tic con­sciences, big­ger than their in­tensely am­bi­tious and in­tel­lec­tual lan­guage,’ she says, re­fer­ring to the ‘en­fee­bled cam­paign’ of the Democrats that, in her view, ef­fec­tively handed Trump his vic­tory. ‘If you can’t trans­form thoughts and lan­guage into a ve­hi­cle for reach­ing peo­ple, we’re just go­ing to have more of what we have now.’

Kruger her­self is a past mas­ter at reach­ing peo­ple. When she isn’t tap­ping into celebrity cul­ture, as she did with her 2010 W mag­a­zine cover star­ring a nude Kim Kar­dashian adorned with three white-on-red bands of text (‘It’s all about me /I mean you /I mean me’), she’s co-opt­ing ur­ban-trans­port net­works to spread her mes­sage. Take her 2012 in­stal­la­tion in Los An­ge­les, for which she wrapped 12 city buses as part of an ini­tia­tive to pro­mote art ed­u­ca­tion in lo­cal schools. Then there was last year’s part­ner­ship with the Per­forma 17 Bi­en­nial, which saw her re­lease 50,000 New York MetroCards il­lus­trated with open-ended ques­tions such as

‘Who is silent? Who speaks?’ For the same project, she staged her first ever per­for­mance, Un­ti­tled (The Drop), which in­volved the launch of a flash sale of mer­chan­dise fea­tur­ing her trade­mark Fu­tura font. As peo­ple be­gan queu­ing obe­di­ently out­side the SoHo store, par­al­lels quickly emerged with the fren­zied ‘drops’ made by the Amer­i­can streetwear brand Supreme, whose logo de­sign is widely known to owe more than a small debt to Kruger.

Some artists might have re­acted to this level of copy­right in­fringe­ment with a ret­inue of lawyers; Kruger’s out­look is more stoic. ‘What­ever! How amaz­ing that I’ve en­tered the dis­course – I don’t take that for granted,’ she says truth­fully. Is she un­easy about her fame or grate­ful for it? ‘Both and ev­ery­thing in-be­tween. The way things have played out is an ex­am­ple of how ar­bi­trary the whole sys­tem is: who gets seen and who doesn’t, who’s known and who isn’t, who gets a proper name and who is for­got­ten. I never use the word “great” un­less it’s in quotes.’ Therein lies the wis­dom, hu­mil­ity and – dare I say it – great­ness of Bar­bara Kruger. Bar­bara Kruger’s work will be on show at South Lon­don Gallery (www. southlon­don­ un­til 18 No­vem­ber as part of its ‘Knock Knock: Hu­mour in Con­tem­po­rary Art’ ex­hi­bi­tion.

Op­po­site: Bar­bara Kruger’s ‘Un­ti­tled (No)’ from ‘Un­ti­tled’ (1985). Be­low: her‘Un­ti­tled (You Will Never Wake Up From This Beau­ti­ful Dream)’ (2006)

From top: Kruger’s NewYork MetroCards from last year’s Per­forma Bi­en­nial. ‘Are We Hav­ing Fun Yet?’ (1987). ‘We Don’t NeedAn­other Hero’ (1987)

Clock­wise from be­low: ‘Un­ti­tled (Talk is Cheap)’ (1993). ‘Tears’ (2012). An in­stal­la­tion at the Sprüth Magersgallery in Ber­lin last year

Above: ‘Un­ti­tled (You Are a Very Spe­cial Per­son)’ (1995). Be­low: Un­ti­tled (Your Body is a Bat­tle­ground)’ (1989). Bot­tom: a 2016 work on New York’s High Line

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