In two new shows, artist Jenny Holzer proves that words are weapons
For nearly four decades, the American artist Jenny Holzer has put unexpected things into unlikely locations. She has projected verses of poetry onto the banks of the Tiber in Rome; relayed slogans across the electronic billboards in New York’s Times Square (‘Protect me from what I want’, said one); inscribed tales of human cruelty onto human skin in ink made of blood; and in her earliest days, used everything from T-shirts to condom packets to disseminate texts all around the city. ‘Men don’t protect you anymore’, cautioned the prophylactic boxes in 1985.
So the fact that she’s about to install a 21st-century version of a medieval battering ram in Hauser & Wirth’s Zurich gallery should come as no surprise. Or that, come September, she hopes to use cutting-edge technology to overlay text onto heroic battle tapestries at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, the testimonies of rather more contemporary veterans of war.
She says she’s been ‘sneaking up’ on one of Britain’s stateliest of homes for a while now, the palace itself a spoil of war. (The magnificent pile was John Churchill’s reward from the nation for winning the Battle of Blenheim in 1704.) ‘I very much appreciate the exterior, the complexity and strength of the architecture, but especially the blushing quality of its walls,’ she says. ‘When I found out that the pink colour comes from iron in the stone, I thought, what a great metaphor for a military prize!’ Perhaps it put her in mind of seeping blood, too.
When we meet in the picture-perfect village of Woodstock, just down the road from Blenheim, Holzer is warm and witty and upbeat. (And tall, very tall.) Her work has often been inspired by battles – women’s rights, AIDS, Yugoslavia, Iraq – and the results are always powerful, disturbing even, but never depressing or dour. ‘I grew up in the 1950s,’ she says. ‘My father was a veteran, there was still a lot about World War II on TV and in films. I was imprinted by war, and it’s shown up in my work. I’ve not done Matisse’s Joy of Life, that’s for sure. But I just dealt with what’s out there.’
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