Artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer use text and image to comment on, subvert, and question social and political conditions. Issues of power, gender discourse, discrimination, and the position of art within society, is what their art is primarily about.
Barbara Kruger, one of the most controversial artists working in the US during the ’70s and ’80s, utilized photography and text to comment on the female position in a patriarchal society. Kruger’s work focuses on mass media and popular culture as a means of informing, if not influencing the public, and making it aware of the propaganda practiced by mass media itself.
Her large black-and-white photographic works based on posters, billboards and various tabloid media images, employ graphic and social conventions against themselves to unmask the patriarchal structure supporting oppression of the female gender. An early work called “we have received orders not to move” (1982), was a black and white image depicting an immobile woman pinned to the background.
The work evokes not only the passive role of women within an oppressive society, but also the framing of women to what is a patriarchal background, in other words, to a background where man imposes his standards of what kind of behaviour and practices women should adopt.
The figure is in profile; her face has not been individualised, suggesting anonymity, and surely the artist’s intention was to create art that expresses the collective discourse on the female position. One would suggest that another strong point that this work has is the exposing of cliches and stereotypes, which are imposed on the woman’s body by a mass media that has come to play the ‘agent’ of the system.
However, to argue that Kruger’s art speaks and is concerned only with feminist issues would be to fragment the ‘picture’ and therefore ignore the spectrum of her work. Works like “Your life is a perpetual insomnia,” depicting a businessman who has covered his face with his hand and seems to be in a state of exhaustion and fatigue, comments on the demands and obligations within a capitalist system, a system that has led to the exploitation of the self and the other.
Here, Kruger is addressing the wider audience and questioning not only the female position within such a system, but also commenting on the general isolation and alienation which comes as a result of this system. By depicting a man dressed in a suit with a gold ring, which is exposed to the viewer, Kruger is speaking of consumption and its endemic nature, as a side effect of a consumerist system, which has led to a wider gap between the rich and the poor. But also, it is a comment on those that hold the power — the corporate, the businessmen, who are widening this gap.
Kruger’s strongest tool for subversion, and re-examination of that which is already constructed, and is accepted as a given, is her manipulation of signs that have the role of giving the illusion of certainties and fixed realities. This is language and image.
She takes already existing pictures and commonly heard phrases or texts out of what is considered to be their ‘natural position’ and places them in a different context. This new context reforms the ‘original’ meaning of these images and texts, and makes apparent that which had not been, the power of representation to construct reality.
It also sheds light on the way that reality is created by those who own ‘representation,’ that is, those who own the movie industry, the magazines, the advertisements. It reveals image and text as propaganda, as the agent of an ideology.
Like Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer is aware of the power of language, and how it can be used to deconstruct present reality. But while Kruger also uses images in her work, Holzer chooses to stick to language only, using language as an image rather than an image per se.
Holzer’s first project in which language becomes the medium is her “Truisms” series. These were writings arranged in one-liner aphorisms, which with their strict alphabetical arrangement and cool elegance of bold italic seemed, like Kruger’s art, very commercial. They were spread around Soho in New York City, sharing space with posters, political broadsides and record advertisements.
The words in ‘Truisms’ were shocking and confrontational, raising questions and making the public consider and even face problems and issues that are taboo within the social system. Lines like, ‘push yourself to the limit as often as possible, pain can be a very positive thing, you are a victim of the rules you live by’ clearly address issues that are present in our society but are ignored or no longer questioned.
Like Kruger, Holzer criticises the system as it imposes its rules on us. She stresses her ideas furthermore by using exceedingly, if not embarrassingly honest talk.
At the time the ‘truisms’ were even more effective because they were fully accessible to the public. They were like posters, one could write comments on them, and add opinions, allowing the work to become part of the everyday, out of the gallery and in the street, inviting viewer interaction. Perhaps it is here that Holzer’s early works differ significantly to that of Kruger.
Where Kruger hangs her work on advertising billboards and makes her work accessible only visually, Holzer tends to make her work literally available to the public, and attracts them by making the work simple in appearance, confrontational in content, and perhaps most importantly, anonymous in authorship. Here, it is significant to expand on the idea of no authorship, in other words the act of dematerializing the author, since it plays a significant role within the work itself and influences the effect that the work has on the public.
This idea of removing authorship creates ambiguity about the meaning of the work, what its purpose is and how we should interpret it. Since one does not know anything about the author — age, gender etc., — one cannot place what one reads in any already existing category. Furthermore, this quality tends to diminish any subjectivity in the voice of the artist.
This is most apparent in Holzer’s “Lustmord” series (1993-95) where the artist takes up the voice of the perpetrator,’ ‘victim,’ and observer’ to, as she argues, “make my voice unidentifiable — I wouldn’t want it to be isolated as a woman’s voice, because I found that when things are categorised they tend to be dismissed. I find it better to have no particular associations attached to the voice.”
The lack of authorship also gives the work the quality of advertisement and not as a work of art because the work has all the qualities of a poster: it is typed, reproduced, and lacks the important component of an artwork, that of the signature, the trace of the artist.
“Lustmord” was Holzer’s reaction to the war in Bosnia. The three parts of the work adopts a voice that is almost cruel in its honesty. Here Holzer’s objective voice becomes merely informative, a media like voice. She does not choose one positions to speak from, she instead speaks from all positions, thus remaining objective.
For both artists semiotics, the ‘science of signs,’ play a significant role in their art making. Their concern with the real meaning of the image, and of language, of that which hides behind them, is what pushes their work. In Kruger, there is another significant aspect, that is the recycling of images, the adaptation or appropriation of already existing images. It is the kind of eclecticism that was to become a primary feature in postmodern art.
Feature image: Repetition of a fragment from Barbara Kruger’s “Untitled (Who Speaks? Who is Silent?)”, 1990