BILBAO, Spain — One of the strangest things about this exhibition is how invisible it is beyond Bilbao. How does it happen that a major artist like Jenny Holzer gets a major retrospective — the largest survey of her work to date — at a major museum like the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao but no catalogue is produced, and there is almost no press coverage? It’s hard not to chalk it up to sexism.
Only a very small handful of English-language publications did more than list the exhibition, titled Things Indescribable, or reproduce the museum’s press release word for word. And one among the tiny clutch of actual reviews of the show — one in the Washington Post — was something else altogether: A nasty opinion piece accusing Holzer and the museum of disseminating Anti-American propaganda and denigrating members of America’s armed services.
In some ways, this coverage is a great entry point into the exhibition — proof more or less — that Holzer has hit her mark.
But “hit her mark” isn’t exactly a positive turn of phrase in this context: a moment where the United States is managing to raise plenty of negative perceptions around the world without the help of artists by simply maintaining its standing as the international capital of deadly mass shootings. According to the Hill, Japan, China, Uruguay, Venezuela and Amnesty International all have active travel alerts including recommendations that visitors to the US avoid large public gatherings such as festivals and sporting events out of concern for gun violence.
The opinion piece in the Washington Post both participates in and highlights a trend of recent years: There is a ratcheting up of tensions between versions of stories about subjects like US activities in the name of national security, peacekeeping, and border management.
“Left wing” and “right wing” are viable classifications for the lenses through which actions and events can be interpreted, but they aren’t the only ones. Holzer’s work goes far beyond American borders in its efforts to make individual and collective wounds visible, without always assigning specific perpetrators to those wounds. Sometimes, someone is suggested as the person or entity that should be held accountable, but just as often it’s the viewer who is left to hold the sense of responsibility for an injury, a violence, a rape, a loss of a right, a wasting away, a death. As the piece from the museum’s permanent collection, “For Bilbao” (1997), informs you from time to time, flickering at you no matter what building level you find yourself on: “You are the one. You are the one who did this to me.”
Having 40 years of Holzer’s work in one place means it’s possible to trace lines of activity that are subtler and more poetic than the broad strokes she’s most known for. Yes, there’s raw anger and flippant sass and a stark spotlight thrown on institutionalized violence and sexism, much of it state-sanctioned. But there is also a hard rattling of the bars of the cage of language. She increasingly insists over time that words are not enough or can’t be relied on.
In the earliest and most analog of pieces, her “Truisms” (1977–79) and “Inflammatory Essays” (199–82), words become blow darts, aimed indiscriminately at the general public passing by on the street, doubtlessly injecting a bit of adrenalin into the (pretty gritty at the time) urban environment of New York City.
In the mid-’80s, words become stone and light in the “Laments,” “Living,” and “Survival” (1981–1989) series. Words had to escape paper and speech — they had to become something more permanent than bodies were in New York at that moment. And then they went beyond New York.
Within this exhibition, this time period is viscerally the place where a craving for a permanent record (of people who were disappearing fast, of injustices, of suffering without adequate response, of violence) seems to arise. And maybe, simultaneously, an awareness that there can be no such thing as a permanent record.
This possibility haunts the works that follow.
The 1990s are only minimally represented. There is a huge leap from the late 1980s into the 21st century and then we are in the thick of FOIA requests and sloppy xeroxes. The 1990s feel redacted, and at the same time, redaction becomes clearly the heart of language. Black marks, such as those in “Protect, Protect ochre” (2007), are where meaning hides. In the 43 pieces shown from the “Retractions” (2006–2019) painting series, black becomes silver and gold and then light. Language escapes the cage.
In some of Holzer’s most recent LED works here, like “Ram” (2016) and “Sworn Statement” (2018), digital patterns intertwine with text. Bones creep into her work — genetic code taking over where language eludes us — but also a disturbing awareness about the art market is transmitted here: these bones, former bodies, however “ethically sourced,” are now art. Purchasable as such.
“I Woke up Naked” (2018), a robotically animated, swinging LED sign, loaded with multilingual first-person accounts of sexual assault, marks a foray on Holzer’s part into working with sound: The piece, in a cavernous, high-ceilinged room, makes a tremendous, reverberating mechanical noise that felt especially grim on a day when all of the local newspapers had reported on a gang rape of a young woman in a popular Bilbao park the night before.
Artists aim differently than sharpshooters. They are not typically trying to take something out, but to draw something out. The mark Holzer hits in this case is the mark in the most cave-drawing sense: the effort to leave (or find) a trace of something that is not an opinion, but a register of some kind, certifying a lived experience. There may be no such thing as a permanent record, but the fact that the Washington Post contributor found Holzer’s work dangerous is a sign in and of itself that it has achieved one of its goals: it has carved a deep enough mark to leave a strong impression (for that writer, a menacing one). That’s the most any language or other kind of mark-making can hope to accomplish.
Despite its lack of coverage, the exhibition seemed to have an effect on those who’ve managed to see it. On the days I visited, visitors were noticeably more serious and reflective than typical museumgoers.
Perhaps it’s more appropriate that Holzer hit her mark on the individual level than on the critical one.
Jenny Holzer: Things Indescribable continues at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (Abandoibarra Etorb., 2, Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spain) through September 9. The exhibition was curated by Petra Joos in collaboration with the artist.
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Thank you so much for this article! I think Jenny Holzer is a genius, I thought your analysis was right on, and I’m so glad you pushed back against that over-the-top Washington Post diatribe.
Marc Thiessen—who wrote the Washington Post opinion piece on Holzer’s show—is a right of Attila the Hun Trump Koolaid-drinking bicycle seat sniffing hack. Here’s the piece:
Thiessen is horrible. WaPo thinks they need to diversify their political commentary with a right winger. But does it have be such a jerk like Marc?
OH! Thiessen wrote the Washington Post article. That makes total sense. His politics are insane…he actually wrote that the US buying Greenland would be a good idea. (Sorry, I digress…)
Glad you reveresed the bile-filled imprecations from that Wapo dude. Does he not realise that if the USA had acted otherwise there wouldn’t be any point pointing the finger? Art is supposed to make you think and feel, if all he feels is that the US is being insulted, maybe he should think about why. (plus he probably hates women who succeed.)
Maybe she’s just not very good…
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