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.
The school denounced the rapper’s “anti-Black, antisemitic, racist and dangerous statements.”
Online, dozens of artists have posted tribute artworks in honor of Shekari’s life and calling for the immediate release of protesters.
This week, news outlets flock to TikTok, New York Times staff strikes, the problem with the phrase “late-term abortion,” and was the North Pole once a forest?
The 11,000-year-old wall relief discovered in Southeastern Turkey may reflect humans’ changing roles in the natural world during the Neolithic Revolution.
The Brazilian artist asked the museum to remove his work from a show about the Black experience, calling the institution a “White man’s theater.”
In an era of fast fashion and sweatshop exploitation, the artist demonstrates how far an industry will go to keep workers out of the picture.
This adventurous theater festival returns in person with 36 artists and companies from nine countries performing at different venues across the city.
Both Don Ed Hardy and Laurie Steelink refuse to adhere to traditional artistic hierarchies, an attitude they have shared throughout their 30-year friendship.
It took over 37 hours to pull 1,900 miles of glass filament to create the garment, now on view at the Toledo Museum of Art.
Learn more about the New York-based, globally linked program and its upcoming discussions on art and society in the time of AI and data governance.
An insidious racism is at play in interviewer Henri Renaud’s attempt to groom Thelonious Monk for public consumption on French television.
The last few years at the museum have not been without controversy, and Decatur will inherit a record of workforce struggles.