Artist and Social Activist Jenny Holzer Premieres New Work
On a Tuesday night in December, when much of New England was hunkered down against the cold, hundreds of people stood on the sidewalk in front of the Portland Museum of Art, Maine, to view the light projections of artist and social activist Jenny Holzer. For the site-specific work, which the museum commissioned in celebration of the 10th anniversary of its Leonard and Merle Nelson Social Justice Fund, Holzer chose selections from the poetry of Nobel Prize-winning, Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. The poet’s words in white light floated like a cold breath up the museum’s brick façade, disassembling over the building’s architectural features, and disappearing into the black sky.
The commissioned light projections included "Just as in Times Immemorial." The text, "Children of Our Age," is from from Szymborska's poem "View with a Grain of Sand." A second projection titled "Stars You'll Never Get Counted" has as its text "Life While Your Wait" from Szymborska's book "Poems New and Collected, 1957- 1997." Both texts were translated into English by Stanislaw Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company..
More than 700 people also attended Holzer’s free slide lecture at the Holiday Inn By the Bay in Portland, where the artist presented images that recounted the evolution of her career. For more than 30 years, Holzer has confronted ignorance and violence with humor and courage. An abstract painter, she soon switched to conceptual art, concentrating on word art.
“I wanted to take art to places one didn’t ordinarily see art,” she said. “I wanted to make art accessible, to broaden the audience.”
At first, she used her own text in her work, which has appeared, among other places, on bronze plaques, concrete signs, wood columns, T-shirts, and posters. She incorporated sayings and slogans in her art, including:
“The beginning of the war will be secret.”
“It is in your self-interest to find a way to be very tender.”
And over the image of a battered woman in a torn green dress, “Men don’t protect you any more.”
Many of her “truisms,” confrontational and challenging statements, are well recognized. Among those she has incorporated in her art are “a strong sense of duty imprisons you;” “abuse of power comes as no surprise;” and “a little knowledge can go a long way.”
Holzer, who earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Ohio University, Athens, and a master of fine art at the Rhode Island School of Design, said that she now often uses texts from literary sources because writers express her sentiments better. For an indoor exhibition at M.O.C.A. in North Adams, she also showed declassified and redacted Iraq War documents.
In addition to projections, she also employs LED (light emitting deode) words in her art. At the Frank Gehry museum in Bilbao, Spain, her lighted words rise up 15-foot towers in the main hall. At the convention center, Pittsburgh, they line a long walkway along the roof and frame the city skyline.
Holzer, who received the Leone d’Oro at the Venice Biennale in 1990 and the Public Network Award in 2004, was the first woman to represent the United States with a solo exhibition in the Venice Biennale. Her projections have appeared in public places around the world, including Rome, London, Washington D.C., and the Reichstag in Berlin.