At MCA, Holzer spins truisms into gold

Holzer’s words at once evoke violence and love, morality and depravity, and are rich with the social and political contradictions of our era.

By Rachel Cromidas

“You are trapped on the earth so you will explode.” “Unquestioning love demonstrates largesse of the spirit.” “You should study as much as possible.”

If you find these statements either thought provoking or confusing, that’s exactly what Jenny Holzer wants. These ambiguous aphorisms are taken from Truisms, one of Holzer’s most famous installation art pieces, and figure prominently in Jenny Holzer: PROTECT PROTECT, her new exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

For the past 30 years, Holzer has been translating language into art, finding new ways to convey old, obscure, and overused sayings via light shows over the ocean, billboards in Times Square, and lots of paper and paste. Like fellow conceptual artists Barbara Kruger and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Holzer uses billboards and electronic signs to present works that are public, completely integrated into the consumer-advertising environment, and utterly impossible to ignore. Her words at once evoke violence and love, morality and depravity, and are rich with the social and political contradictions of our era.

This exhibition is no different. Recalling the anxiety pervading her earlier writings, most obviously “Protect me from what I want,” PROTECT PROTECT engages with one of America’s most well versed protection myths: the Iraq War. On the wall immediately to the left of the exhibit entrance in the MCA’s lobby—a space usually occupied by the curator’s introduction—Holzer has hung several enlarged copies of recently declassified planning documents for the war. The most striking document, titled “Alternative Interrogation Techniques (Wish List),” lists such torture methods as sleep deprivation, white noise exposure, and close-quarter confinement.

Another fraught screen print shows an e-mail message, presumably by a high-ranking military official on the ground in Baghdad, cautioning his fellow soldiers to “take a deep breath and remember who we are. Those [interrogation standards] are NOT based on Cold War or WWII enemies—they are based on clearly established standards of international law…. BOTTOM LINE we are American Soldiers, heirs of a long tradition of staying on high ground.”

Further quotations from U.S. soldiers run throughout the exhibition, conveying feelings of entrapment, desensitization, and sexual deprivation. “It is a hard, hard reality,” her electronic LED display “Monument” reads, “knowing the only ass I’m going to get for the next year is the butt stock of my M16.” Like many of her previous slogans, Holzer’s war quotes have the potential to be both overpowering and trite. To bring the soldiers’ feelings home, Holzer leaves a table covered in human bones in the final gallery.

Other works include pieces like “Thorax” and “Green Purple Cross,” LED displays that zigzag around the gallery walls. The words—taken from “Truisms,” “Survival” and other past works—blink and overlap, flowing between clear blues and indecipherable reds.

It is clear that, in the bomb-littered, bone-dry terrain of Baghdad, Holzer and her subjects find neither protection nor desire. But as another “Truism” reminds us, after every war someone has to tidy up.