Signs and Portents
Jenny Holzer is probably my favorite artist living to day. Her work is highly conceptual but not overly cerebral. The best term I can use to describe her is a “poet” but that doesn’t work, either.
Jenny takes words and makes them into art. This sounds very much like “poetry” – and, in fact, much of her work is collected into volumes that resemble little black books with poems in them – but the initial executions create what can only be described as an experience.
For example, her work Laments is a series of “poems” – but they are chisled onto stone sarcophagi. The same words are scrolled across LED light displays – which provide the only light in the exhibit.
She purchases billboard spaces in major cities to present a single phrase from time to time (called Truisms). The poetry of the words and the context they are displayed form the basis of her art.
It’s plain brilliant.
She has a twitter account, and her postings there are good examples of the Truisms:
RELIGION CAUSES AS MANY PROBLEMS AS IT SOLVES
POTENTIAL COUNTS FOR NOTHING UNTIL IT’S REALIZED
GUILT AND SELF-LACERATION ARE INDULGENCES
Her work has affected my own meager pushings with a profound power unmatched by any other visual artist. Looking backwards, I can say with assuredness that I would be a completely different person today had I not been introduced to her art.
When I discovered her work (in or around 1993), I started thinking about the metaphysics of symbology. One of the things I was struggling with was simplicity. I was trying to create an emotion in the viewer of my paintings and prints something direct – something more controlled. I wanted to set people up and then punch them in just the right way so that they would think or feel exactly what I wanted them to.
My first attempt at this was a violent-looking, multi-colored print. I wanted to express a seething, bubbling anger, and once the first prints came off the line I realized that it wasn’t working exactly how I wanted it to. So I made a second plate and struck it below the first one. This plate was a word, deeply scratched, very angry:
It did exactly what I wanted it to do. The print seethed on the wall. It was selected for a gallery show . . . and then promptly pulled from the wall after a complaint.
The next work I did was a stylized gesture drawing of Jesus Christ on a crucifix. It was done with very thick, very bold lines. Underneath, in block letters, said the following:
This, too, was deemed too controversial for show in the two-star West Virginian town I lived.
My next few pieces were less hostile to the viewer:
After this, I began thinking very deeply about language, metaphor, and the metaphysics thereof. So much so that I switched majors from art to philosophy – specifically so that I could learn the deep magicks of words. I needed to understand what exactly happens with this thing called “language.”
Why, exactly, is it not a pipe?
When the digital age began waxing in earnest, I began exploring the nascent technology of hypertext as a medium. How brilliant was it that I could change the context of a word simply by “linking” it to another topic? I didn’t have a Mac, so I wasn’t able to create hypercard stacks; instead I found a compiler for Windows 3.1 help texts, which were also hypertext documents.
These were protoplasmic, experimental things, but in creating them I began to understand the how people viewed words and their contexts.
The word “Blood” means different things to different people. For children, it equates to pain. Women are far more used to blood than men. Surgeons more so. Soldiers look at blood with different eyes than me. And so forth.
a b y s s was a difficult thing for me to build for many reasons. I was part of a new movement in art and the tools to do these things did not exist: we made them up as we went along. But mostly, the subject matter was difficult for me to write about.
a b y s s was a series of images, words, and animations linked together to form a cohesive experience. The choices for images, words, and animations were designed to push the viewer’s mental space into the area I wanted them to be in through a series of shared psychological associations (for the first three parts) and then in the final part I layed down the sucker punch: I was able to say exactly what I wanted to say and have it be understood within the specific context I wanted.
It was an extremely well received work. It won a lot of stupid awards when everyone was giving awards out for stuff, and earned me a spot in the hell dot com collective (a group of digital art people who were like me).
I had another work planned called shard but it was never finished. Other things got in the way: work, life, love, what-have-you. I began writing more, and the writing was less time consuming. This, too, was well received, but it has never scratched the itch that Ms. Holzer first gave to me.
The other night I was speaking with a photographer I met, and I mentioned Jenny Holzer to her as one of my influences. I like this person’s photographs – a lot – and this reminded me of an idea I had that hearkens back to the some of my earlier experimentations.
Here, then, is the synchronicity of the moment:
This afternoon, I picked up my mail and inside was a small package, mailed from a friend of mine who is the only other person I know who loves Jenny Holzer.
Enclosed was a note:
I’ve been carrying this around for 20 years.
Some strange things have happened, I have strange affections for it.
I’ve been meaning to send it to you for a while; it just seems like the right thing to do, there is an interesting energy around giving it to you.
(If I am wrong please feel free to give it back.)
It was a bound copy of Jenny Holzer’s Laments printed on onionskin.
It is difficult for me to describe how precise and perfect this is – how much it instilled me with a feeling of correctness. It completely changed the tone of my day – which has included my doctor telling me that he has some concerns and that they want to check for cancer.
I am not one to believe in signs and portents.
And yet, it feels like stars are aligning.