Artist/Friend Jenny Holzer at Mass MoCA
Projections and Redaction Paintings
By: Charles Giuliano - Nov 18, 2007
Approaching Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, last night, the parking lot was filled. Inside we encountered a dense throng of visitors, groping about in the largest of the museum's galleries, in a darkened space illuminated by enormous lines of text from the poems of 1996 Nobel Prize winner the 84-year-old Polish writer Wislawa Szymborska.
During the opening of this new exhibition of "Projections" and a back room, two floor display of a selection of her "Redaction Paintings" comprising large silk screens of declassified documents related to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some guests huddled around the bar for champagne and chunks of cheese. Others sprawled about on several enormous bean bag couches kicking back and trying to read and absorb the slow scroll of text projected with blinding intensity from both ends of a vast space about the dimensions of a double football field.
As we arrived, the artist, who was born in 1950 in Gallipolis, Ohio and now lives nearby in Hoosic Falls, New York, was spotted exiting with an entourage for a dinner which followed the opening. In her absence, she is described as "reticent" by Mass MoCA staff, the museum's director, Joe Thompson, addressed the crowd and warmly welcomed them to the exhibition. His remarks touched on finally being out from under the Christoph Buchel mess that had effectively hogtied the museum and the very space occupied by the current installation. The Buchel controversy had dragged on for almost a year and, after a court decision on the matter in September, was never seen by the public. Other than glimpses of his "Training Ground for Democracy" over, under, and through a series of generic blue tarps installed by the museum to less than perfectly conceal the unfinished installation. The strategy was to allow access to a back gallery and a hastily assembled, largely self serving exhibition devoted to prior Mass MoCA projects and collaborations.
In his remarks Thompson referred to Holzer as a friend and neighbor who on short notice had most generously pulled together the current exhibition, no small accomplishment. Holzer got the museum back on track after an extended stretch of time that hurt the box office and bottom line, ran up expenses, and subjected the museum and its administration to a pasting from the mainstream press and arts media.
Later we caught up with Thompson when he was conducting some guests through the back galleries and its large format, silk screen "paintings" of declassified maps and documents. He was far more relaxed and upbeat than an encounter during the opening of the Spencer Finch exhibition some months back. He was then in the midst of the Buchel controversy which basically ruined the summer season. It hurt the prestige and cash flow of the museum which is still young and seeking to build an endowment. Neighboring businesses which rely on tourism generally suffered economically.
Even though the Buchel incident is now behind the museum, and Thompson is confidently moving on with the broad support of the board, as he told the audience during his opening remarks, there is collateral damage to be addressed. As a part of that the museum announced that it planned to put together a panel at some time in the fall to address the many issues that have surfaced as the result of the breakdown between Mass MoCA and Buchel. Thompson informed us that there will be two such panels, one in New York, and another in the Berkshires. The New York event will be held at the Williams Club, which came as no surprise, while a venue and date has not yet been determined for the Berkshires.
Thompson was sanguine about a recent fundraising event in New York which greatly exceeded all expectations. There was a strong response to an auction of works donated by A List artists which doubled and tripled estimates particularly for a work by the late Sol Lewitt, donated by the Barbara Gladstone Gallery. The late artist will be the focus of a soon to be developed new building in collaboration with Yale University. The Lewitt building will house a long term installation of wall pieces to be executed following plans by the artist. I asked if he and Michael Conforti, director of the Clark Art Institute in neighboring Williamstown, have come to any decisions regarding the use for the building which the Clark is taking over under an extended lease from Mass MoCA? That space remains in negotiation. After the enormous difficulties of the past year Thompson indicated moving on confidently and with renewed energy. There are complex and ambitious plans to grown the endowment and further develop vacant properties on the sprawling campus of the former Sprague Electric Company.
Wandering through the vast gallery of the Holzer installation we absorbed first impressions and will surely return to further contemplate the work. The exhibition will be on view until approximately this time next year. From what I saw of the sprawling, messy, detritus of the aborted Buchel project, yes, I did peak under, around and through the tarps, there is a kind of yin and yang feeling about present use of the space. If the gallery formerly was clogged with Buchel's stuff it is now entirely empty of objects. Instead the space itself, its walls and ceilings, are used as a "screen" for the enormous projectors on either end. While there is complex technology involved, these are the first American indoor projections by the artist, overall, this project seems, dare I say it, rather simple and cost effective. Particularly when compared to the $400,000 or so rung up dealing with the petulant and demanding Herr Buchel. And, at the end of this project, it will cost zilch to deinstall the current show and prepare for the next artist. All it will entail is literally turning off the lights and packing up a few paintings. So Holzer, on every level, has proved to be a friend indeed allowing the museum much needed breathing room.
One question that surfaced during the Buchel affair was whether the museum had suffered such damage that it would not be able to recruit and work with artists on the highest international level. Having Jenny Holzer collaborating with Mass MoCA silences that speculation. Also, compared to the $1 million plus reported as the cost of her Venice Biennale installation in the American pavilion, this Mass MoCA project comes relatively cheap. It also allows the museum a year to line up future projects which is particularly important for an administration and curatorial staff which has suffered a lot of stress and collateral damage.
Beyond all other considerations Holzer is at an interesting juncture in a more than thirty year career of working with text. In 2006, at Cheim & Read Gallery in New York, she first showed the new series of "paintings" to which she has given the term "Redaction." When first encountering that exhibition I was floored. It came as a shock and heart thumper that a major artist was using her reputation to make a powerful and direct statement about the atrocities and abuse of international law and our Constitution in pursuit of the costly wars of President George W. Bush and his cronies.
There is some misgiving about how these works function as "paintings" regarding their aesthetics as works of art. But while that may entail a critical discourse, the general public encountering the work, as I did at the initial Cheim & Read show, more recently during the Venice Biennale, and here again in North Adams, is stunned by its content. Here we actually see the delusional power point maps used to "sell" the war, and the heavily blacked out, declassified documents that deal with the military's "criminal" activities related to the conflicts. Here content wins out over aesthetics.
In a press release for the exhibition regarding the "Wish List" and "Gloves Off" documents, which may be viewed at the National Security Archive website, it is stated that "A captain in the US Army human intelligence division requested a 'wish list' from subordinate interrogation teams for 'innovative interrogation techinques that will prove more successful than current methods.' One individual interpreted this request to mean 'the captain wanted suggestions legal, illegal and somewhere in between.' The Wish List document is a summary of alternative interrogation techniques that the 4th Infantry Division, ICE, devised, including phone book strikes, low voltage electrocution, and muscle fatigue inducement. The accompanying three page email chain encapsulates the debate over the legitimacy of various interrogation techniques with one soldier stating 'the gloves are coming off' and another responding 'We are American soldiers, heirs of a long tradition of staying on the high ground. We need to stay there.' "
The artist has opted to put the material in our face. And yes, technically, these are "paintings" as they entail paint and canvas, but they are deadpan reproductions of their sources and reveal none of the hand of the artist or the process we associate with painting. Of course this is familiar turf that goes back to Duchamp and through him Warhol, Rauschenberg and the appropriations of pop and conceptual art. So there is nothing particularly unique about the process of this work. The series derives its impact and power from riveting, outrageous, infuriating and embarrassing content. It is surely some of the most important and influential work being done today. Holzer adds an important new chapter to the historic role of the "concerned artist" and the art of war. Thanks Jenny. We needed that.