It’s hard enough for anyone to make sense of historical events as they unfold, but imagine trying to create art out of them. That is, of course, what political artists try to do, though not without the danger of succumbing to tendentiousness. For the past three decades, however, Jenny Holzer has managed to avoid this pitfall precisely because she’s generally avoided references to current affairs. Instead, she’s focused on the broader issue of how language itself is used a political tool. Thus, her signature “truisms”— “strong sense of duty imprisons you,” “an elite is inevitable”—deconstruct the dynamics of authority by aping its voice; yet they don’t really say anything. That is the genius of her approach.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of “Protect Protect,” the 15-year survey of Holzer’s work now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through May 31, is that much of it departs significantly from her usual reliance on ambiguity. While the show features plenty of the L.E.D (Light Emitting Diode) installations for which the artist is rightly famous, it also includes oil on linen paintings based upon redacted government documents that pertain to our invasion of Iraq and the war on terror. There are, for example, field reports of civilian killings, as well as a letter from a father pleading for leniency for his soldier son about to be court-martialed. There are fingerprints and handprints of suspected terrorists and enemy combatants. Though heavily censored, the meaning of these papers are abundantly clear. I contacted Holzer, and she was kind enough to answer a few questions about this material via email.
Howard Halle: The tone and content of the work based on redacted documents is so different from some of your previous efforts. What made you decide to use them?
Jenny Holzer: In 2004, I was asked by WIRED magazine to think about a new homepage for Google. I imagined secrets there. I ended up concentrating on declassified material about the war in the Middle East because, like many people, I was confused about the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And I looked for related documents about changes in American foreign policy, the power of the Presidency, transparency, and the treatment of detainees. I selected pages from thousands of possibilities and programmed these into electronic signs, projected pages—several stories high—on libraries, and silkscreened them for paintings. I showed the documents because I wasn’t seeing much of their content in the press.
How did you find them?
I searched in various archives for about five years, with help from studio associates and friends. We reviewed thousands of documents to locate concise ones about the politics, legal underpinnings, administration, and execution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We also looked at documents about the detention and treatment of prisoners. Primary sources are the National Security Archive and the Torture FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) portion of the ACLU’s website. When I began, I didn’t know what I was after, but because I was concerned by the invasion of Iraq I came to focus on the Middle East. I needed to see what already had happened, so I’d have some idea about what might happen next. But before I concentrated on the Middle East, I found interesting American documents about Elvis, Nixon, Brecht, Orwell, Alice Neel, Nat King Cole, and Jimi Hendrix, most from the J. Edgar Hoover era.
What made you decide try create paintings out of them?
I wanted to make the documents accessible to people, and a straightforward way is painting. As paintings, the documents—even when enlarged—closely resemble themselves. This is especially true when the pages are rendered in black ink on white grounds. Painting can have a dignity and historical resonance that is appropriate for this grave material. And while it might be a fantasy, I want to think that people preserve paintings and, in doing so, will keep the documents before a public. The grounds are hand painted by Ben Snead, a fellow RISD graduate, and the texts and images are silk-screened on the grounds. I wanted the presence of the hand in these works that often represent a strike of one sort or another.
Right, a lot of scribbles and blocs of ink used to censor the texts reminded me of Abstract Expressionism or Minimal Art. Was that intentional?
I like that a number of the pages resemble art. That’s a curiosity and something for the eyes, as well as a reprieve from the awful content of a number of the documents. But my purpose in selecting the graphic and mostly abstract pages was not to make art references. It’s too much to ask people to stand and read page after page, so I mix the abstract documents with text so people can rest, while using a different part of the mind.
But in creating aesthetic objects out of this material, did you ever worry that you were lessening the horror of reading them?
This was a concern, but the larger problem was that not enough people were aware of the material and what the pages document and portend. I’ve tried various approaches to reduce the chance that I will obscure or distort the content. Many of the paintings are black on flat white so the documents are what they are, only larger. For some especially distressing pages I’ve sampled the grounds of Goya’s Black Paintings to underlay appropriate emotion to this grievously sad material. And whenever I use declassified text in the electronics, the document is transcribed exactly. I never edit or change the original. I also try to find programming effects that allow for both legible reading and for a viewer’s awareness of his/her body next to the history, in the space.
Image of Jenny Holzer from Art 21.