Published  26/06/2012

Jenny Holzer: Sophisticated Devices

Jenny Holzer: Sophisticated Devices

“When you’ve been someplace for awhile you acquire the ability to be practically invisible. This lets you operate with a minimum of interference” (from the Living Series, 1980-1982). Yet, despite having been on the art scene since the 1970s, Jenny Holzer (born 1950), whose text-based public artworks have been projected across venues as imposing as billboards in Times Square and the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, is anything but invisible.

Sprüth Magers, London
1 June–18 August 2012


It is unusual to find her work confined within a gallery space, and this mini survey show contains none of her grand scale pieces and no full-length wall projections. Instead, in a collection of her 1980s work, we find several instances of the same phrase being repeated in multiple media and upon multiple surfaces – spray paint canvases, granite benches, LED works, painted signs, and cast plaques – the words don’t change, but their impact does.

Holzer was an avid library goer as a child, and, although she describes herself as more of a reader, she always wanted to be able to write “ecstatic, fantastic things […] as if I were mad, in some exalted state”.1 For her early works, she wrote her own texts, and is probably best known for her pithy Truisms (1977-79). Living (1980-82), a later series, and one of the sources for the texts in this exhibition, deals with “everyday life with a twist” and the tone of writing is “matter-of-fact”;2 everything from the socially alarming: “I saw them strip a man so that in a matter of seconds he lay curled up and naked on the sidewalk,” to the personally agonising: “Just one rotten spot in your head can make every movement painful. You can’t roll your eyes, bend down or jump and land with impunity. Even thinking hurts.” The visitor is confronted head on with uncomfortable truths and emotions, and, more often than not, made to blush, as their own innermost, hidden and guilty thoughts are revealed to the world.

Survival (1983-85), a second source for the aphorisms in this show, was the first series written for electronic signs, adopted, initially, for their association with news and advertising, and for their direct means of address. Now Holzer’s signature medium, they also offered her the chance to programme: “to decide where to place emphasis, when to make something fly, and how to stop.”3 The result is that the viewer is kept engaged, staying to read the statements for the full cycle of, sometimes, 20 minutes.

The granite benches, on the other hand, offer something more permanent than the LED signs. They invite the visitor to interact, to pause for thought. Whilst sitting on them, they may be resting physically, but, nevertheless, the mental confrontation persists, waking them out of their day-to-day monotonous routine.

Since 2001, Holzer has worked solely with other people’s words, but, even before then, she was keen to respond to the work of others, to appropriate, and to embellish. Three large works in this exhibition are the results of her collaborations with the New York graffiti artists Lady Pink and A-One. By superimposing her texts on their fluorescent imagery, she invokes a sense of protest and rebellion. Thus, although her works may have been around for many years now, and continue to infiltrate society in various surreptitious manners, Holzer’s voice remains loud and clear, her presence eminently visible.


1. “Interview. Joan Simon in conversation with Jenny Holzer,” in D. Joselit, J. Simon & R. Salecl (1998) Jenny Holzer. Phaidon: London & New York, p.15.

2. Ibid, p.26.

3. Ibid, p.26.

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