Woking Dance Festival & The Lightbox Gallery and Museum commission premiere:
Maven Commission, by Angela Woodhouse and Caroline Broadhead.
19–21 February 2010.
Jenny Holzer, ARTIST ROOMS, National Galleries of Scotland and Tate Gallery.
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK
5 March–16 May 2010
by JANET McKENZIE
Holzer’s art practice belongs to the feminist branch of a post Post-Minimalist generation of artists, who share her sensibility and her desire to “fuse reading and seeing, taking language beyond words so that it becomes immersive and experiential”.1 Emphasising the process in the collaboration, Angela Woodhouse acknowledges the influence of texts by such philosophers as Phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty who stated, "Life is not what I think but what I live through".2
Jenny Holzer’s works, presented as part of Tate Artist Rooms, provided the context within which the solo-dance performance, the Maven Commission was conceived. Artist Rooms is the Tate Gallery’s new collection of international contemporary art, which was created through one of the largest gifts of art made to a museum in Britain. The gift was made by Anthony d’Offay in 2008 with the assistance of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund and the Scottish and British governments. The collection of over 725 works includes work by key artists. The scheme is jointly owned and managed by the National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate on behalf of the nation. Individual rooms devoted to particular artists are made available throughout the country, including Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Koons, Jannis Kounellis, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Bruce Nauman, and Gerhard Richter. The exhibition of Jenny Holzer’s work in the suburban centre of Woking, Surrey (just 20 minutes on the train from London) is fulfilling the programme’s stated aim, “to create a new national resource of contemporary art that will be shared with museums and galleries throughout the UK so as to inspire new audiences, especially of young people”.3
Since the early 1980s, Jenny Holzer has infused Conceptual Art’s playful language with a seriousness and political engagement. She has employed Minimalism’s evident elegance to launch a vitriolic attack on the political turmoil and material excess of the past two decades. Few contemporary artists have combined the rhetoric of political dissent with the language that was originally conceived as a form of internal reflection. Holzer explores the unhealthy relationship between political violence and the media that reports it, and sometimes aggravates the position, by appropriating both the slogan-like one-liners and the actual apparatus of advertising and mass media. Her work in the 1970s was technically understated – hand-pasted posters in New York, with her Truisms – trite, impudent statements, a backyard philosophy, ridiculing the mundane nature of life in Middle America. She moved to LED, moving-type signage – outdoors or in museums. As Eleanor Heartney observes, “Such disjointed litanies deliberately imitate and undermine the authoritative, even propagandistic tone of advertisements, public service announcements, and so-called opinion leaders, encouraging viewers to question these stealthy, often disembodied voices”.4
The 2010 Woking Dance Festival’s choice to commission a dance piece in response to the Holzer Artist Room is a most inspired one, enabling an original and challenging collaboration with visual artist, Caroline Broadhead and choreographer Angela Woodhouse. Censor(ed), is performed by Henrietta Hale; it is performed in silence and runs for 20 minutes. The work is made in response to the themes inherent to the works on view at The Lightbox Gallery in Woking and incorporates the work Blue Purple Tilt as part of the experience. Caroline Broadhead describes her response to the work:
Visually Blue Purple Tilt, has both a fairground attraction in its bright and flashing lights and it is an assault on the eyes. The colour, and the changing lights, tints the room, so everything is tinged with the pink, blue and purple and gives the surroundings an intense rhythm. When you start to look, it is dizzyingly fast, and moving upward and vertically, to read, and although they all say the same thing, your eyes are flitting across all seven lines to check. As you look closer, your eyes can start to see the shapes surrounding the letters and then you lose the ability to read. The text is just as changeable. The sentences are sometimes obvious, personal, funny, clichéd, so you can’t understand what / who you are reading from. It is the fleeting change, together with uncertainty and the sense of many voices that is most potent. The form of the piece is insistent and dominant.5
Angela Woodhouse describes Holzer’s work in The Lightbox Gallery, Woking as imposing and demanding. Blue Purple Tilt emits light, which affects the entire gallery space. In Purpose (Yellow, White) using censored documents obtained by Holzer under the Freedom of Information Act the overbearing issue is the stark obliteration of information, in visual terms, and in the ramifications of that very process that Holzer seeks to highlight. Woodhouse describes her response from the point of view of choreographer:
The dense black ink draws you to imagine what is behind it. In considering the dancer (Henrietta Hale) the thought came to Caroline of eyes being seen or not, invoking an image prevalent in the media of masking the eyes to protect the identity of either an assailant or a victim. In addition we acknowledged that sharing a space with the performer (the audience and performer would be together in the gallery) implies a level of intimacy – but if one is to cover the eyes there is a tension between this intimacy and apparent distance enforced by masking the full identity of the performer.
This visual statement opened up a physical challenge of imposing a flatness to the space, and therefore to the performer. As part of this decision we would work with the audience split between both sides of the performer – they would be invited to stand in predetermined boxes marked out with black tape. In this respect the task was set to make two works simultaneously – one for the back and one for the front. The audience would only be privy to their exclusive view. However they would also be faced with the possibility that they could step over the line at any time – there was nothing that physically trapped them accept their own compliance.6
Broadhead and Woodhouse, have worked together over a period of ten years whilst also continuing their separate work. They explain that it has always been important to set challenges but also to remain practically focused: “always having an eye on the special experience for the audience that brings with it questions about how finally they affect, and ultimately make the piece. The collaborative process is played out through intense discussion to agree the central focus. We freely comment on each other's developments as a means of checking and re-checking the overall development of the work and its effect”.7 Angela Woodhouse is a choreographer trained in dance and visual art. Her recent work has been exploring detail and intimacy through site and installation work. She addresses the creation of highly charged atmospheres, which she describes as, “quiet and powerful, minimal and intense”.
For the Maven commission the positioning of the performer was important; her centrality in the space was key to the work’s meaning. Holzer’s work is paradoxical – outwardly simple and highly complex. Her Truisms are intentionally glib but they make reference to deeper issues; the minimal design coupled with an overpowering sensory effect of LED create an unsettling dichotomy. The remit for choreographer and artist was therefore a challenging one, as Woodhouse acknowledges:
Blue Purple Tilt is difficult to look into and for Holzer the pain of looking resonates with the often traumatic subject matter. She plays with colour and rhythm to accentuate the emotional and moral questioning inherent in the text. Our purpose was to incorporate and open up the experience of Blue Purple Tilt. On one side the presence of the performer and her actions act as a distraction to looking at Holzer’s piece yet the fixity of place for the audience, and the scrolling text ever present in front of demands attention. The other audience group stand with their backs to the text. They see the light reflected on the dancers body in particular the skin of her hands, which seem to hover in the space, and also on the changing reactions of the opposite audience group. While drawn to look at out there is a temptation to look over their shoulders. Both audience groups in differing ways are being pulled in two directions, and this reflects the inherent tension in Holzer’s piece between the desire to read the text and yet the pain in doing so.8
Caroline Broadhead is a visual artist who creates large-scale installations. Using space and light she creates subtle atmospheres, and the sense of being at a threshold or otherwise in-between drawing attention to that which is barely there, or even absent. Broadhead trained initially as a jeweller. The emphasis of her work stems from the focus of jewellery but explores the relationship of objects to the person, and the individual’s relationship to the environment – to the natural world and the built environment. She describes her art practice:
I started on ideas around the changing nature of an object when worn or not; the ability to manipulate and change the identity of an object; the potential for movement and/or restriction when being worn. This led onto the idea of garments acting as metaphors for people, carrying information that reveals a personality or psychological state. The continuing theme was the body, the way we present, package and decorate our bodies, how that wrapping can reveal underlying tensions and contradictions and how the body appears to have an important boundary between self and non-self. A further development was the inclusion and exploration of shadows – the negative double of the body – as an indication of a presence, or absence; the exaggeration or distortion of a person; the transparency of shadows and the way they affect the surfaces on which they fall; shadows that trace the pathway of the sun. The shadow as an image with no substance, the alter ego, the dark side, the inescapable other, gave me the opportunity to focus on the non-material. By giving ‘body’ to a shadow I was giving more importance to the things that are not immediately apparent.9
Angela Woodhouse and Caroline Broadhead were drawn to the strong political context presented in Jenny Holzer’s conceptual work where she explores notions of concealment, in government processes with regard to the Iraq war; in doing so she lays bare the heartlessness of bureaucrats who plan war on paper. Government officials are seen in Holzer’s work to be concealing vital evidence, whilst ostensibly acting on behalf of the people. The immaculate rendering of the maps, in contrast to the havoc they represent Broadhead found particularly repugnant. They describe their dance collaboration:
These elements of [Holzer’s] work became the focus for Censor(ed). Our artistic response was to play a game with notions of secrecy and control. The negotiation of proximity was a core aspect to the project. The intimacy of the performer a few feet from the audience appeared to make her available, 'one of us', but there also remained a sense of something out of reach. Being able to see or not being able to see was a central theme in the design and structure of the piece. The performer stands in the centre of the space her eyes blanked out with a black rectangle. Time is given to contemplating her presence. With Henrietta’s eyes covered the audience are 'shut out' – and this is intended to create some discomfort. She is dressed in a formal, black, yet transparent garment suggesting both authority and vulnerability – a contradiction compounded by the subtle gestural language that could indicate perpetrator, arbitrator, or victim. The split audience observes a different aspect of the performer, either her front or her back, and inevitably they are observing each other. As the dancer performs very quiet, internalised gestures a tension is created as to what the other group is seeing; the piece plays with this sense of secrecy and delicate disclosure. Her final advance and disappearance within one audience group points to our own selves as complicit in such violent acts and political games.10
Jenny Holzer’s Blue Purple Tilt is a disarming work, which plays on the sensibility of the viewer. Since the 1970s she has used provocative statements to elicit debate. Her text-based works present and call into question the rhetorical strategies implicit in language, drawing on a wide range of texts, from philosophical tracts to fundamentalist Christian preaching. As the critic for the New York Times observed last year in response to Holzer’s survey show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, “Basically, Jenny Holzer has spent the last three decades pelting us with unsettling and increasingly relevant portents of things to come. In tones alternately poetic or oracular, inflamed or numb, Big-Brotherly or tender, Ms. Holzer’s terse snippets of prose have warned of evolving threats to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. She has tracked the inner thoughts of bereft lovers or shell-shocked survivors and articulated the baser instincts unleashed by social chaos. To do this, she has turned various user-friendly, pop-culture modes of public address into early warning systems, including posters, T-shirts, billboards, broadsheets, plaques, giant projections and incised marble benches. Electronic LED signs are her best-known, most spectacular method; they also reflect the military-commercial-entertainment complex that, bit by bit, her art exposes”.11
Through the re-presentation of classified documents with adjustments made to scale or colour, Holzer reveals the sinister motivation of politicians who justify secrecy as the protection of individual citizens or particular groups in society. The extreme nature of the secrecy inevitably leads to its failure. Holzer captures the uncomfortable paradoxes that exist in the role of the secret services in democratic societies within global culture. Censor(ed) finds a visual and spatial language to extend Holzer’s play with contradiction, as Woodhouse explains, “The dancer, Henrietta appears both pleading and forceful and her gestures serve to play with the ambiguity of her persona – she could be seen as negotiator, leader, victim, or perpetrator. Her behaviour appears to control the audience and yet she appears at the mercy of our gaze”.
She goes on to reflect on their role in the project and the influence of Minimalism: “In a sense we are expounding on Holzer’s work, revealing Holzer’s work but also interrupting it. There is an understanding within conceptual work that the audience are invited in and they play within many meanings that are the sum of their own experiences. For me it is not simply a question of how the viewer may read the work but how they form the experience that they then have. The dance becomes an encounter with themselves – their own temperature, their own breath and their own gesture. I am reminded of Martin Creed when he [says that in] taking something away there is always something left. I am interested in these questions, particularly in the context of dance, around what is visible, and the heightened awareness of the viewer to create a particular and sensitized atmosphere in performance”.12
The Artist Rooms scheme has precipitated an original and provocative dance collaboration for the Woking Dance Festival that has met with the enthusiasm and support of Jenny Holzer, herself who sent Angela Woodhouse and Caroline Broadhead each an art work as a gesture of her appreciation. The nature of the performance captured the audience for a given time, which artist and choreographer regarded as a great privilege.
For those who missed the Woking Dance Festival’s collaboration, The Baltic Centre, Gateshead opened Jenny Holzer, on 5 March, which runs until 15 May 2010. Holzer’s powerful works are displayed over two large galleries, consisting of paintings, sculptures and Holzer’s spectacular LED installations. A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition with essays by Elizabeth Smith and Joan Simon and an interview with Holzer by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh.
1. Roberta Smith, “Sounding the Alarm, in Words and Light”, Review of Jenny Holzer’s exhibition Protect, Protect, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 12 March – 31 May, 2009, New York Times, 12 March 2009.