Jenny Holzer Lights up the Tate and the World’s Unspoken Problems

Jenny Holzer Lights up the Tate and the World’s Unspoken Problems

PHOTO CREDS: Jack Hems (Tate)


In the current social climate language and the way, we use it has never been so pivotal to our existence, and especially in the public sphere. No one understands this better than artist Jenny Holzer who has for years centred her art on the execution of language in the social realm.

Experimenting with the way words can be displayed and the power that they can contain, Holzer explores the power of free speech and the very nature of communication through various mediums. Tackling third-wave feminist concerns alongside sister artists such as Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler and Cindy Sherman, Holzer critiques oppressive dominant hegemony with unrestrained use of text which she makes easily accessible to the general public.

Unphased by the controversy of her work, Holzer uses art to expose the flaws of modern society by projecting her work onto billboards, building fronts and even skin. Making a collection of her work readily available for gallery goers the Tate Modern has featured Holzer’s work in a dedicated Artist Rooms Gallery including her works TruismsLivingSurvivaland Laments, since the summer of last year. Underground had the pleasure of strolling through the mind of Holzer before the exhibition is put to an end this July.

Walking into the space you are instantly met with phrases pasted on the surrounding walls from floor to ceiling.

Typical of Holzer style, these Truisms come in forms of aphorisms and sayings that range from being inspirational, aggressive, comedic and plain ordinary; welcoming the viewer by engulfing them into her most famous pieces before introducing them to her newest ones.

PHOTO CREDS: Jack Hems (Tate)

Once immersed into the heart of the rooms, your eyes are met with the brightness of an LED dot matrix that floats in the air before disappearing into the ether. Titled Floor, the piece enlightens the room and the mind with statements hanging the air for the first time, allowing viewers to consume its meaning from an angle never-before experienced.

Lit up by the light of this piece, is a collection of marble benches which implore you not only to read their engravings but also be part of the art by utilising their functionality. This series uses excerpts from Polish author Anna Świrszczyńska with the aim of assimilating her experiences of living through the Polish Resistance during WWII.

The harrowing quotes invite its audience to be part of a communal experience that honours the fatalities of the world’s violent history in the hopes that they will remain in the past. Joining all the pieces together are her wall mounted plaques named Survival, which exhibit statements both violent and cautionary, and Laments, which is made up of 13 voices of the dead influenced by the AIDS epidemic and the political failings of the time.

Designed to be thought-provoking and perhaps outraging the surrounding rooms feature some of her newest works.

One mentionable piece is titled They Left Me which was a project released this year, which visualises quotes taken from interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch concerning Syrian refugees accounts of their experiences.

The room which it resides in contains a saddening reflection of the chaotic violence of the 20/21stcentury and the war on humanity created by the same. Further highlights were Blue Purple Tilt in its flood of neon and moving words, her rough around the edges use of graffiti in Living which sees her collaborate with fellow artist Lady Pink, and the wallpapering of her Inflammatory Essays which coat the galleries outer entrance.

PHOTO CREDS: Jack Hems (Tate)

The exhibition is a display of Holzer’s ability to collapse the fine line between high and low culture that so often acts as a barrier for individuals to have access to art. She claims that her art in its crudely public disposition is not only a way of offering “content that people – not necessarily art people – could understand” but function as many dualities which are fundamentally meant “to be funny and never lie”.

Without Holzer the cracks in our society are not so clear, instead she shines an LED light on issues of everyday and carves historical failings in stone so that we do not make those mistakes again. Controversial? Maybe. Necessary? Definitely.

With her art Holzer says the words that are on every woman, man and child’s (and those in between’s) lips, acting as a voice for those who choose not to or cannot bare their fears in all its painful and even sometimes ordinary glory.

In her explicitness she provides hope and demand for change that has never been more relevant than today.


Word by Aimee Williams-Maynard