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Writing in the Sky: Jenny Holzer’s Installation at the Neue Nationalgalerie

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published by USC Annenberg Center for Communication’s Vectors at http://vectors.iml.annenberg.edu/issues/01_issue/004_jennyHolzer/ (link no longer active).

The ascetic design of Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie provides an apt frame for the spare look of Jenny Holzer’s most recent text installation—sans sound, sans ornament, sans serif, sans everything. The building’s interior has been gutted, as if—shortly after being jammed with temporary walls and throngs of spectators ogling giant Helmut Newton posters—the museum had purged itself. The only non-structural elements left on the floor of the museum are the symmetrically positioned coat check stands. Otherwise, one has an unhindered 360 degree view through the gallery’s glass walls—out to Hans Scharoun’s Staatsbibliothek, where the angels in Wings of Desire congregated, and beyond to Berlin’s equivalent of Simcity, the newly recreated area of Potsdamer Platz, with its high-rise home to Daimler Benz and massive tent-like house for Sony.

The urban panorama delays the look upwards to the ceiling, where Jenny Holzer has lined 13 rows of slender LED strips, each displaying the same text, lit in amber, flowing from the far side of the gallery towards the entrance. I tried not to take it personally as the first phrase that flew out at me read, “Whose thoughts are missing?” In fact the question appropriately hints at themes of presence and absence, of presence becoming absence, and of experience becoming memory, that are echoed by the entire installation.

In John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy, Duchess of Malfi, the title character, sitting hopeless in captivity, is taunted by the man who will oversee her murder. “Look you, the stars shine still,” he says, as if to further torment her by pointing out the marginal nature of her suffering. Her life has crumbled, she curses the stars, and yet they, nature, the world, all go on, unmoved. Holzer’s installation echoes this, as her texts—testimonials, really, of war, rape, loss—appear and disappear, the speakers nameless and faceless. The text flows like an airborne stream against the unchanging, latticed steel skyscape of the ceiling. The text may run on a loop, but it’s a rather long one; for the purposes of the average spectator the tales of suffering are lost forever once the lights go off. Instead of writing a story down and putting it under a rock for the ages, these stories are written in an electronic ether that vanishes moments after it appears, a ticker tape charting the market for suffering—same news, different day. Whereas Georg Büchner, writing to his fiancé in 1834, famously wrote of feeling “crushed by the terrible fatalism of history,” here one feels pressed down upon—almost literally—by what one might think of as the terrible fatalism of contemporaneity, the knowledge that these dismal and often horrific narratives are indeed flowing constantly, their flow as unflagging a part of our experience as the landscape around them.

The presentation of the text itself seems to discourage people from giving it their uninterrupted attention. Indeed, a reviewer from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung seemed to think the text consisted of fragments, but, so far as I could tell, they were a series of non-fragmented, occasionally related monologues. For most spectators, the flow of attention will be interrupted by the periodic repetition of passages in the installation’s two languages, English and German. Moreover, because the text flows at speeds that are usually too fast or too slow for a person to read comfortably, and because one needs to be looking straight upwards, Holzer challenges visitors to the museum to maintain consistent focus on the testimonies. When I was there, many people weren’t rising to the call. A group of acquaintances would sit on a bench and chat with one another, while another couple took out some lunch, oblivious to the overhead texts reading, “I WANT TO FUCK HER WHERE SHE HAS TOO MUCH HAIR / THE COLOR OF HER WHERE SHE IS INSIDE OUT IS ENOUGH TO MAKE ME KILL HER,” or “BURNED ALL OVER SO ONLY HIS TEETH ARE GOOD HE SITS FUSED TO THE TANK / METAL HOLDS THE BLAST HEAT AND THE SUN / HIS DEATH IS FRESH AND THE SMELL PLEASANT.” If a certain amount of audience disinterest was calculated by Holzer, then it actually works to reinforce the architecture of the piece, creating a media landscape analogous to Breughel’s Icarus, where people seem to go about their business while a world falls apart not too far away. At certain points, the dissonance broaches parody, as when Holzer’s LEDs, all thirteen of them, start blinking on and off while the text scrolls, “I SING HER A SONG ABOUT US / I STEP ON HER HANDS / SHE TIGHTENS AND I HIT HER…” On the one hand, the subtext of the flashing lights is “Look at me! Look at me!” but the flip side here is an implicit hunch that people might not be looking.

The result, even on a bright morning hinting at an early spring, is an ambiance of numbed elegy. Holzer, of course, does not confine her metaphors to her texts themselves, but integrates them into the text’s presentation—most notably, in the Berlin Reichstag, where she installed an LED upon which speeches from the Reichstag’s history flow. The LED is lined on one of the building’s pillars, so that, especially at night, one has the sense that the words and ideas from the Reichstag’s past constitute, in effect, a pillar by which the building is supported. In the Neue Nationalgalerie, the metaphor seems broader, a comment about how suffering competes for attention from even those people who ostensibly have come to a location as spectators, or, in this context, as would-be witnesses. At the same time, the veritable nonstop stream of suffering inevitably leads to an anonymity of the miserable, bordering on interchangeability. And yet the diction which Holzer gives to rapists and their victims seems to strive for poetic intensity, or at least an artificial formality. Conjunctions are shunned, and the way thoughts are phrased—“the color of her where she is inside out”—isn’t the expression we normally associate with the meanings conveyed, particularly when expressed in such harsh stories.

I linger in the gallery a while longer, reading. “THE IDEA THAT I AM CRIMINAL RECURS EACH TIME THERE IS TROUBLE.” My attention drifts down to the walls of windows. Every few meters a cardboard bird has been cut out and taped to the glass to prevent real birds from flying into the panes. On my way out, I notice the brochures at the coat checks, one promoting Holzer’s installation at the Reichstag and another providing information about initiatives to fight violence perpetrated against women. Down the stairway to the gift shop, I see the poster for the exhibit: a photo of the Neue Nationalgalerie at night, taken from outside the building, the LEDs casting a beautiful amber glow reflected in the glass walls below. No hope of making out the words above.

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