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Textual Analysis: Jenny Holzer at Montreal’s DHC/ART

Jenny Holzer works in words. Her art flows from the endless river of language that surrounds us. She dips her hands into that river and pulls out a tiny handful for us to look into and reflect. For most of her career, she’s distilled these little draughts into “truisms” such as “Don't place too much trust in experts.” In a new exhibtion at DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Holzer takes on the “experts” who have orchestrated the United States-led invasion of Iraq and all that has followed to today. Turning their own words around, Holzer holds up language as a mirror to show them and us the consequences of how words are used and misused. This analysis may be too late in some ways, but also just in time to show how language, too, can become a weapon of mass destruction.

Holzer takes tidbits from transcripts of policy debates, testimonies of American soldiers, and statements from detainees once held in custody by the United States, as well as from actual government documents released in whole or rendered in part through the redaction or removal of “sensitive” material. These Redaction paintings confront the public with the very words that their government feels they’re unable to handle. In works such as 2007’s Phase III Complete Regime Destruction purple (shown), Holzer resituates the Iraq debate documentation in color and on linen to raise it to an iconic level. They become holy relics of the martyrdom of generation. Whether you agree with the sacrifice itself is immaterial in light of how Holzer holds up the material itself for closer inspection.

Holzer links words and bodies in two Lustmord Tables, upon which human bones rest alongside engravings recounting rape and murder from the perspectives of female victims, witnesses, and even the rapists themselves. The inevitable toll of men at war upon women caught in the crossfire strikes the viewer powerfully in these installations. The stories of victimization often silenced or erased by the larger narrative of battle find life in Holzer’s imaginative inscribing on our consciousness.

The DHC/ART gives viewers a chance to analyze text a la Holzer through an educational program involving postcards. Participants will create artwork on a postcard that expresses a single word or idea related to some personal reflection on society. During the closing reception for the Holzer exhibition, participants will symbolically “mail” their postcards as a group, which the museum will capture on video. This happening thus unites people through words. Considering how these war-related texts fostered disunion among peoples, that mass “mailing” seems the perfect tribute to Holzer’s intended goal.

 “Freedom is a luxury not a necessity,” goes another of Holzer’s truisms. Viewing this exhibition at the DHC/ART is an exercise in participatory democracy, perhaps an exercise in futility given that it happens after the tragic facts of the case, but also perhaps a warm-up exercise for future opportunities to analyze the texts our government hands us to accept silently or question critically.

[Image: Jenny Holzer. Phase III Complete Regime Destruction purple, 2007. Oil on linen. 79 x 102.25 in.; 200.7 x 259.7 cm. Text: U.S government document. © 2007 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.]

[Many thanks to the DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, for providing me with the image above and press materials for Jenny Holzer, which runs through November 14, 2010.]

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