Portraits of Artists 75

Conversation with Jenny Holzer

Allan Schwartzman: Jenny, people often speak of your roots as being in Conceptual art. I think of Conceptual art as being the consummate art about art, whereas your early work in particular seemed to me to look outside of the art world to the streets, to the world of language as pure communication. So, I'm wondering, where do you situate yourself?

Jenny Holzer: I think my work has something to do with Conceptual art, but I think the distinction that you just made is the critical one. My work is, for the most part, not self-referential nor does it refer to art. I try to speak about the world at large. What my stuff has to do with Conceptualism, however, is the use of language and, in some instances, the fact that it's somewhat Minimalist in its presentation. Occasionally, it's truly dematerialized.

AS: What was it that made you interested in public space as your initial form?

JH: I wasn't even sure I wanted to be an artist when I began. I had some delusions about being literally of use. And then, when I figured out maybe I wasn't, I thought I could at the very least speak about things that were issues for me and that I presumed perhaps were issues for everyone. Once I found these subjects – war and peace and sex and death and so on – I thought it would make sense to put them out in front of the general public, so that they would have a chance to consider them, and worry them, and maybe even take action.

AS: In the mid-to-late seventies, when your work was purely in the form of information, had art become a dirty word? Was there something about art that made it too limiting a form?

JH: No, quite the opposite for me, anyway. I always thought art was probably too good for me, and I didn't dare try to be an artist. It's what I always wanted, but I didn't think I could manage it adequately. That said, I was particularly interested in doing work outside, because I thought it suitable for my subject matter.

AS: Looking back when you began, there was – in cultural circles in general – no sense of future. Nuclear threat was very real, the Cold War had been stepped up, the real year 1984 was approaching. What were your ambitions when you began?

JH: I think it's interesting that you talk about the Apocalypse, because that's been in front of me since I was a child. I thought how can anyone live in this sort of world, much less love anything or do anything? I was prey to pessimism as were many people in my generation. It's still an issue.

AS: So, where were you going with the street posters? You spoke about perhaps inspiring some kind of action. What kinds of things were you thinking about?

JH: With the posters, I began to try to explain things to myself and then to put – if not always answers – at least some questions in front of other people in hopes that it would be of use to them. I always imagine that a good first step towards action is thinking, and then maybe worrying, and some definition of self, and some distinction between good and evil. I was hoping to work towards that.

AS: Did you have some kind of road map as to where this would go in terms of a developing aesthetic or a developing career?

JH: Nothing about the career part; that's still confusing and elusive. But I was certain
I wanted to find the right content and to put it out where people could find it, could see it in the course of their daily lives. I keep trying to figure out how to do that properly.

AS: Could you have imagined – at the time that you were making the posters and the stickers and so on – making a more permanent form, making something that perhaps was not purely intervention in public space?

JH: Going back to the Apocalypse idea, somewhere along the line – maybe ten years into my art making – I thought it would be a good idea to write something on a rock, just in case everything blows up and I should leave a message. So I turned to doing writing on stone.

AS: This is part of what interests me in your work – that when you were establishing yourself in the late seventies, it was a very artist-driven scene, and by 1980 the whole thing had changed. It went from an artist-driven scene to a market-driven scene. So many artists switched from media work to painting, sculpture and so on. And most believed that they could maintain what the ideas were in the work without somehow compromising or shifting the content of it in the process of entering into the marketplace. And many did in fact compromise their work in one way or another, but your work somehow seemed strengthened to me by the search for more permanent forms. You managed to hit upon the electronic signs and the benches and the sarcophagi with materials and mediums that somehow advanced the ideas in the work itself. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that transition into more permanent materials?

JH: My personal prejudice is that it was a bit of a tragedy that everything did shift so quickly and so thoroughly to work for indoors and things that had to do with the market. I was sorry that things like that Justen Ladda piece "The Thing" dropped off the screen. About my pieces, I'm glad that some parts of them will still be around. But I wonder whether the cleanest thing to do is to make something exactly as it should be, and then have it go away and leave no trace. I've just been working with Xenon projections that only exist for a number of days as light on a city or river and then are gone. For most of my major installations, it's only while they are up that they are the complete piece.

AS: Please talk more about these projections. What exactly are you working on?

JH: I'm always trying to figure out how to put things in a public place, to draw people's attention. I found that with laser and Xenon projections – as on the war memorial in Leipzig or a polluted river in Florence – I literally can put things on a city or on a building.

AS: This is the same kind of technology that Krzysztof Wodiczko works with?

JH: No, those are a kind of super slide projector. Xenon is a film strip that you run from a computer. You can set up the program to hit certain frames in a particular sequence, and because it is film, it's quite beautiful.

AS: So is it like electronic signs, but on objects?

JH: No, it's like putting a giant film on outdoors.

AS: Are there particular series you're working with?

JH: In the fall of '96, I did a text for the Florence Biennale – about love and dying.

AS: And what was it that brought up the interest in working in this more ephemeral way?

JH: Oh, I think the main impulse was again to put something outside, to be to the point and then leave no trace.

AS: And is there something in this series of texts in particular that interests you in not making it more permanent?

JH: This text was about dying.

AS: So this would therefore be the appropriate vehicle for it?

JH: Yes.

AS: You've shown a lot in this country [USA] and in Europe and you are one of the few American women artists who has had a very consistent and high-profile career in Europe. Could you talk a little bit about the difference in reception between the two worlds? Is there a difference?

JH: It often feels different to me. One of the wonderful things about working in Europe is that art doesn't seem to be a dirty word. I have always noticed I'm more relaxed in Europe for that reason. It's easy not only to feel despised, but to be despised for being an artist in the United States! I just read in the Post last weekend that Newt Gingrich is after the arts again because they represent all that is terrible in society.

AS: Have you been under personal attack in this country?

JH: Not in any consistent way, but funny things happen. I was coming through Customs once on my way back from Europe and the Customs guy asked me what I was doing abroad. I said I was on a work trip and he said "What's your work?", and I said "I'm an artist", and he said "Oh, contemporary, like those homosexuals?" This was the welcome back to Kennedy Airport.

AS: Do you find that there's a different relationship to public art in Europe as well?

JH: I've mostly noticed the more favourable [European] view of art relative to museums and relative to culture as a whole. I'm not sure that public art is quite as lively as it is in this country.

AS: I would like to look a little bit specifically at some of the texts. It seems to me that a big shift in your work comes with the "Laments", when there's a shift from the second person to the first person narration, from the "you" to the "I". And it would seem to me that this shift in narrator coincides with a shift from an outer directed, or a societal, environmental set of issues, to more emotional or personal issues. From an art of observation to an art of expression. Do you agree with this?

JH: I suspect that even in the early pieces there was something of myself. But you're right, early on, I never would have presumed to say "I" and have it be anything close to "me". Starting with "Under a Rock" it began to change just a little bit. I think by the time I came to the "Laments," it was about the subjects, of course, but it was also about myself.

AS: For a writer, that's a huge shift in voice even though it might seem very simple to a reader. What was it that had changed in you that precipitated that?

JH: I didn't want to be apart from what I was discussing. Of course I was not separate, so it seemed more honest to say "I know this" or "I am afraid of that".

AS: It seemed to have shifted the whole nature of vulnerability in the work. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum piece. The Guggenheim Museum is a building that dictates a very specific relationship to art and a very orderly flow of people through the building – almost as if the viewer were on a conveyor belt, moving along this continuous revolving wall. But you completely changed the viewer's relationship to that building, and in so doing, I believe enabled the building to live up to a potential that many people had not actually seen within it. You turned the viewer away from the wall and into the well. You created a kind of social space which was punctuated by the circle of benches below where one would see people sitting. What was your intention with that piece?

JH: Last night when I was trembling at a public toast at Diane Waldman's retirement party, I managed to spit out that when I was a student – a fairly arrogant and stupid one – I would say things like "Oh, when will they ever use the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum as an installation space? You know, they're hanging all those paintings there, crookedly. Don't they understand the potential of the building?" Then of course when I had the chance to do the show, I was bereft of any idea of what to do. What I finally realized was that not only was the spiral the main element of the architecture, but that the museum was something like a colosseum. People always have been fascinated by the building, and that was something that one could use to have people focus on the artwork as well. The building and the work could unite, could conspire to what you just described – that people could experience not only themselves, but one another looking and walking and thinking.

AS: It's like you broke the membrane through which art gets viewed. You put the viewer on the other side. You made it into the kind of public space that you ordinarily would have addressed outdoors.

JH: That's why I put the circle of benches on the rotunda floor, so people could see one another as they watched the work; and as they needed to retreat from the building, they also could be held by it.

AS: Did you spend a lot of time in the space during the show?

JH: I had to stand there forever in advance of the show to know what to do. I can't tell you how many horrendous ideas I discarded before I decided to do a very simple thing which was to follow that spiral with a single line that described the space.

AS: But did you see how people were experiencing the piece once it was completed?

JH: I only went two or three times because it's almost impossible for me to look at my work. But as at Dia, I would stand and try to see if people watched, how they watched and how they would move in the space while they were looking. The Guggenheim Museum has much to do with movement, as did the electronic sign. I wanted to see how people would go against the sign and with it, and whether they would be pulled by it or repulsed by it.

AS: Well, Dia was a totally different kind of experience. It was a very private experience. It was very much a memorial space. But at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum what I noticed was that there was a sense of wonder with the people, and it had as much to do with the technology and the sheer spectacle of the piece as it had to do with the relationship of viewer to viewer. There was a sense of true excitement. It was as if people were no longer in a museum. It was a different kind of public space.

JH: I wanted the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to have something to do with joy, especially after the Dia piece that was about sorrow and loss and grief that was too much to bear. I thought there is another part of life, the part that I often neglect, that is about amazement and wonder. I think I tried to do work about "Oh, look! Look! Look at this! Do you see?"

AS: Which is precisely what happened. It became an interactive work in that sense. Some have criticized the Venice Biennale as being too materially lush. People didn't want to see you make things that were that sumptuous, that perhaps were that costly. For them cost was equated with compromise. How do you deal with this kind of criticism? Did this have an impact on you?

JH: Yeah, I thought it a reasonable question, especially in the eighties when everything – not only my work – was getting bigger, more expensive, more over the top. I was trying to respond to Venice, which is too much of everything, and maybe I overdid it. But I was trying to have the piece match the city. The stone was what is found everywhere in Venice; it wasn't that expensive. The electronics are, and were, and will be. The piece in Gallery E that had the horizontal sign was meant to be about too many languages, too much content, and information assault. Maybe that was just plain too much!

AS: I don't think it was too much. Do you think it was too much?

JH: It was meant to be too much! That much I can say. Whether that justifies it is another question.

AS: And certainly the "Mother and Child" room, which was part of Venice, is one of the truly extraordinary works that you've done, and .

JH: It was, I think, Minimalist in its way, and quiet. The antechambers to both of the sign rooms were really pretty spare. There were benches around and marble floors, but otherwise the rooms were empty.

AS: Which leads to two different questions moving in opposite directions. The first is how do you feel about being looked upon as "the art world's conscience", as is often the case?

JH: I didn't know that I was.

AS: It's been said, yes.

JH: Yeah?

AS: Mm-hm.

JH: Well. That's a job description that will worry me.

AS: Which leads to the completely opposite question.

JH: Good!

AS: Which is how decorative do you imagine your work could become?

JH: I like when it's beautiful. I think that's different than decorative, or at least hope that it is. That's why I was so grateful to stumble upon the Xenon projections, because they're literally, physically beautiful. That's what I missed when I was doing the street posters. And that's what I've missed since I stopped painting – the ability to make work lovely, hopefully always in harmony with the content.

AS: Sometimes you have demonstrated a tremendous versatility with your texts. Different forms of presentation for the same text changed the meaning quite a bit. And perhaps with no series is this more evident than "Lustmord", one of your more recent series, with forms ranging from the body marking, the tattoos and the bone bands, to the very dazzling three-dimensional LED signs. When is it that you do seek a range of possibilities for your texts?

JH: I keep trying to discover what's appropriate and if the text would be expanded somehow were I to try it another way. I'll usually go through two, three, four, five presentations either until I feel that I've gotten it right, or close to right – or I give up.

AS: With which contemporary artists do you feel a special kinship?

JH: I like so many different things, I'm always at a loss when somebody asks me a question like that. I don't know whether it's kinship, but I'll give you an admiration list.

AS: Please.

JH: I like Bourgeois' work. I like Nancy Spero's work. I like Gerhard Richter. I like Louise Lawler. I like Cindy Sherman. I could go on and bore you to death with things that I like. Agnes Martin I adore.

AS: These are "likes" more than artists with whom you specifically feel your work is affiliated?

JH: I would be thrilled if my work had something to do with any or all of these people.

AS: Tell me about the piece in Nordhorn, the public garden.

JH: It's a black, or a very dark garden made from black flowers or plants with dark foliage. It reworked a park that had, for the most part, been a war memorial to the World War I and II soldiers who had died. The city asked me to do an anti-memorial, a cautionary piece about why not to rush to war, and why not to be the beast.

AS: Was it their specific request that it be a dematerialized work? What was the assignment?

JH: No, they gave me my head, which was wonderful. They said: "Please do" what I just described. "Please make something other than a memorial to the soldiers. Please change this park" – that was at one time a rallying ground for the National Socialists. I thought that while I would use text to focus the piece and make it about war and unnecessary death and cruelty and loss; I also would try convey a bodily knowledge of the fear, the terror, and the wrongness of this kind of killing. I thought I would make an entirely dark garden, so that the moment you walked in, you'd know that here was something not only extraordinary, but terrible.

AS: Is this very densely planted, or what is the experience of actually moving through it?

JH: There's a part that's formally laid out, a series of concentric rings of these black plants and flowers. It looks like a target. You can walk on red paths that seem like blood in the veins and see dark plants. I think it is – at the same time – horrible and faintly optimistic.

AS: Optimistic in what sense?

JH: The garden is alive.

AS: The idea is that this be a work that requires constant care?

JH: Yes. It takes maintenance, and that was part of my thinking that it should.

AS: Where are the texts in this space?

JH: I put five benches here and there around the garden so that you can sit and think and have the meaning focused. The texts are on the bench tops.

AS: And what has the reaction been to the work?

JH: It has occasioned all sorts of reactions. There were people mobilized to prevent it being installed.

AS: For what reason?

JH: They said there's no sense poking around in the past and that it would be cruel, disgraceful somehow to diminish the memory of the soldiers. I thought the soldiers' deaths should be noted, but I didn't believe that the focus should be the soldiers when so many other people died in the town. The political opposition was killed, the Jews were killed, and to this day there are very few Jews anywhere in the vicinity. It's an on-going death.

AS: Where exactly is this town?

JH: In the North, by the border of Holland.

AS: So this is actually quite radical, the idea of a monument to all war dead?

JH: I hope it's not only that; I have had trouble with the recent German memorials that are to all the dead. I wanted to distinguish between the soldiers and the civilians who were killed. Part of the garden is a small white flower bed in the shape of a grave that's in front of the plaque that the city of Nordhorn erected to the victims – the Jewish families of the town and the political opposition. I put white there because the civilians are different.

AS: Was there any statuary there before for previous memorials?

JH: There was a statue of a nude youth that had been erected to the "martyred youth" from the First World War. It was this statue that let the Nazis hold rallies and speak about young schoolboys who were slaughtered by the enemy." The truth of the matter was that they were sent out to be slaughtered. That statue then was melted by the Nazis for war material.

AS: That had been on this site originally?

JH: Yes. They replaced the statue of the nude boy with an eternal flame, and this I had removed because I didn't think it was appropriate to have a flame burning over the soldiers. I didn't mind having the names and the dates of these dead men, but I thought the eternal flame wrongheaded.

AS: You said that there's been a whole range of reactions. You mentioned some of the more critical ones. What have been some of the more supportive ones?

JH: It was wonderful not only that the town thought to change this park, but then that many people in the town gathered to maintain the garden. They have supported the notion of it, written about it, and spoken about their own experiences during the war.

AS: Do you have plans for other permanent public works?

JH: I did a peace memorial in Erlauf, Austria, to commemorate the signing of the peace in that little town. The Russian and the American generals met there to accept the surrender of the Nazis. I made a white garden, and I installed a search light that goes straight up into the sky. There's a single white beam of light that you can see from miles around. That's a permanent one. Most of the other public works I've done are things that come and go. On one of the world's largest war memorials, the Völkerschlachtdenkmal in Leipzig, we did a laser projection of the "Lustmord" text. I wanted what happens to women during war to be part of this memorial, and so I thought that it was appropriate that it be lased. 

AS: Are there other fantasy projects you have for memorials?

JH: The laser one in Leipzig was pretty close to a fantasy. I'm grateful that they let me do it. Again, they gave me my head. When I was saying that I keep trying to find the right place for a certain text – this was a right place for the "Lustmord".

AS: Throughout your work, you have captured the mood of our times. You've dealt with so many issues very specific to this generation - AIDS, continuing after such impending tragedy, motherhood, ageing, war. Where else are you directing your attention? What are you working on now?

JH: Maybe to prove that I'm getting old, I'm writing sex-texts. [Laughter] What can I say?

AS: Tell me a little more about this. Is it formed yet?

JH: It's relatively new. I showed the beginning in Florence. Because I'm writing it, it has as much to do with betrayal and death as love. But there's something about closeness and redemption and what's truly lovely about bodies together. So this is maybe new for me.

AS: Who's the voice? What is the voice?

JH: There's the first person. There's "I am here" and "you are here".

AS: And these are works that have been created with these projections you spoke about earlier? Or what form do you imagine them taking?

JH: It's been shown once in a Xenon projection, and I don't know what's next. On my computer I have pages and pages of text, unedited, and not very good yet, but I have hopes.

AS: One final area of questioning. When you emerged as an artist, you, and many of your peers, developed "do-it-yourself aesthetics" that enabled you to exist without the system. For many of you, the intention was to shift the balance of power within the art world. Have things changed for artists?

JH: The "do-it-yourself" was really important, and I mourn for it at large and in my own work now. It takes so much time and organization and money to do some public projects, and the gallery system can be helpful or inimical to art-making. "Do-it-yourself" is an ideal.

AS: Has the actual position of the artist, in your mind, changed since you started working?

JH: I don't know. I would have to think about that longer to come up with anything like a blanket statement. I suspect artists will continue in essential ways to be self-sufficient and thus free. We all lose it from time to time. But I guess I could say in favour of the projects that require groups to mobilize – public projects –, that is not a bad thing in and of itself. The dependence upon others, in some ways, can be very good, because a number of people can draw together for a common cause.

AS: Thank you.

JH: It was a pleasure.

(New York, April 1997)