Instagram's Favourite Artist Made Me Cry
A generation bombarded with words have kept the text-based work of cult artist Jenny Holzer alive from behind their screens.
Illustration: John Garrison
Scrolling on your phone with a duvet around your ears is how every tragically one-sided modern relationship begins. This is how I fell deeply in love with Jenny Holzer.
Down an Instagram black hole, my thumb stabbed onto a photo of the cult American artist's work. The message "ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE" was lit in yellow LEDs on a sign mounted on a building, the words stark against grey slabs. Out of nowhere, the aphorism hit me and I surprised myself by bursting into tears. I've never had that response to art or photography. Music, film and books, yes, but never art. Without a single conscious thought, imprints of the many occasions this statement had rung true in my own life activated somewhere in my chest and led to this instant visceral response, when all I'd wanted was to tire myself out with a stream of social media content.
Sometime in 2016, I noticed that girls and women on Instagram were frequently sharing images of Holzer's work. Now, if you follow any feminists on the platform, it's unlikely you'll scroll through your feed without seeing Holzer at least once. The words "PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT" illuminated above cars on a highway; movie theatre marquees spelling out maxims like "Men Don't Protect You Anymore" or "IT IS IN YOUR SELF-INTEREST TO FIND A WAY TO BE VERY TENDER"; her coloured squares with tiny ferocious monographs (her "Inflammatory Essays") in black italic caps, about snakes and men and fucking and undue sentimentality.
Holzer's pieces were created to be found in public, jolting people into questioning so-called truths – the "usual baloney" we're fed – so it's ironic that they're now most widely seen on phones and laptops. Yet it makes sense that her fiercely political work is so popular online, communicating – as it does – sentiments that appeal to this socially aware generation just as much as the last. Returning to that first image I screen-grabbed on my phone months ago – "abuse of power comes as no surprise" – the words still prick at me and put fire in my belly.
Holzer's art is packaged in a way that makes sense online: the Inflammatory Essays could be Instagram captions, the incendiary one-liners tweets. However, this new context should really make her work less valuable. In the late-70s and 80s, when Holzer was making people reconsider advertising and language by putting provocative statements where you might find billboards, advertising was dotted around sparingly in comparison to its insidious presence now. Lots of branded content has aped – poorly – the language of "justice" contained in Holzer's punchy emotive catchphrases; at a glance, you could mistake a Holzer for a piece of viral marketing for Corona.
Complicating that further, I've fallen out of love with words on screens. In the same way sounds can grate when you're on edge, winding you tighter, words – the medium I love most of all – have become oppressive. Group chats continually updating, WhatsApp open on your laptop, work and personal DMs slung into the same place, junk email. The news cycle is a pummelling of headlines, angry, absurd, cruel, condemning, occasionally funny, sometimes bland. Seemingly unedited text is everywhere. There's no need to make an active choice to reach for words anymore; they stick to us. Digital words have come to mean almost nothing to me.
How, then, do Holzer's words stand out and mean so much?
In a phone interview, I asked Holzer how she cuts through this textual mess, and she laughed. "It's getting so crowded and increasingly hard to avail oneself with it because there is so much and so much of it is able. Highly professional, not always salvation," she said, like she was speaking the language of her work; that last sentence sounding like a scathing maxim aimed at targeted ads or Twitter or marketing buzzwords.
"The what is presented matters always, and that is the challenge: to find the right what. Increasingly I've left my words and look to the people who speak about the right stuff and intelligently with courage, and then what I try to do is light it up," she continued. "Language can be white noise, and sometimes that's alright because it gives you an excuse to not understand or do anything. Other times it's assaultive and other times words are just great."
My return again and again to Holzer's work over the past year says that, among the white noise we're subjected to, you can't fake the emotion her choice of words provokes. Despite being a cult figure in the art world, plenty – critics and cisgender men mostly – haven't been admirers over the years, often because her work is deceptively simple, making it difficult to talk about. The crux of their apathy towards it appears to be that Holzer deals, unashamedly, in emotions. There's no way to discuss a piece without being horribly, embarrassingly sincere.
After relaying the story of my crybaby response to her work, I asked if she finds it odd that most fans will only ever see her work on a phone, alone, instead of as part of a passing crowd, as was originally intended. She finds it interesting, since she spends as much time as possible hiding away, and so also unlikely to come across her own work were it still plastered up on walls and billboards. "But more to your point, I like putting things where people look, and that now is a screen," she said. "It's not utterly different to when people looked at the electronic sign. That said, I appreciate it when people come to something like the projections and get rained on a little bit and are enveloped in life and sense the scale, for example."
Luckily, after previously interacting with Holzer's work only through a screen, I finally had the chance to do that myself.
Entering the grounds of Blenheim Palace, the beautiful Baroque site of her new exhibition, " On War", I began to worry about how I'd respond to the work: whether it would be even more moving in real life (helpfully, being out in the countryside, I was already overwhelmed by the absence of concrete, watching hundreds of geese scattering into the sky from sheets of green), or if my general apathy towards exhibitions would render the projections disappointing.
The projected section of the work is thrown up onto Blenheim Palace in the pitch black, and it was raining when I went. Inside the courtyard, illuminated letters scroll down the building from all four sides and in numerous places. If two or more of the blocks of text are in your line of vision, it's mildly stressful, like scrolling through Twitter as a distraction when you're anxious, only to find that doing so is actually more abrasive to your nerves.
Stand in front of one block, however, and it's a uniquely affecting experience. Each chunk of text is a harrowing account of war from a UK veteran or survivor, named or unnamed. The words – "when he came to say goodbye he was already a stranger" / "he didn't come for her / he had become cruel like death" / "under my blouse warm lice move" – thud ten times heavier as they reveal themselves in front of you, before letters wrap around the curves of the brick and slip away seemingly into the sky. I felt as awake, emotionally and physically, as you might after having three strong cups of coffee.
I hadn't expected the experience to be that jarring, I told Holzer afterwards. Public work "brings the body back and embodies the content in a way that doesn't always happen on the screen", she pointed out, understandingly.
After the rush faded, there was a secondary feeling. The simple – but clearly rare, for me – act of being fully conscious of the words I was processing had put me in a kind of solemnly calm state. There was nowhere to escape.
Somewhere on the grounds, a bell tolled.
I walked back to the entrance, looking at the buildings from the furthest point, no clarity to the messages any more, just indecipherable text, when a woman in her fifties approached me. "Have you seen any of her projections before?" I asked. "No," she replied. "Obviously, with her in the States, it's really quite a special privilege to have a show like this here." "Yes, I only look at art on my phone." She laughed, gently, as if she didn't know whether I was being self-effacing in the presence of someone cultured, or simply moronic, and walked away.
As I followed her silhouette crunching its way across the gravel, the final messages I caught sliding up two walls penetrated harder than any of the others. Caught isolated from the context of the surrounding sentences:
"Now the earth and sky are silent." "I will take shelter until human takes its meaning back."
SOFTER: Jenny Holzer at Blenheim Palace is on now until 31st December 2017. The light projections are on every evening until 10th October.