“Jenny Holzer is the patron saint of Twitter”, at least according to the latest web meme. I assume we're all obliquely referencing Holzer’s survey exhibition PROTECT PROTECT at the Whitney – bloggers include the show’s link with the quip -- but in doing so, we lump four decades worth of work into the few Truisms that fit into Twitter’s 140-character limit. Certainly, the artist fails to benefit from this description.
The inclination to draw parallels between the two however isn’t entirely without merit; Holzer’s recycling of appropriated and original texts in PROTECT PROTECT finds sympathy with the millions of twitterers repeating a news headline or tweet everyday. In fact, the first viewable work in the show, a series of eleven yellow LED signs titled “For Chicago” includes the artist’s well known Truisms, a series also published under Holzer’s name on Twitter. “WORDS TEND TO BE INACCURATE,” “POLITICS IS USED FOR PERSONAL GAIN,” and “LACK OF CHARISMA CAN BE FATAL” are all included. The amber text crawls across the floor resembling a pulsing data highway. Aggregators visualizing live tweets under a particular search term move and are read in a similar way-- you don’t have to catch every word to understand the commentary.
Of course, not every room in the museum has a distinct relationship with the micro-blogging service. For example, in the back gallery a much stiller, tombstone-white room provides reprise from the LED-based galleries. The only connection this work has to Twitter is in the form of tweet fodder. Warhol-like oil paintings depicting redacted text, impassioned letters, and various other government documents from the Iraq war hang on the walls. Museums, by default, make virtually anything look artier than it is; however, the gravity of her text feels appropriately overwhelming in this case. In fact, despite the rational part of my brain that questions fine art’s transcendental qualities – the entire idea would be a little hokey for my tastes had I not experienced it more than once – throughout the better part of the show my heart rate was raised and my stomach queasy with excitement.
It sounds more pretentious than I would like, but beyond structural beauty, Holzer’s emotive representation of American identity evokes this heightened emotional reaction. Holzer displays public texts constructing that character, many of which missing large amounts of material. Partially blackened text on a canvas, and X’s in LED fixtures indicating redacted text, visualize protective barriers to sensitive information, while suggesting there might not be a need for it.
Interestingly, given Holzer’s predilection for searching out text-based material online – a medium kind to those with big personalities -- throughout the show, she almost entirely removes her own voice from the text itself. This isn’t to say it isn’t present in her curatorial decisions, or in her use of color, form and movement, but the mass of writings represent many different points of view and personalities, without specifically adopting her own language. It does, however, indicate a significant difference between the ways in which the Conceptual artist uses the medium of text as compared to the web professional.