In the ’80s, Jenny Holzer co-opted ticker tape LEDs and billboards to run her “Truisms”—terse phrases such as abuse of power comes as no surprise—inventing a new form of public address that advertised the necessity for thought itself. Now the texting and Twitter-mad public has co-opted her. Her response: sumptuous, techfree oil paintings depicting declassified U.S. government documents and, in a purely sublime vein, large-scale public light projections of poetry when we need it most.
Lustmord imagined words of rape victims during the genocide in the former Yugoslavia, written on human skin, such as: “my nose broke in the grass my eyes are sore from moving against your palm.” How do you bear being so close to this material?
Rape and murder of women and girls in war and peacetime is not uncommon, and assault was part of my life and the lives of friends, so it was not a leap. My mother was dying when I worked on Lustmord. I was enormously sad, and I thought it potentially helpful or at least accurate to make work about targeted women.
In your suburban Ohio family of second-generation Ford dealership owners, were you the only one interested in art?
I had flamboyant grandparents. A grandfather who’d rent elephants for birthday parties, and a grandmother who’d cut her clothes off when ignored, so that was a good art foundation. And my mother always invited me to look look look at marvels, so I associate seeing with happy astonishment.
You have a daughter; how has SHE affected your work?
I was beside myself wanting to protect her but was pulled away for art. Now 20, my daughter raises that it was hard to be left when I’d travel, and worse, when I’d be preoccupied at home by art drama. I suffered delusions that if I only could make better art, she and maybe others would be safer, and meanwhile she would have benefited from quiet time with pop-up books and more exposure to baby ducks. But now she takes good, relentless, and tender photographs of tough subjects.
What Jenny Holzer™ truism motivates the real Jenny Holzer?
I’m going to resort to YOU CAN’T GET AWAY FROM YOURSELF. I think about bleak stuff, and the world keeps serving up war, terror, murder, totalitarianism, sex, kindness, and the most astounding beauty that needs reporting.
It’s so pretty.
Jenny Holzer in Elle magazine