Jenny Holzer: 'Thing Indescribable’


Guggenheim, Bilbao


Current - November 9th

One-liners. They’d better be good, otherwise they’ve got no reason to exist at all. I mean – in a short story, if a weak sentence is lucky it might go unnoticed, or be saved by his big brother standing next to him. Not so much when you’re a one-liner. Then they give you a gun and a push in the back, you climb out of the trench, and off you go: dashing fearless into the open arms of the enemy.

So when you’re called ‘Queen of the One-liner’, you’re supposed to be damn good. Now that’s exactly where Jenny Holzer’s shoe pinches. Bilbao’s Guggenheim is honouring her nowadays with a big exhibition, called 'Thing Indescribable', showing work from her early years – the 70s – next to some more recent stuff.

At the end of the 70s Holzer used the NY streets as her canvas – this she had in common with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Her first public work being the truisms, anonymous one-liners printed on A4 and glued to Manhattan’s walls.

Now, let’s admit right from the start: lots of them aren’t high-fliers at all. For instance: ‘Your oldest fears are the worst ones.’ Or ‘Technology will make or break us.’ Okay. Can someone serve me another cup of tea, before i start dozing off? ‘We must make sacrifices to maintain our quality of life.’ I might agree… But would i write this on A4, then come and glue it right in front of your nose? I don’t think so, and i hope you wouldn’t either. I mean: next my neighbour will be writing ‘i don’t like your dog’ on my front door. Using a black felt-tipped pen. Non-washable. Or maybe he even wants to be elected. Then he might as well downright use one of these ‘Inflammatory Essay’ slogans Holzer used from 1979-1982.

Some of these Holzer one-liners actually did function as long as they were on the street. Holzer, indeed, was a street artist. Now the Bilbao Guggenheim has chosen to paper a whole room with these A4’s – and really, all you get from this is a gigantic headache. The street effect is entirely lost to say the least. The context is important: a one-liner like ‘Protect me from what I want’ can be double layered fun when spat out on Times Square, and even more funny when printed on a packet of condoms – but on a Guggenheim wall… No.

Conclusion: Jenny Holzer is not the Queen of the One-liner. And she at least needs some non-museum like context to make a home run.

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