The nature of any government can be judged by the records it keeps. Who keeps records on whom, and why? While in the modern world we expect basic data to be held by official agencies, the issue of record-keeping and its legitimacy has become increasingly sensitive, with the loss of information including Child Support Agency statistics and data pertaining to Iraq.
Jenny Holzer is an American artist best known for her Truisms. Born in 1950, she began as an abstract artist who, in the 1970s, started to use text which she placed in unorthodox public spaces. Her street posters and hoardings bearing cryptic textual aphorisms could be found clandestinely pasted on walls or inside telephone booths.
More recently, she was commissioned to mark Samuel Beckett’s centenary by projecting light-poems onto London landmarks such as City Hall and Somerset House, and many will have seen her light-piece high above Piccadilly Circus without even realising that it was “art”. In 2007 her Venice Biennale project was devoted to a continuing series of declassified-document paintings. These have been made – thanks to Freedom of Information legislation – using declassified US government documents such as sworn statements, e-mails and other official material, which relate to the war in Iraq. Most of the information was found in the public domain by visiting the website for the American Civil Liberties Union, which believes that, “we must preserve the protections and the checks and balances in the Constitution against government abuses of power that violate our rights and values”.
In this new exhibition, Holzer’s large oil-on-linen paintings depict the official handprints of American soldiers accused of crimes, including detainee abuse and assault, and which, for reasons of secrecy or national security, have been censored so that the owner of the print can no longer be identified. Some have been subjected to total erasure by the censor’s black ink, while others have had skeletal black lines drawn through the palm and along each finger like the bones visible in an X-ray. Still others have been destroyed by a scribble or a lattice of lines which reveal the rather bizarre creativity of individual censors. All other official information has been obliterated and some of the documents have been stamped: “For official use only. Law Enforcement Sensitive”.
Despite her source material Holzer does not offer an easy ideological reading, for the hands of those charged with serious abuse hang next to those of the wrongly accused. for this is the hazy netherworld of military combat where the murky is perpetrated in the name of “national security” and “democracy”. These handprints are stigmata generated by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, where the negative becomes positive and positive becomes an erased negative in a world of endless paradox.
Animating the front gallery and bleeding light out into the street is Holzer’s sculptural LED artwork built of 10 semi-circular rotating signs in red, white, blue and purple light, entitled Torso. The work appropriates and displays statements and extracts from the case-files of accused soldiers, layering these voices, without comment, blame or defence, to create a palimpsest that suggests complex levels of abuse, blame and culpability.
Jenny Holzer Detained at Sprüth Magers, London to 15 March 2008
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Jenny Holzer
Published in The Independent