‘I’m Frightened, Dismayed, Disgusted’: Jenny Holzer on How Artists Can Use Outrage to Expose the Hypocrisies of Our Time

The artist is debuting a new project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Jenny Holzer at the Guggenheim Museum. Photo: Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty Images.

As the president of the United States contradicts his own scientists about the global pandemic and conspiracy theorists and politicians on both sides accuse the media of propagating fake news, there may be no time more urgently suited for Jenny Holzer than the present.

The public spread of ideas—both factual and fictional—has been at the heart of the artist’s four-decade career, which launched in meteoric fashion with the debut of her “Truisms” in the late 1970s. The simple phrases, which appeared in public on posters and light displays, resonated with a kind of poetic truth, but were also vague and open to interpretation (“ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE” and “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT” are among the most famous).

In recent years, Holzer has more pointedly addressed the government’s role in circulating—and concealing—information. Her series of “Redaction Paintings,” which she began in 2006, depict declassified national security documents to reveal just how little they actually reveal. And her work has grown more explicitly political in the years since. In the wake of the Parkland school shooting in 2018, she illuminated trucks with LED-light messages reading “FISH IN BARREL” and “SHOT DEAD AT SCHOOL.” Soon thereafter, she rolled out a fleet of impeachment-themed trucks.

Now, for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Holzer is unveiling her latest project: a limited-edition print that revives one of her famous Truisms—”ALL THINGS ARE DELICATELY INTERCONNECTED”—in a cursive script.

Holzer’s gallery, Hauser & Wirth, is selling 100 of the prints for $1,000 each, with all of the proceeds going to the conservation group Art for Acres and the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.

We spoke to Holzer about the project, how she interprets Trump and Andrew Cuomo’s competing coronavirus messaging, and what she has in store for the 2020 elections.

Jenny Holzer delicately interconnected (2020). © 2020 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Jenny Holzer, delicately interconnected (2020). © 2020 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

For your new Earth Day project, you’ve made a print of your Truism “ALL THINGS ARE DELICATELY INTERCONNECTED.” Why did you choose this particular phrase for this time?

It’s a kind one, so I thought it suitable. It’s a time to be kind. I’ve been thinking about the pandemic hourly, maybe on the half hour, and I hope this sentence works for Earth Day as well. The purpose of this print is to give to charities dedicated to each cause, so I was glad to find a sentence, however dusty, that could sincerely address both.

It appears in a font that is itself delicate and interconnected, which fits the message of course, but is a departure from the all-caps, sans-serif fonts you’re known for. 

I always loved tattoo scripts. If I weren’t so lazy and cowardly I would be inked all over with them, but since I never got around to it, I thought of tattoo scripts, or a riff on scripts, for this print. I adore sans serif fonts, but not all the time.

A lot of your works, such as the redaction paintings, deal with information transparency and the way authorities communicate information to the public. What do you think about the messaging today from governments regarding COVID-19? 

I have been most impressed by [New York governor] Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings. He makes sense and seems thorough, thoughtful, and questioning. It’s a good time for questioning. I’m astonished by Trump’s performances; astonished is an inadequate word.

Do you watch them both regularly?

I hesitate to tell the truth: I watch them compulsively.

Do you think that confusion and obfuscation is part of the point when it comes to Trump’s messaging?

Yes, I do. Trump’s recent linking of the second amendment to COVID is reprehensible, almost surrealistic. Would that it were only art.

Jenny Holzer, IT IS GUNS (2018). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Paul Kamuf.

Are you looking at any media or other material being produced amid the pandemic as potential fodder for your work? You turned redacted documents during the War on Terror into paintings. It seems like there are so many parallels to the information omissions we’re seeing now.

I want to do something for the election that may or may not be art. It doesn’t matter if it’s art. We’ve been practicing by putting messages on LED trucks and sending them around the country, starting after the Parkland shootings and continuing for World AIDS Day and also the midterm elections. What’s going on with the pandemic and what’s going on in the world at large should—must—play on election day. I appreciated what was mentioned in a recent New York Times piece, that election day should be Earth Day and Earth Day should be election day.

At a time of so much double talk and fake news, what role do you think artists can play in highlighting facts? 

Artists are good at reflecting what’s around, and this is a time for reflection and reflecting if there ever was one. We’ll have hundreds of thousands of people dying. To your obfuscation question, lying has become a chronic condition—maybe a preexisting condition! Isn’t it sad that a germophobe hasn’t given us protection? Wouldn’t it be good if his feelings about cooties would yield merciful and effective policy?

Well, he would have to experience empathy for that, no?

Yeah, but it would also be pragmatic to do so. I’ll take pragmatic, however chilly.

Have you had projects and shows canceled or put on hiatus during this time? How has the pandemic affected your career?

All sorts of things have been canceled or postponed. So be it. The Beyeler in Basel was to have a once-in-a-lifetime Goya show with a companion group exhibition of contemporary art [of which Holzer is a part]. It will still happen later, but seeing Goya now would be… accurate. I’ve been looking at Goyas since I was 20 or 21, making pilgrimages to the Prado to learn what I could, so the fact that this exhibition has been slowed makes me sad.

I was going to ask if there’s any work from art history that you think would be apt to consider in this time. Is there anything that comes to mind besides Goya?

I ran across a Dada quote just this afternoon that’s dandy—I think we might look at Dada for some dark comic relief, and some realism. Dadists felt dark things stirring and they were accurate. It’s from Hugo Ball, 1916: “A Dadaist is convinced of the interconnection between all beings and things.” I didn’t even know that quote until this afternoon. That was the little joy toy of today.

Now that we’re becoming more reliant on new channels of communication like VR, Zoom, and social media, are you optimistic that it will create greater opportunities for artists to share their work, and audiences more access to art? Or do you see limitations to these technologies?

Well, those are worth trying. It’s something to do meanwhile, and I’m sure some people for whom it functions will make wonderful things. For others it will pale in comparison to being face-to-face, nose-to-nose, imagining, touching gooey, maybe smelly, regular art.

You’ve embraced new technologies throughout your career. Have you been experimenting with anything lately?

I wanted to mess around with VR more, but I just can’t deal with the gear. I don’t like stuff on my head and being blind. I’ve been more intrigued by, and I’ve started working with AR because you can see largely unencumbered. I want the ability to make and fake light projections without getting permits. Everybody is glued to phones, so that’s where I’d like to be—you know it’s the old street artist impulse to be where people are, gone to phones.

How do you envision that happening?

In 2017, we had an exhibition at Blenheim Palace in the UK, and for a couple weeks we had real projections on the palace with texts from exiled poets and [the aid organization] Save the Children and from wounded British veterans, for example. The palace was a war prize so we wanted to show war from the side of soldiers and civilians, not just “glorious victory.” Those real projections could only be seen for a limited time and at night, and we wanted them to last for the whole exhibition. We made it so you could go with your phone, point it at the palace, and view the content in projection at any time of day. That experiment encouraged me.

We’d like AR to be a part of the election project that I hope we cook up. All kinds of people around the country could speak about what’s important to them, what they love most, what they fear, what they believe must happen, and we can give them a means to communicate all that to others.

Through AR?

Yeah, through AR as well as with our little LED trucks and messages. These trucks usually are employed for advertising, but we launch them to get out the vote and for driving messages like “ABJECT SENATE” during the impeachment hearings. I was proud of “ABJECT SENATE.” That’s succinct.

Jenny Holzer from poet Wislawa Szymborska on the outside of the Portland Museum of Art in Portland. Photo by Tim Greenway/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images.

Are you endorsing any candidates?

I find it most effective to present what we the people are thinking rather than have an endorsement dismissed as simply partisan. But it’s safe to say I won’t be trucking for Trump.

It seems clear that the world is going to be inevitably altered when we get to the other side of this pandemic. What changes do you hope might happen in the art world? 

I’m not so much worried about how the art world will change. Let’s concentrate on how more people might stay alive and not suffer unnecessarily. My grandfather was a doctor and my grandmother was a nurse, so I tend to be more respectful at times of people who literally help than those of us who meta help‚ though it takes all sorts.

When your Truisms first came out in the 1970s, many saw them as bringing a much-needed social and political consciousness into the navel-gazing art world of that era. But the messages then were more oblique compared to those you’re using now. Was this an intentional shift?

I have been shifted and worse by Trump. I didn’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Boy, do I hate paintings.’ I’m frightened, dismayed, disgusted, and many more such words. So, recently at least it has made sense to be explicit. That said, in my downtime I’m making utterly inexplicable watercolors that look like Kusama on a bad day, on top of the pages of Jeffrey Epstein’s address book, so go figure. I do have an attachment and claim to the irrational.

I almost forgot about Epstein with everything else going on right now, but speaking of obfuscation and coverups…

But we shouldn’t forget. Were there ever a monster, he would qualify. And I think there’s more to come, speaking of declassified or at least secret material. I’d like to know more, sooner, in a bleak kind of way. It’ll be a while perhaps, given the players, but it’ll land. Meanwhile, I’m staining the address book. Trump features—his section of the address book is big, Melania is there, too. We have the redacted address book and the unredacted one.

How did you get the unredacted one?

Somebody knew somebody who knew somebody.

Is this something you would show?

Yes, if my art part of it ceases to be quite as embarrassing as it is now! We had a few of the watercolors in a show Switzerland in the winter—a few of them leaked, so to speak. But I’m going to hold off on showing more until I become a better artist.

Jenny Holzer, from "Truisms" (1977-79), 1986. Installation: In Other Words, Duopont Circle, Washington DC. © 1986 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY Photo: Tom Loonan .

Jenny Holzer, from “Truisms” (1977-79), 1986. Installation: In Other Words, Duopont Circle, Washington DC. © 1986 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY Photo: Tom Loonan.

A colleague of mine pointed out that two of the Truisms that seem to be resonating and circulating right now are “RECLUSES ALWAYS GET WEAK” and “SOLITUDE IS ENRICHING,” which seem somewhat contradictory. How do you reconcile those? 

I don’t reconcile them. The Truisms were written from many viewpoints as I tried to sort out what I believed and attempted to portray what other people think, to make a survey of beliefs. There are all kinds of Truisms that are contradictory. But those two lines about isolation could be true simultaneously for different people, or at different moments in time for individuals.

Have you seen other ones making the rounds lately?

I don’t look much as searching is inherently embarrassing. I’m glad the sentences have some reverb though, returning to my guilt about being not as useful as my medical grandparents.

So you have artist guilt about being a non-essential worker?

Yeah, I have non-essential wacko guilt.

How do you feel about your Truisms taking on new life as political slogans today? For example, “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE” became a hallmark of the art world’s #MeToo movement.

I’m largely flattered. The only thing that worries me is that notion that people make their best work in their 20s. That’s a bit of a worry, but as long as some people remember the series as a whole, that it was a collection, I’m OK with certain ones having exciting second lives.

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