Making Space: Jenny Holzer and the lure of the White Cube

Paige Henderson


The architecture of the modern gallery deems it a useless space. Offering itself up for deep contemplation and reverence, the gallery, with its blocked off windows and white walls, prevents the outside world from ever becoming the subject matter of such meditation.

My claim, though bold, inherits a tradition of art scholars who find the gallery to be a place of wasted potential. Brian O’Doherty wrote in 1976 that the modern gallery space is “constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church.” But these devotional spaces require a certain kind of pact to be made between art and spectator. He goes on to say how “art exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern) there is no time.” To make itself immune to the passage of time, the gallery must force the viewer to forget the worldly situation in which they find themselves looking at a work of art, “to have died already to be there.”

The terms of my critique so far have established the gallery as the site of (failed) display. Art pre-exists its being displayed in the gallery, and by being displayed loses connection with the outside world. Yet it is by reinvigorating the gallery space with the power to not only display but to create that we can reconsider its potential to make meaningful connections with the outside world.

Jenny Holzer, born in Ohio in 1950, brings the outside in, both in the spatial and disciplinary sense. She brings in words. I use the term words, as opposed to a particular style or form of writing, to demonstrate the raw functionality at the heart of Holzer’s linguistic project. In a large-scale exhibition of her work running at the Tate Modern until this Summer, spectators are reminded of the salient features of the world outside the gallery’s doors, and so the ubiquitous presence of those features. Logos, slogans and soundbites; it would seem Holzer’s gallery has toppled over into the streets below.

Spectators of her work are not sickened, however, by an unshakable case of information overload that has followed them inside. In Holzer’s imagination of the gallery, it is not a place of display, but the place where objects become worthy of our viewing and critical eye. It has the ability to give voice to familiar objects and familiar functions. Condom wrappers are one such object that gets the linguistic treatment. Plastered with the declaration that “Men Don’t Protect You Anymore”, a once familiar object is transformed into something that demands verbal attention. The object speaks to us, and by performing the most basic of human interactions, the object asks us to consider our relationship with it. Even the gift shop gets a look in at Holzer’s advertising project. You can find the same slogan repeated across bracelets and T-shirts for sale by the exit. The gallery has the power to turn advertising against advertisers, consumers against producers.

On an aesthetic level, too, the technologies of the gallery make verbosity a game to be enjoyed. Holzer’s electronic boards have text move along them, acting as a kind of grammar that inflects and controls the pace of the spectator’s engagement with the slogans. The changing rhythms of these words as they skirt along their screen enacts the joy of poetic meter, without demanding its spectator to think through the technicalities. Holzer’s style of gallery architecture sparks meaningful interactions with the life outside it.

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