In the 1970s and 1980s, when Jenny Holzer first exhibited her text-based posters and LED signs, called Truisms, in shop windows, on T-shirts, across billboards and in Times Square, they communicated a sense of Orwellian technology and robotic rhetoric to sit up and take notice of. A retrospective of her work from the 1980s to today at Hauser & Wirth’s converted farm galleries near Bruton, Somerset, including pieces in other mediums alongside LED works, promises to be just as impactful.
Spread throughout all five galleries, as well as in the gardens, the exhibition (running from Sunday July 12 to Sunday November 1, with prices from $50,000 to $1.5m) takes its name, Softer Targets, from its headline artwork (pictured). This canvas, one of Holzer’s “redaction paintings”, as she dubs them, features enlarged texts from a classified 2004 Federal Bureau of Investigation report entitled The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland: An FBI Assessment. Only a few pages of the 45-page report were declassified and even then the text was heavily redacted. Painted in whites, greys, red and black, the painting is named after the single surviving line on page 26, which reads, “Shifting to Softer Targets”.
Holzer has taken text from declassified and other government documents since 2004, as she has shifted her focus from the rise of mass computing towards the violence of international relations. Her message about transparency and government brutality is most direct in works like Move, the 2.5m LED column that responds to visitor movements – here, at Hauser & Wirth, it is suspended from the rafters. Wording from sensitive US documents is programmed on the column’s sides, including from a censored report of the investigation into the death of Afghan soldier Jamal Naseer while in US custody.
Alongside such techy installations, collectors will find hand-painted works in oil on linen, including There were Eleven of Us, Young Adult Female and Window, all made this year. When Holzer delivers phrases through more old-fashioned mediums such as painted signs, cast plaques, sculptures and paintings, the lasting impression becomes more political, as the emphasis shifts from medium to content.
In all their various forms, Holzer’s pieces convey her fixation with the power of words – when used in politics or by the media. They cover dark subjects and showing them in the Somerset countryside, in gallery rooms named the Pigsty and the Threshing Barn, will be a dramatic recontextualisation for these pieces and the ideas they explore.