From pulse to impulse

Material Information

From pulse to impulse Jenny Holzer and the crisis of the subject
Martorano, Louise Pilar
Publication Date:
Physical Description:
viii, 45 leaves : ill. ; 28 cm.


Criticism, interpretation, etc. ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )
Criticism, interpretation, etc ( fast )


Thesis (M.H.)--University of Colorado Denver, 2010.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 44-45).
General Note:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
by Louise Pilar Martorano.

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
671919246 ( OCLC )

Full Text
Louise Pilar Martorano
B.A., University of Colorado at Boulder, 2003
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree
Master of Humanities
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

This thesis for Master of Humanities
degree by
Louise Pilar Martorano
has been approved

Martorano, Louise Pilar (M.H.)
From Pulse to Impulse: Jenny Holzer and the Crisis of the Subject
Thesis directed by Dr. Margaret Woodhull
The art of attention-grabbing in a age when everyone seems to be saying
something, declaring something, believing in something, or standing for something is
an art that occupies a nearly saturated field. News, advertising, and media outlets
exploit content that shocks, disturbs, upsets or saddens their audience. The rationale
behind this content is perplexing because the best way to create apathy is to drive the
same point with the same vehicle. Jenny Holzer is an American contemporary artist
whose works are confronting this apathy both formalistically and compositionally.
Her provocative use of form and content first engages the viewers body and in this
way combats the intellectual and psychological ambivalence being cultivated through
mainstream information and communication systems. I take the position that Holzer
re-empowers subjects in this way and addresses what poststructuralism designates as
the crisis of the subject. Her illuminated and intense public works catch people by
surprise and re-awaken emotions that begin in the body as a means of resensitizing.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I recommend
its publication.

This thesis is dedicated to Jacob Liuzzo. Without his thoughtfulness, support, and
love, the completion of this work would not have been possible.

My thanks to my advisor and chair of my thesis committee, Margaret L. Woodhull,
for her contribution and support to my research. I also wish to thank all the members
of my committee, David Hildebrand and Kim Dickey, for their willingness to guide
and encourage my efforts throughout this process.

Purpose of the Study...............................1
Crisis of the Subject...............................6
Chapter Overview....................................8
Past Studies and Present Aims......................11
2. LUSTMORD..............................................12
Introduction...................................... 12
Body Language......................................13
3. FOR SAN DIEGO.........................................20
Post-structuralism in Holzer.......................23
A Public Announcement..............................25

Body as Communication and Symbol................32
Subjects under Capitalism.......................33
Raison d'etre...................................35
5. CONCLUSION.......................................39
WORKS CITED.....................................................44

1.1 For San Diego.................................................1
1.2 Truisms.......................................................1
1.3 Survival......................................................7
2.1 Lustmord.....................................................12
2.2 Lustmord.....................................................14
2.3 Lustmord.....................................................17
2.4 Lustmord (detail)............................................17
3.1 For San Diego................................................20
3.2 Hollywood Sign...............................................26
4.1 Projections..................................................30
4.2 Projections..................................................36
5.1 Truisms......................................................40

You were unsure about where you were in relation to the words
Jenny Holzer
Fig. 1.1. Jenny Holzer
For San Diego
Text: Arno, 1996
Light Projection
San Diego, 2007
Fig. 1.2. Jenny Holzer
From Truisms (1977-79)
Purpose of the Study
The art of attention-grabbing in a age when everyone seems to be saying
something, declaring something, believing in something, or standing for something is
an art that occupies a nearly saturated field. News, advertising, and media outlets
exploit content that shocks, disturbs, upsets, or saddens their audience. From a
rational, rather than financial, point of view this is perplexing because the simple
repetition of shock has the effect of creating apathy, not attention. The audience will
cease to listen, lose interest, and seek new outlets that provoke less abused emotions.

In post-structuralism, this moment is considered the crisis of the subject. To be clear,
the subject/viewer experiences a crisis when words cease to have a meaningful
relationship with the physical body. So, although individuals have control over what
they say, they do not control the meanings they convey because they are not the
authors of those meanings.
Jenny Holzer is a contemporary American-born artist who is addressing this
crisis. Holzers works are disembodied in that their meaning is generated in the
viewers body, not the author/artist. This is done through her compositional and
formalistic handling of light and text. She first addresses the viewers body, through
our senses, which then awakens our emotions to her words. Holzers works avoid the
intellectual dismissal that her competitors experience by addressing the feeling body
first. She does this by choosing the appropriate medium for the message. The central
purpose of this study is to demonstrate how this occurs. Specifically, her provocative
use of form and content first engages the viewers body and in this way combats the
intellectual and psychological ambivalence being cultivated through mainstream
information and communication systems. This is important because in the age of
attention-grabbing media people are rapidly experiencing desensitization to the most
upsetting and shocking of subject matter. Holzer combats this phenomenon by re-
presenting the subject matter from a provocative and oblique angle, disrupting the
onset of apathy. Her illuminated and intense public works catch people by surprise
and re-awaken emotions that begin in the body as a means of resensitizing.

The scholarship surrounding Jenny Holzers work oftentimes includes the
artist directly in the process. For example, academics collaborate with Holzer to
publish exhibition catalogues, which offer biographical and critical interpretations of
her works. Or we find interviews with Holzer in art magazines and journals to support
and discuss recent projects and pieces. In the instances in which Holzer is not directly
involved with the publication, more times than not she appears bundled with artists
like Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Louise Lawler as major contributors to the
appropriation and conceptual art movements. This study departs from these previous
methodologies and approaches Holzers works from a post-structural perspective. The
works themselves instigate and reinforce my approach through their formal and
conceptual anonymity. By this I mean her installations and public pieces purposefully
omit signatures or indicators of the creator for the viewer. For example, in Figures 1.1
and 1.2, the text speaks in a disembodied voice and therefore forces the viewer to
look at the works form to generate the meaning. In both figures the words command
us but the commander is unknown. You are being addressed but the text withholds
the addressor. I suggest that by negating her identity from the works, Holzer
purposely shifts the authority and meaning of the text/works to the audience. She is
therefore calling into question the assumption that the artists identity enables us to
interpret the works. This idea is particularly interesting in Figure 1.2 because the
viewer reflection appears in the piece. This suggests that the you she is addressing
is in the reflection; You create the work and assign meaning to the text. Holzer re-

empowers the viewer in this way. She establishes authority in the body and warns
against words that create meaning for you, similar to how Figure 1.1 declares, I
CANT TELL YOU, and thus forces the viewer to find meaning elsewhere.
Catherine Belsey speaks of this dynamic in post-structural terms: communication
changes all the time, with or without intervention from us, and we can choose to
intervene with a view to altering the meanings which is to say the norms and values
- our culture takes for granted (Belsey 2002, 5). It is my suggestion that Holzers
purpose revolves around this idea of intervention and altering learned meanings. To
achieve this purpose, her medium and content combine to shock viewers. As Michael
Auping points out, Holzers messages do not ask us to buy; they ask us to think
about how we feel about the world we live in (Auping 1992, 11). After some
preliminary biographical data, the following chapters specifically focus on her
Lustmord series, her outdoor projection entitled For San Diego (2007), and her
Projections (2008) as key illustrations of these ideas.

Bom 1950 in Gallipolis, Ohio Jenny Holzer is the daughter of Ford auto
dealers, Richard and Virginia Holzer: Holzers story is particularly American...the
artist was raised in the Midwest, a region that most Americans view as the
heartland, where the conscience of the American psyche resides (Auping 1992,
13). Being raised in the heartland of America, as Auping points out, proved to be
pivotal to the lexicon being indoctrinated in Holzers mind. She later attended
preparatory school in Fort Lauderdale, and gradually moved from a liberal arts
undergraduate degree at Ohio University to a Master of Fine Arts at Rhode Island
School of Art and Design (awarded in 1977). At R1SD, she began investigating how
environments can impact or reflect emotions. For example, in Blue Room (1975),
Holzer dowsed her studio with blue acrylic paint so that you couldnt see anything
that wasnt blue (Auping 1992, 16). Visually, Blue Room was like a Rothko
painting blown into three-dimensional space. Blue flooded the room like a color-field
artists canvas, opaque and saturated. This piece foreshadows the blue mood
present in Holzers later works and her interest in stimulating emotional responses
from her viewers. It begins this process by flooding a public environment with a
psychological environment.1 In this way, Blue Room was Holzers first investigation
1 Holzer, at this time, was struggling to be a professional artist and having many
unsuccessful attempts with painting. I did paintings I didnt like. I was cutting them
into ribbons and ripping them (Simon 1998,18).

involving the body; it required individuals to position themselves within a formless
and objectless space. Its walls looked like windows, ceilings like floors, and
sideboards like floorboards. Thus Blue Room explores how people define and position
themselves in relation to their environment. She points to this relationship through the
omission of spatial boundaries and borders. What strikes one as unusual here is that
Holzers authorship is also absent. This requires her audience to author or feel out
the space, a point we will consider further in chapters two and three.
Crisis of the Subject
It is challenging to describe and interpret an artist who purposefully evades
labels, distinctions, and signatures. Holzers artistic expressions are uncannily
familiar, yet consistently unidentified. It is these characteristics and qualities that
correspond Holzers work with the crisis of the subject. Specifically, she captures the
tension we feel when the self is dissatisfied with how it is being described, but stuck
in the description. In the below quote, Catherine Belsey describes this crisis,
The subject is in the first place the subject of a sentence, the agent of a
verb, and the figure that says T.I reproduce (or challenge) the ruling
ideology when I speak or write, and I am in that sense a source of
initiatives, actions, decisions, and choices. But at the same time the
subject is subjected to meanings and sentence structures that language
permits. (Belsey 2002, 37)
Here Belsey defines the crisis of the subject, or the decision that is forced upon a
subject/viewer as a participant in a given culture. To be clear, the subject/viewers

crisis is that the language we use is not a language we author. Thus, in order to
function in a society we are given a vocabulary regardless of whether or not we agree
with the culture behind the language, its intentions, and motivations. This study
illustrates how Holzer confronts this compromise/crisis and seeks to empower herself
and her audience with a new vocabulary, one that comes straight from the body. Her
works subversively challenge accepted meanings in form (e.g., ironic mediums,
textual contradictions, bodiless voice), which cause viewers to revert to impulse
versus learned behavior. For example, her truism [m]en wont protect you anymore
appears on a condom wrapper (Fig. 1.3). The medium (condom) and content combine
to subvert the cultural symbol for safe sex.
1.3. Jenny Holzer
From Survival (1983-85)
Latex Condoms
5.5 x 10.5 cm

Here Holzer co-opts the cultural code for protection, and gives it a warning label. In
doing this, she reverses the expectation and causes the viewer to linger on the words.
She convolutes the meaning between text and image and therefore brings an alternate
meaning to a learned symbol. To do this, she collides signs with opposing signifiers
to undermine assumptions. Signs crash (e.g., on a condom) with conflicting signifiers
(Men Wont Protect You Anymore) and viewers begin to doubt the final
significance. As we will see, Holzers form (how the work conveys the text) is
integral to the works overall meaning. As in the above truism, her medium causes
friction with the text. Thus, when viewing Holzers work it is necessary to look at
how both the medium and the message, or the form and content are symbolic
separately, and how this symbolism changes when viewed together. Throughout her
catalog there is a subtle irony on what and how things are said in order to effectively
communicate to the subject in crisis.
Chapter Overview
Chapter two explores Holzers Lustmord series as the first of three examples
that position the viewers body as the focus of the work. Drawing from two main
presentations of the Lustmord series, I identify the disembodied voice of Holzers
text and how it invites viewer participation. The chapter concludes by examining how
form and content combine to symbolically challenge the socially-constructed subject.

Chapter three revisits the crisis of the subject in respect to Holzers outdoor
projection, For San Diego (2007). Through the lens of post-structural theory, this
chapter focuses on the relationship between power and language. Roland Barthes
essay, Death of the Author explains that the author is oftentimes mistakenly
assumed to be the authority of the text. According to Barthes, the true function of the
author is to simply combine and mix words, ideologies, and beliefs for the reader to
decipher. I demonstrate how For San Diego is an illustration of this theory in that the
viewers body becomes the maker of meanings. Chapter three concludes with
discussing Holzer as a public artist. Specifically, how her works compare and contrast
to other public displays and their function in the public sphere.
Chapter four presents the resolution to the crisis of the subject. Holzer
resolves the crisis by returning signification and symbolic power to the body. Where
chapter two and three discussed how Holzer re-situates and re-positions the body as
the authority, chapter four shows how to utilize this new power. In this chapter, I
examine Holzers indoor projections to illustrate this point. Through visual metaphor,
Projections (2008) grounds meaning in the body by projecting the alternative
(meaning through ideology) in turmoil. Chapter four also applies the post-structural
theory of Jean Baudrillard to clarify and critique the relationship between subjects
and culture. Baudrillard examines the process of subjugation (the cause of the crisis
of the subject), how it takes root in ideologies, and its symbolic perpetuation. In the

following quote, he identifies capitalism as the economic agenda determining
signification and burdening subjects.
What we have are conceded freedoms: To permit the consumer we
must allow men to be children without being ashamed of it. Free to be
oneself in fact means: free to project ones desires onto produced
goods. Free to enjoy life means: free to regress and be irrational, and
thus adopt a certain social organization of production. (2001, 16)
Baudrillard occupies the voice of capitalism in this quote and demonstrates how
strategic correlations between words and products can perpetuate oppressive
economic powers. His brief lexicology exposes the motivation behind the words.
Chapter four details how Holzer and Baudrillard redirect language to empower the
self and avoid ideology. This is epitomized in Holzers Projections, which are indoor
and outdoor poems, manifestos, and essays that illuminate via a 6,000-watt bulb on
public buildings, riverbanks, large halls and civic ceilings. These works physically
interrupt the discursive planes of consumer environments, and visually jolt the subject
to think, not consume.
Holzer further resolves the crisis of the subject by foregrounding the infinite
amount of choices in representation and calls on her audience to identify what is
meaningful to them. This agenda, I believe, rests in Holzers own feelings of
disconnect from cultural codes and their indifference to the body. Richard Rortys
concept of the liberal ironist perhaps best captures Holzers approach, the liberal
ironist, does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is not
in touch with a power not herself (Rorty 1989, 73). Chapter four concludes with

Holzers works as formal and compositional metaphors for choice and personal
Past Studies and Present Aims
Some previous studies of Jenny Holzer rely heavily on interview form (see
Auping 1992, Madoff 2003, Buchloh 2008). They look to Holzer to expose her
process and rely on the reader to draw out formal and conceptual threads. Often these
works anchor Holzer to the conceptual art movement or illustrative of a sociopolitical
agenda (see Joselits 1998 and Smith 2008). My approach will certainly utilize aspects
of this methodology, but my desire is to interpret Holzer through a post-structural
lens. Holzer prompts this methodology by creating anonymous works that are less
about the world and more about examining a persons assumptions about the world.
The people complete my piece for me (Holzer 2009). Holzer forces introspection
on her audience and asks viewers to give voice to their selves. As Smith notes, she
has consistently emphasized the artwork as a carrier of ideas that stimulate a passive
viewer to become an active questioner by inviting reflection on intentions, meaning,
and authorship (2008, 27). This study explores Holzers provocative use of form and
content to reveal how viewer participation is achieved. In this way, I hope to advance
the theoretical scholarship on Holzer beyond past analyses that rely on biography or
interview form.

t kav* W0T SIH
f Wltl 0£ CovtDt
e*ne piu^h hbil.
Fig. 2.1. Jenny Holzer and Tibor Kalman
From Lustmord (1993-95)
Ink on skin.
Holzers artistic process developed from an impulse that sought to make
people stop (Auping 1992, 26). Her early works were designed to initiate physical
responses that transitioned her viewers into reflective states. Over time, this impulse
was perfected and Holzer developed a large repertoire of mediums that emotionally
engaged people with her works. This objective is present in Lustmord (Fig. 2.1), the
medium (human skin) and content (rape) combine to leave her viewers speechless and
in doing so draw attention to the non-linguistic, reflective ways of processing
information. Instead of language, Holzers works position the body as the processing

center. For Holzer, the body is the vessel for the natural instincts and impulses that
are not subject to an externally-driven culture (language being a product of culture).
In both form and content, this chapter will show how Holzers works press viewers to
process words through the body and let impulse determine how things are personally
meaningful. Holzer incites this process in three primary ways: first, Lustmord2
centers the body as the primary vehicle for expression. Secondly, Holzers text speaks
in a disembodied or anonymous voice, which invites viewers to insert their own
body/identity for that text. Finally, in what Joan Simons labels the marriage of form
and content (2008, 11), Holzer symbolically combines medium/body with
text/language to challenge the socially-constructed subject.
Body Language
The German word lustmord means sex-murder or lust murder. Lustmord
(1993-95) was Holzers reaction to the violent rape and loss of women during the war
in former Yugoslavia.3 The image below is her 1995 collaboration with Tibor
Kalman, a Hungarian graphic designer who offered his body as her scroll.
2 When referring to the whole series, I embolden Lustmord, when referring to a
particular piece in the series I use Lustmord in italics. This corresponds to past
studies and standard practices in the literature on Holzer.
3 See also: David Joselits, Survey in Jenny Holzer (1998) Phaidon Press, pg. 53.

Fig. 2.2. Jenny Holzer and Tibor Kalman
From Lustmord (1993-95)
Ink on skin.
T*£ CtK-Ojk OF
8 3&SM?£ OOT
m r
In this version, emotions are worn like tattoos making the body, more so than voice,
the vehicle for expression. David Joselits addresses this relationship when he states,
[i]n Holzers art, linguistic evocations of physical violations are paralleled by their
sculptural performance of the bodys inscription... Lustmord gives this metaphorical
topography of flesh inscribed and invaded by language its sharpest realization to
date (Joselits 1998, 50-51). In short, Holzer is commenting on a physical
relationship between language and the human body. In Lustmord, this relationship is
clearly violent. In the above image (Fig. 2.2), the mood of the sentence quickly shifts

making the viewer physically uneasy. It invites readers in with words like excite
and color and then jars them with the unanticipated outcomes of stay crazy and
kill her. Furthermore, viewers are made uneasy due to the pornographic or rather
sado-masochistic nature of the text. American culture, in particular, attempts to veil
these taboo subjects both in imagery and in language. Here Holzer intentionally blurs
the boundaries between personal and public, which empowers the viewer, not the
culture, to determine what should be publicly addressed. This is just one of the many
ways in which she engages the viewers body to challenge existing social vocabulary
to empower the person/subject.
The use of an anonymous or disembodied voice is another method in which
Holzer centralizes the viewers body. In Lustmord, the disembodied voice speaks
from three different perspectives, the perpetrator, victim, and observer of a fatal rape.
As Joselits suggests, [t]he generalized relationship Holzer establishes between these
three subjective locations accommodates both the private and public identifications
with their emotionally charged scenario of assault (1998, 53). Here Joselits
highlights Holzers method of inclusion in that she is presents subject locations for
her viewers to occupy. Holzers works indirectly ask the viewer, What is your
experience and how do you relate? The viewer responds by developing the identity
behind the anonymous voice. The perpetrator is the first disembodied subject she

Holzer uses alliteration to create a violent rhythm to the text. Specifically, the s
repeats with each verb and conveys the tempo of the assault. The physical
relationship between body and text is illustrated through the perpetrators words
rhythmically bruising the skin. In addition to the disembodied voice, the text remains
open to identity by the elusive use of words like swim and sink that requires the
viewer to assign meaning and therefore participate in the act. This begs the question
that as participants in a given society, if we accept an externally-constructed linguistic
process (not unique to the subject), are we all perpetuating a type of assault? Holzer is
making viewers aware of how language has power and, at times, its violent
relationship to the body. When the voice of the text switches to the victim the result
of misused power is evident:
Lustmord depicts a scenario that if left unchallenged, can have a fatal result. The
vocabulary and voice is purposefully left open to provoke viewers emotions to
challenge the text. Holzer is antagonizing her viewer with provocative words so they
respond with emotions. The final perspective is the observer. This subject location
receives the information at a physical distance, like when viewers view Holzers
work, but psychologically absorbs the shock:

Again, Holzer intentionally leaves out details for us to fill in, to understand, and
respond to. In this instance, viewers assume or create that it is in fact the body that
pours when violated. This is a caution to the audience, and I believe it is in this
sense that Holzers works challenge the socially-constructed subject.
The final way Lustmord (Fig. 2.3 & 2.4) challenges the socially-constructed
subject is through what Simons labels, the marriage of form and content (2008,
11). Appearing in Holzers most recent exhibition Protect Protect, the Lustmord
text now appears engraved in silver ID bracelets worn by a deconstructed human
Fig. 2.3. Jenny Holzer Fig. 2.4. Jenny Holzer
From Lustmord (1993-95) (detail)
Human bones, engraved silver, wood table.
34 x 70 x 44.5 in.
Museum of Contemporary Art
Chicago, 2008

Going a step further from the Tibor Kalman collaboration, Holzer removes the
flesh and arranges bones according to size and shape. The monologues of the
perpetrator, victim, and observer appear as the viewers eyes scan across the
skeleton and catch the bracelet engravings. In form, this piece recalls the
minimalist works of Donald Judd, with his ordered and rowed white blocks, or
perhaps the striped awnings of Daniel Buren. That being said, only fifty
percent of the piece would be under consideration if it were only approached
formalistically. The symbolic connotations of the ID bracelets, where words
become identity, and the bones themselves recall Simons point. Holzer
challenges the socially-constructed subject by developing alarming symbols
about the relationship between body and text. Holzer reinforces this challenge
when she describes her writings,
I don't see my writing as anything akin to poetry. I'm more someone
who blurts things out desperately. My stanzas are desperate (the best
that I can) descriptions of various hells-usually rather unadorned, since
as I can't really write I've had to make it very stripped down. (2005,
One gets the sense that Holzer is speaking through her own body in this comment.
She strips text to avoid the abuse of language. Instead, she speaks abruptly and with
emotion, I am suggesting that her works empower her audience to do the same.

Written by Holzer, unlike some of her later collaborations, Lustmord
highlights her unflinching ability to push the invisible into a visible space. Though the
subject-matter is rape, Lustmords linguistic structure is analogous to what
individuals experience in the public sphere and what Holzers works thematically
challenge. She shows how people become casualties of words and victims of
symbols. She pushes forgotten or taboo incidents back into the public sphere so
individuals in all subjective locations digest and become aware (Joselits 1998, 53).
Holzers progression can be tracked as her words move closer and closer to the skin.
She demonstrates that as subjects, viewers need to be conscientious of words. In fact,
today Holzer does not write any of the text she uses. She does not see herself as a
poet but rather occupying the space of visual poetics, which have to do with the
colors, pauses, and omissions (2003). In the next chapter, I offer a rationale behind
Holzers challenging public discourse in order to arm the viewers body.

A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he
writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished
rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by
applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and
categories are what the work of art itself is looking for.
-Jean-Francios Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition
FigJ.l. Jenny Holzer
For San Diego
Text: Amo, 1996
Light Projection
San Diego, 2007

For San Diego is one of three outdoor projections Holzer did in 2007. It, like
Lustmord, is another compelling example of how Holzers works press viewers to
reflect on words and find meaning through the body. In this case, the viewer is
empowered to determine who the I and the You are of the text. The voice
speaking, I CANT TELL YOU is disembodied and therefore lacks a
signifying power. Post-structuralism is the theory that encompasses this idea
and observes how authority and power function in language. In this case, For
San Diego disarms the authority because the author is unknown. Speaking to
this idea, Paula Geyh suggests that Holzers works implicitly raise questions
about the nature of other authoritative voices speaking to us, their command of
purportedly public space and the nature of the message they purvey" (2002,
175). First, this chapter addresses how post-structuralism informs Holzers
work. Like Holzers works, it exposes the arbitrariness and vulnerability of the
text. This relationship is best illustrated with Roland Barthes post-structural
essay, Death of the Author, in respect to Holzers piece, For San Deigo. The
chapter concludes by analyzing Holzers works as public art, her use of public
space, and how they compare and contrast to other displays that populate the
public sphere. This comparison is significant in that it shows how mainstream

communication systems can be subverted and re-appropriated to engage
passive viewers into active participants.
Holzers text implicitly draws attention to the ways in which ones
identity is constructed through languagea key focus of the postmodern
investigation into the subject.
-Paula Geyh, Jenny Holzer
Holzer presents the voices and authors of culture, politics, religion,
mothers, and murderers for her audiences to question, embrace, or reject. In an
interview with Steven Henry Madoff, Holzer comments on her truisms, I
presented the voices more or less simultaneously, and weighted evenly, to
suggest that the thoughts were true to somebody. It seemed like a
comprehensive and clean way to present belief systems" (2003, 82). Through
multiplicity and diversity of voice, Holzers works empower viewers to choose
their belief system and question institutions that choose for them. Post-
structuralism provides a basis for this questioning and looks at how cultural
ideologies are built on manipulating the relationship between words and their
meanings. As Catherine Belsey describes, post-structuralism names a theory,
or a group of theories, concerning the relationship between human beings, the
world, and the practice of making and producing meanings (2002, 5). These
theories, as authored by Jean-Frangios Lyotard, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes,

Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan are
formulated around the notion that culture aligns meaning with words, and
individuals learn to reproduce these meanings. In doing this, post-structuralism
exposes the fragile boundaries that exist between text and meaning. If a
cultural discourse determines that x means y and the population learns this
association through visual reiterations (or public displays), the association
becomes the norm. For example, American culture frequently dresses baby
girls in pink and baby boys in blue. Post-structuralism attempts to call out the
arbitrary and fragile nature of this visual relationship, [ljanguage is not in any
sense personal or private. But individuals can alter it, as long as others adopt
their changes. What, after all do great poets, philosophers, and scientists do,
but change our vocabulary? (Belsey 2002, 5). In short, language empowers
individuals, like poets, philosophers, and scientists to replace passive
acceptance with active creation. Holzer channels this creation through the
Post-structuralism in Holzer
Roland Barthes Death of the Author is one example of how post-
structuralism informs Holzers works. Mainly, Barthes essay provides a
theoretical context/body for the disembodied voices of the text. If we approach

For San Diego (Fig. 3.1) from a just passing by point of view, it is
interesting to begin to speculate what initial responses it would draw? Perhaps,
a viewer would ask, who cant tell you? and likewise who are you? Is I
or You a female or a male? Thus the opportunity for understanding within
the framework of either of the subjects is lost. Holzer omits both pronouns and
we are left to fill the gaps. Barthes observes that the assumption is that the
explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it,
as if they were always in the end... the voice of a single person (1994, 387).
His observation is significant to Holzers work because it challenges the notion
that the maker of meaning is the creator of the work. Barthes states, [o]nce the
Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a
text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final
signified, to the close the writing (1994, 389). By negating the author, the
meaning of the text remains alive to the process of interpretation. Holzer, in
For San Diego, speaks volumes to this theory. Like Barthes, Holzer questions
authorial intention and reminds viewers that we are the creators of meaning as
we stand before her works. Holzer deliberately omits the signifying agent (the
author) to encourage active creation instead of passive acceptance. In this
piece, the author is absent and the text pleads us to seek meaning (gender,

identity, opinion) elsewhere. She assumes the position that Barthes imposes,
the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centres of
culture...the [authors] only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with
the others, in such a way to never rest on any one of them (1994, 388).
Holzers truisms, as discussed earlier, are another exemplar of this mixture.
Holzers works are collisions of these tissues compounded ideologies, voices
and light. Both Barthes and Holzer demonstrate that to find meaning you
cannot go through the author you have to interpret the text.
A Public Announcement
Language is often assumed to be without weight or dimension and for
that reason it appears as an ideal means of abstracting or dematerializing
things. And yet environments we inhabit every day are largely constructed with
David Joselits, Jenny Holzer
Through the omission of the author, Holzer covertly alerts viewers to be
cognizant of the authorial voice of others. It is for this reason that Holzer purposively
situates her works in the public sphere. If we compare and contrast For San Diego to
other public displays like billboards, street signs, and posters we find there is a
subversive contrast that Holzers works achieve.

Fig3.2. Hollywood Sign
Photograph by M.T.Welch
Los Angeles, CA
Similar to public displays, For San Diego grabs attention through its
immense size and intense luminosity. Its white light against the night sky has a
spotlight effect on her shoreline canvas. Like an advertisement, it catches our eye
with a brief and memorable phrase. Most poignantly however it is difficult to deny
the visual pun when compared to the infamous HOLLWOOD sign that looms over
Los Angeles, California. It is in this moment the visual similarities are subverted to
reveal an alternative meaning to the words.
In contrast to public displays, Holzers works do not advertise, preach, or
command. Public signage frequently tells us something whereas in For San
Diego we determine what that something is. By offering an alternative to the
norm or a caution about what happens when people are whipped to a frenzy, and

dont think about what they are being fed (Geyh 2002, 176), Holzer reminds viewers
that they control the significance of the text. Through Holzers omissions, our
impulses reverse and visual associations are less automatic. In short, boys can wear
pink. Furthermore, Holzers works encourage viewers to ask why it is important to
know who is speaking? Signification, for Holzer, is personal and from the body
versus external and from the author. Her works, which embody this position, create a
glitch in the public marketing discourse because consumers become producers. For
San Diego does not sell, tell, direct or demand, which enables viewers to think,
create, and choose. Holzer initiated the same response with the taboo subject-matter
of Lustmord. In both cases, the viewer is physically disoriented and left to reflect
and personally respond to the words.
In image and in text there is a haunting quality to Holzers works. Her large
and looming letters float above dark waters and vanish during the day. The
disembodied voice is ghostly, uncanny, genderless, and dream-like. This is rather
apropos considering she gives voice to voices that have been silenced, tortured, or
murdered.4 Most importantly, Holzer resurrects these voices to highlight a buried and
forgotten crisis (e.g., b.l (2008), As a Parent (2008)). Henri Bergson, in Matter and
Memory, explains that individuals that react to a situation do so because that situation
4 In her latest exhibit Protect Protect Holzer focuses on the unreported stories of the
Iraq War. She exposes the torture and mistreatment of soldiers (Final Autopsy Report
(2006), letters from parents of soldiers (As a Parent turquoise (2008), and records of
abused POW incidents (Midtown Massacre ochre (2007)).

is analogous to a past experience. So, a persons reaction does not take place without
an appeal to memories, which analogous situations may have left behind them
(Bergson 1988). With Bergsons point in mind, Holzers work must refer to a
collective memory to generate a physical response from the viewer. This offers an
interesting interpretation to the uncanny familiarity of the Hollywood-esque sign in
For San Diego. Her subtle correspondence between images produces tension between
form and meaning. Hollywood suddenly represents I CANT TELL YOU versus
the ideological message that is everything in the world consumers could possibly
want. Bergson explains that there is a utilitarian nature to our memory, which is
essentially turned towards action (1988). Holzers works embrace this idea; she
focuses on the survival of her subjects/viewers by disrupting the visual messaging
that reinforce hegemonic cultural codes.
For San Diego encourages viewers to explore the unknown and the absent. It
declares, I CANT TELL YOU and therefore spurs and initiates subject-created
(versus culture-created) meaning. To do this, Barthes slays the author and shifts
authority to the viewer. With meaning now in the hands of the viewer, Holzer locates
her works in the public sphere and in doing so subverts the previous authorities
(authors of ideology). If public environments visually determine what we should
wear, buy, and do, then at large we are being driven toward inactivity and passivity.

Holzers works are public because she presents choice and alternatives to this visual
messaging. As chapter four will discuss, this is Holzers resolution to the crisis of the
subject. The body becomes the active medium and symbol for the individual, not the
passive conveyor of consumer capitalism.

The notion that some one among the language of mankind has used to deal with the
universe is the one the universe prefers, the one which cuts things at the joints, was a
pretty conceit.
-Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
Fig. 4.1. Jenny Holzer
Text: Parting with a View, from View with a Grain of Sand by Wislawa Szymobrska
Light Projection

What does it mean that Holzer presents disembodied (authorless) texts on the
bodies of others? In chapter two, we saw how Holzer combines form (body) and
content (brutal rape) to symbolically challenge the socially-constructed subject.
Lustmord pairs bones with id bracelets to demonstrate how words can be fatal to
viewers/subjects. From this, chapter three examined how to reverse this relationship.
We saw that, as a postmodern artist, Holzer follows Barthes concept of the death of
the author and leaves meaning in the hands of the viewer. Now, the focus shifts to
how Holzers works centralize the viewers body as sign and locus of new
vocabularies. To resolve the crisis of the subject, this chapter explores how the
viewer/body is a medium for personal meaning versus a conveyor of cultural
ideology. Jean Baudrillards post-structural scholarship elaborates on how hegemonic
discourses manipulate subjects. Baudrillard identifies the primary discursive culprit as
capitalism. This perspective sheds light on Holzers objective. We can now look at
why she accepts the subjects crisis as important and what she aims to achieve. She
creates linguistic disruptions and presents alternative vocabularies that undermine
oppressive economic and political agendas. This role emulates Richard Rortys
concept of the liberal ironist and offers a unique perspective on how Holzer, as a
postmodern artist, philosophically embraces her charge.

Body as Communication and Symbol
Holzer Projections (Fig. 4.1), is a third example of how she includes the
body/viewer in her works. Her indoor projections cause words to scroll down human
figures reiterating the position of subjugation in a consumer metropolitan
environment. In these pieces, words cloak subjects implying their ownership. In
response, Holzer challenges this ownership by using the body to exhibit societys
conflicting agendas. In the above piece (Fig. 4.1), she achieves this metaphorically by
using Nobel Prize poet Wislawa Szymborskas work, Parting with a View. Like
Holzer, Szymborska uses paradox, irony, contradiction, and understatements to
address the philosophical themes of her work. This visual trope returns the signifying
power to the subject by presenting the alternative in chaos. 5Put another way, she
produces absurdity between the vehicle of representation and what is being
represented. Holzers own apprehension to the words manifests in the varied levels of
legibility. As discussed in chapter three, this further reiterates the arbitrary and
vulnerable relationship that exists between text and meaning. As Geyh notes,
Jenny Holzer helped to shape the cultural space of the postmodern era
- a space defined by ubiquitous information technologies;
juxtapositions of irreconcilable worldviews; wide-ranging
investigations into the foundations of Western and particularly modem
thought; the dissolution of the ideal of a unified subjectivity; and the
5 Holzers Truisms (1977-79), Inflammatory Essays (1979-82), Living (1980-82),
and Survival (1983-85) series are other poignant examples of how Holzer uses
contradiction and irony to expose the darker undertones and contradictions of cultural

near impossibility of mapping ones subject position in the network of
global consumer capitalism. (2002, 173)
Holzers work began by reclaiming the public space from the onslaught of consumer
advertising. She usurped public communication mediums like billboards, LED signs,
posters, stickers, and T-shirts to disrupt the consumer messaging monopoly over
public space. Overtime this did not suffice; in order to undermine oppressive
discourses (e.g., global consumer capitalism), she pressed her viewers to find ways to
create and make meanings themselves. She did this by installing works that initiate
this process in the public sphere and, in the case of the indoor projections, on the
subjects themselves.
Subjects under Capitalism
Baudrillard makes a special case to justify this new focus,
we have reached the point where consumption has grasped the whole
of life; where all activities are sequenced in the same combinatorial
mode; where the schedule of gratification is outlined in advance...and
where the environment is complete, completely climatized,
furnished, and culturalized. (2001, 36)
Baudrillard states that under capitalism, objects create needs, which are consumed to
signify social status and indicate personality. In this system, a persons significance
declines if they cannot consume. Baudrillard defines this process as a systematic
devaluation of the human experience. We make believe that products are so
differentiated and multiplied that they have become complex beings, and
consequently purchasing and consumption must have the same value as any human

relation (2001, 17). He makes the case that consumerism preys on human weakness
to the further the economy. This process requires the replacement of language with
objects to create value-driven standards of communication. Like Holzer, Baudrillard
believes language can reverse this process and access the subject, language, because
it is actually neither consumed or possessed by those who speak it, still maintains the
possibility...of a syntax of exchange (2001, 19). He views language as an
opportunity for uninhibited dialogue because its structure defies appropriation. It is a
momentary and fleeting vehicle for communication. In a collection of notebooks
entitled Cool Memories, Baudrillard contemplates the implications of an uninhibited
dialogue, can you grasp a world when you are no longer tied to it by some kind of
ideological enthusiasm, or by traditional passion (Gane 2008, 306). This recalls
Holzers interview with Buchloh when he states, No linguistic articulation could
claim to be exempt from its participation in ideological interests. To which Holzer
responds, I think screaming can come straight from the body. The person screaming
might have been hit courtesy of ideology (Both quotes 2008, 63). Both Holzer and
Baudrillard embrace language as the ideal means to retrieve the subject from society
and launch the communications of the body.

Raison d'etre
Richard Rortys concept of the liberal ironist interprets Holzers motivation to
reconcile the crisis of the subject. As participants of a given tribe, the liberal ironist
Radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently
uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies,
vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has
encountered...she realizes that arguments phrased in her present
vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; [and]
insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that
her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is not in touch
with a power not herself. (Rorty 1989, 73)
The liberal ironist self-awareness and her position amidst culture fuels this doubt. She
is cognizant of the inadequate tools culture equips subjects with (e.g., commodities)
as indicators of identity. Holzer embraces this disposition. She does not privilege one
particular reality over another, however she is apprehensive toward the realities
available to her. Again, her apprehension is symbolically expressed through varied
levels of legibility in her texts. The indoor projections, in particular, transform scripts
from clearly readable content to fractured reflections whose words are indiscernible
(Holzer 2007).

Fig. 4.2. Jenny Holzer
Holzers medium, in this way, communicates an anxiety surrounding the words. They
slip from forms and blur content. Rorty, in a similar fashion, pushes his readers to a
higher consciousness to ultimately suggest a more progressive perspective to choice
within culture. He, like Holzer, approaches the postmodern crisis of the subject as a
multi-dimensional task,

Once we realize that progress, for the community as for the individual,
is a matter of using new words as well as of arguing from premises
phrased in old words, we realize that a critical vocabulary which
revolves around notions like rational, criteria, argument,
foundation, and absolute, is badly suited to describe the relation
between the old and the new. (Rorty 1989,48-49)
Rorty, like Baudrillard, locates hope in a new language. He introduces the term
contingency as imperative to this new progressive model. Thus, Rorty places his
emphasis on the community and the individuals ability to adapt to the inevitable
changes and rotating vocabularies of history. Frans Ruiter describes this process in
Rorty when he states, [w]e are the product of a specific tradition which determines
us and we consciously decide to continue it (2002, 284). According to Rorty, and
what I have put forth about Holzer, people have the choice to adopt or alter given
vocabularies. Both Holzer and Rorty try to make this choice known.
Holzer investigates the subject with combined vocabularies knowing
ultimately that the best option is in the presentation and contemplation of many (e.g.,
Truisms (1977-79) Lustmord (1993-95)). This interpretation gives precedence to the
body because I believe Holzer begins with her own, how she processes, adopts, or
disregards given vocabularies. Her doubt translates into a new reality amidst many
realities. I liken it to feeling something unacceptable and being afraid to admit these
thoughts to others. Holzer lives and presents these thoughts. In fact, she magnifies
these thoughts for her audience to interpret. In this way, Holzer returns the power to

the subject showing that words can be vehicles for ideology or, like Barthes
discusses, just vehicles, a tissue of quotations (1994, 388). This philosophy drives
Holzer to utilize public platforms like billboards, posters, stickers, condom wrappers
without getting hung up on their association with consumer advertising and the social
messages they purvey. After all, if Holzer can posit questions with as much volume as
cultural discourses deliver answers, than perhaps an unauthorative dialogue about
culture and representation can finally begin.
Holzers works present multiple agendas and discourses, which collide to
reveal conflict and crisis. By doing this, the subject is liberated from authoritative
discourse. This liberation allows the subject to describe itself in its own terms rather
than, in Geyhs and Baudriallards case, capitalist terminology. Holzers works
attempt to understand how it all fits together and how her own body relates and reacts
to the words. To do this however, she turns to the bodies of others to initiate and
incite participation in this trying process. She foregrounds choice within a culture
driven by determinate consumer ideologies, and calls on her viewers as symbols to
identify and emulate what is true to them. This, as I have shown, is in response to the
onslaught of conflicting messages and social demands made on subjects in and of
culture. Holzer resolves this crisis of the subject by returning signification to the self.

The most provocative American art of the present is situated at such a crossing -of
institutions of art and political economy, of representations of sexual identity and
social life. More, it assumes its purpose to be so sited, to lay in wait for these
discourses so as to riddle and expose them or to seduce and lead them astray.
-Hal Foster, Subversive Signs
Holzers work operates at the crossing Foster describes; she riddle(s)
and expose(s) the public program, seeking to de-homogenize thought
patterns. She returns symbolic power to the body by exhibiting the cracks and
contradictions in the words. This shift in practice entails a shift in position: the artist
becomes a manipulator of signs more that a producer of art objects, and the viewer an
active reader of messages rather than a passive contemplator of the aesthetic or
consumer of the spectacular (Foster 1986, 1). I have highlighted Holzer in this role;
she collects signs familiar to culture, separates them from discourse, and, in turn,
creates critical and unfamiliar associations. This separation provides space for the
viewers to have authority over the words and their significance. Holzer begins this
process in the body.

Chapter two examined how Holzer exposes the physical relationship between
the body and text. She symbolically and metaphorically aligns the passive acceptance
of words with a fatal consequence. In response to this violence, Holzers works
purposefully instigate active viewer participation with the text. Chapter three
examines this instigation with For San Diego (Fig. 3.1); the text engages viewers
through the senses with 6,000 watts of light and then relinquishes them to
disembodied words. This is Holzers public invitation for viewers to participate.
Chapter three also compared and contrasted the subversive difference that surfaces
between Holzers works and other public displays. Formalistically, her works adopt
similar visual techniques to those of corporate marketing campaigns; her works are
large, visually loud, rhythmic, and deliver a brief and memorable message. Dissimilar
to these campaigns, compositionally her works subvert the connotation or assumption
behind the form. Another poignant example of this subversion is Holzers installation
in the Las Vegas airport.

Fig.5.1. Jenny Holzer
From Truisms (1977-79)
Electronic Signs
240 x 400 cm
McCarran International Airport,
Las Vegas, NV 1986.
Holzers truism, Money Creates Taste (Fig. 5.1) transforms signification by
creating friction between form and content. Las Vegas is capitalisms paradise yet
Holzer symbolically unveils a different reality. The familiar sentiment goes you have
expensive taste or you get what you pay for, which Holzer uncannily translates to,
Money Creates Taste. The implication is that capitalism creates an arbitrary and
visual alliance between expensive things and good taste. This truism responds to
capitalism through a subverted neologism; it reveals the arbitrary alliance between
money and taste and, in turn, cautions the subjects. It would seem likely that if we
could peel back the discursive layer that illuminates Las Vegas, Holzers embedded
phrases would appear. Holzer, like Barthes, reminds us that while authors combine
words, we create their meaning.

In form and composition, Holzers works upset the relationship between
ideology and language. As viewers, we respond to Holzers work first with our senses
and stop. This process reminds viewers of the physical relationship that exists
between body and text, and how quickly we can lose this relationship. The body is
central to Holzers work because it combats the onset of apathy being generated
through mainstream information and communication systems; systems that thrive on
the redundant presentation of the spectacular image. In response, viewers withdraw,
accept, or lose interest in the alarming. To combat this abuse of language and image,
Holzer subversively recombines the two and re-awakens the body. As Geyh states,
like many other postmodern works of art and literature, Holzers investigate not just
the forms of ideology, but also the ideology of forms (2002, 177). As I have shown,
Holzer has perfected this craft to achieve both contrast and conflict between subjects
and the culture that describes them. To curtail this relationship, Holzers creates
symbolic combinations of light and text to resensitize people and incite their
participation. Today, technology and communication continues to drive towards
convenience and efficiency. It markets itself as the easy, painless, and fast solution.
Regardless of the commodity, public marketing tactics reinforce relaxation and
passive entertainment. These efforts are successful if people are distracted by
spectacular entertainment and therefore visually sedated. Thus, in a state of eternal
subjugation, viewers overlook the frequent and transparent contradictions that cultural
ideologies present. Holzers works combat and subvert these tactics.

Further examinations of Holzer might look at her works as social activism and
anti-establishment in nature. This interpretation may review Holzers works as being
a form of public protest with guerilla marketing. Holzer litters the streets with posters,
signs, stickers and T-shirts that confuse and challenge political, economic, and social
discourses; the result is spectacular, but anti-spectacle. Holzers Inflammatory
Essays would be fascinating from this perspective as referential to the manifesto
style. In addition, this study could explore her affiliations and events with the
Collaborative Project and other leftist artist organizations that she either founded or
was active in. It would be essential, however, to be conscientious of the non-
polarizing properties of Holzers works. Throughout her career there is consistency in
her lack of consistency; her works embody plurality and choice and welcomes
participants and supporters of this charge.

Auping, Michael. Jenny Holzer (Universe Series on Women Artists). New York:
Universe Books, 1992.
Barthes, Roland. Death of the Author. In The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient
and Modern, edited by A. Neill and A. Ridley, 386-390. 1 ed. New York
City: McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages, 1994.
Baudrillard, Jean. Consumer Society. In Jean Baudrillard Selected Writings, edited
by M. Poster, 32-59. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2001.
First published 1988.
----------- Cool Memories. Translated by Mike Gane. New York: Routledge, 2008.
---------- The System of Objects. In Jean Baudrillard Selected Writings, edited
by M. Poster, 13-31. 1988. Reprint, Stanford, California: Stanford University
Press, 2001.
Belsey, Catherine. Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford
University Press, USA, 2002.
Bertens, H., and J. Natoli, eds. Postmodernism: The Key Figures. Malden, MA:
Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.
Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. In Selections from Bergson, edited by H.
Larrabee and trans. N.M. Paul and W.S. Palmer, 42-56. New York:
Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc, 1949.
Foster, Hal. Subversive Signs.Recoding: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics. (1986).
(accessed November 20, 2009).
Geyh, Paula. Jenny Holzer. In Postmodernism: The Key Figures, edited by H.
Bertens and J. Natoli, 173-179. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.
Harrison, Charles and Paul Wood. Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of
Changing Ideas. 2 ed. Chicago, Illinois: Blackwell Publishing Limited, 2002.
Holzer, Jenny, Joan Simon, and Elizabeth Smith. Jenny Holzer. Stuttgart: Hatje
Cantz, 2008.

Holzer, Jenny, David Joselits, and Joan Simon. Jenny Holier. New York: Phaidon
Press, 2003. First published 1998.
Joselit, David. Public Image Ltd.: David Joselit on Jenny Holzer and "Consider This
..."Artforum International. Chicago: Thomson Gale, 2006.
Lebowitz, Cathy. "Protect Us From What We Don't Know." Art in America, October,
Madoff, Steven Henry. "Jenny Holzer talks to Steven Henry Madoff '80s Then -
Interview Biography." Artforum International, April, 2003.
PBS, "Art:21. Jenny Holzer. Biography. Documentary Film I PBS." PBS. (accessed March 20,
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony & Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1989.
Ruiter, Frans. Richard Rorty. In Postmodernism: The Key Figures, edited by H.
Bertens and J. Natoli, 279-286. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.