Tuesday, February 19, 2008

What Language Can Do

Note: An updated version of this essay appears at ArtID.com

There’s quite an amazing installation on display now at Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA. Jenny Holzer’s “Projections” casts the text of poems by Nobel laureate poet Wisława Szymborska across a bare, darkened room the length of a football field. Walking through these projected poems is at first like half-listening: you catch fragments of words but can’t put them all together. Then, if you take the time to stand at either end of the hall, you can read each poem clearly as it appears. The lines arrive more slowly than the time it takes to read them. Having a poem gradually fed to you allows for each line to really register.

Reading a few poems in this unconventional way is one thing—but that’s only part of the exhibit. Walk to the far end of the hall and you’ll find another room, smaller and more like a regular art gallery. Here, Holzer has displayed huge canvas reproductions of declassified documents detailing plans for the invasion of Iraq. The simplicity of the words— protect, isolate, detain, free, destroy— contrasts with the mess that’s actually happening in Iraq. What’s also shocking is how the writers of the presentation seemed to genuinely believe that 1) there were WMDs to be found, and 2) that a successful new government could be in place within a mere 135 days.

Upstairs from this gallery is the third part of the exhibit that serves as the very visceral and disturbing punch line. Again, reproduced in macro scale, Holzer has hung an email exchange in which two American soldiers debate the uses of torture, and beside this is a “Wish List” of aggressive interrogation techniques.

What’s amazing to me about this exhibit are the juxtapositions Holzer has created. The second and third galleries show the use of language that is institutional, political, and abstract—it has clearly led to widespread and, in many cases, futile human suffering. In the first gallery, where you are bathed in the light of a poet’s words, language is something very different—it is particular and personal, and while it can’t make sense of suffering, it documents it determinedly and with heart-wrenching beauty.

1 comment:

  1. Mass MoCA is cool, isn't it? Sounds like the project affirms that words don't kill people, pompous and complacent writers and speakers kill people. But of course we already knew that!