Utne Reader Visionary: Jenny Holzer

We need a Martian invasion

| March-April 1996


Ever since she began postering downtown Manhattan with ingenious and disturbing bits of printed language she called Truisms—“A strong sense of duty imprisons you,” “Confusing yourself is a way to stay honest,” “Children are the most cruel of all”—text artist Jenny Holzer has been recognized as a unique and vivid revealer of our political and personal dilemmas. Holzer has used electronic display signs in highly public places—from the Spectacolor board in Times Square to the Starburst sign at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas—to convey private, paradoxical, and often subversive messages (Marine Midland Bank removed one of her exhibitions from its lobby when an employee pointed out that one of its aphorisms was “It’s not good to operate on credit.”) She has also explored her own evolving relationship with motherhood in gallery environments that use dazzling electronic color and polished stone to set off anxious, soothing, and self-lacerating sentences like “I am indifferent to myself but not to my child. I experiment to see if I can stand her pain. I fear five things and myself.”

I really think we need something like a Martian invasion that will make us look to one another for help. It might take the form of an environmental crisis, or another five or six epidemics, if the current couple won’t do. I hate to sound cynical, but I think it will take something on that scale before people cease operating on greed.

“There is astounding cruelty afoot on this earth—conscious economic decisions that the decision makers know will directly kill masses of people or make their lives unlivable. I would like this to be more visible.