Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Jenny Holtzer at the Baltic

I went to Newcastle last weekend to see the Jenny Holtzer exhibition at the Baltic which occupies, albeit sparsely, two of its floors and with the room pictured viewable from the top floor viewing balcony.

There are a number of paintings on the walls of which I recall three genres: magnified emails censored in black ink; prisoners hand prints; and maps of the planned invasion of Iraq. This is an exhibition concerned with the Iraq war and hence there is a standing sense of outrage at the war itself, its origins in oil and the use of torture but also more abstract or general issues of violence and sexual violence.

But the focus is the LED installations which are surpisingly visually gripping. One runs the length of a large room: ten strips of yellow LED display showing text running away from the door and apparently into the wall at the end. This slowly spells out fragmentary text: at times, perhaps, describing acts of violence or rape, at others much more anodyne. I spent a number of minutes reading another display which - during that time - described oil prices and OPEC policy in newsroom abbreviations. Yet another displayed brisk (political) slogans (Protect me from what I want) though I wasn’t sure what valence I should ascribe to them (I was reminded of Travis’s comments on the way language itself doesn’t represent the world as thus and so.)

Seeing the exhibition on a Sunday morning a further element of the experience was to hear the words being slowly read out by the children brought for a cultural morning out by their parents. Their flat toned recitation was an interesting counterpoint to the stripped down context of the displays themselves.

But with a sense that surface attraction and meaning are in a kind of tension in much contemporary art, I wasn’t sure what to make of the displays. Whilst de- and then re-contextualised in an art gallery, the use of text itself seemed a kind of cheat: a short cut to significance it perhaps did not finally earn.