Exhibition- Jenny Holzer “Softer Targets”; Symposium “the Message and the Medium”

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Hauser & Worth Somerset is a contemporary gallery set in stunningly beautiful Piet Oudolf designed gardens- (http://www.hauserwirthsomerset.com/garden) the glimpses of swaying grasses and prairie flowers in the autumn sunshine, through plate glass expanse, as one wanders round the large spaces of exquisitely tastefully converted barns, is enough to make one fall in love with the place.

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But I wasn’t there for the views, or to enjoy the delicious lunch of chicken with herbed rouille, sauté potatoes and perfectly dressed salad, followed by the most extraordinary combination of chocolate fondant, mousse and brownie all interwoven into some new magical concoction. The wine flowed, but I had to drive home… how very dull!

The exhibition is very well curated, the space in the galleries being utilised so that the pieces can breathe. Many of the works are large and full of impact, so having such large open, well lit spaces really enhanced the viewing.

The exhibition includes LED installations, benches and plinths carved with text, carbon lettering preparation for carved works,as well as other installations.

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Some of the LED installations work well as the contemporary, upbeat technique contrasts so well with the Truisms, to texts of US government documents. The rib shaped “Purple” LED display is echoed by the the piles of human bones – some carefully laid out in order, others just piled up as if left, uncared for. This piece, “Lustmord”, the work inspired by reaction to war in the former Yugoslavia, and the use of rape in war, for the writer was by far the most powerful piece in the exhibition. The bones are branded with silver rings (like those used to ring birds) which are engraved with texts of 55 sentences of imagined voices of the perpetrator, victim and observer.

The large scale paintings of redacted documents veer between the moving and for the writer, somewhat trite. Some of the series are painted with additional blocks of soft colours, pinks and teal greens, reds and purples, I was not sure that it added anything, if anything it seemed to trivialise the documents. (please note the colour of the redacted painting above is not pink, it’s white- photograph went a little crazy!)

Some of the paintings of handwritten documents are beautifully rendered (by other artists, under Holzer’s instruction) but how does this make the viewer feel? The surface is beautiful- blues and greys, with delicate calligraphy inscribed across it. The texts are horrific. Someone has spent hours, days, carefully copying the original. Where does it take us? What is the benefit to Holzer employing someone to paint this? I just don’t know. I feel very uncomfortable but not because the texts are so painful to read,(which they are) but because it all seems like a nasty materialist way of making money out of the most inhuman suffering… The anonymous artists who are paid to do the work, or the presumably large mark up that her work then sells for… Am I being really cynical? Am I being too sensitive? I just don’t know. But it left a nasty taste in my mouth.

The message and the medium was a symposium arranged to investigate the concepts and challenges raised by Jenny Holzer’s exhibition Softer Targets which runs until 1 November. An odd mixture of local people who clearly take advantage of having such a fantastic resource nearby, students and lecturers from University of Bath, University of Gloucestershire, artists and writers attended- which ensured that the discussion was somewhat offbeat, sometimes difficult and sometimes very frustrating.

The symposium opened with Jon Bird’s paper, linking Jenny Holzer’s work with that of Nancy Spero and her expanded scrolls series. Spiro used copies of Amnesty International reports made about abuses on women in her work- she hand copied, hand printed them into what is accepted as an explicitly feminist piece of work (as is all of her oeuvre) He compared this with Holzer’s Redaction painting series, in which FBI reports are painted large scale, the vast majority being blacked out.

The tone of the paper was somewhat self satisfied- that the presenter had spent a good deal of time with Nancy Spero and her partner was made obvious, and the whole presentation was somewhat disappointing. However, it is always interesting to hear the views of those who have direct contact with the artists in question, especially as the writer is particularly interested in Spero’s work.

Ruth Blacksell’s talk, from visual to textural:typgraphy in/as art was a heavyweight paper took the audience through the history of text and typography in art from the 1096s to1970s, including investigating Fluxus, concrete poetry, images and advertising, and attempted to position the changes philosophically. Of note was the journey in which she took the audience to investigate the concept of what an original piece of textual art is,through the work of Dan Graham’s Homes in America (1966) in its various published forms.

David Beech’s talk, which investigated the four waves of text art, linking with philosophy of language, was passionate and fascinating even at times it became impossible to agree with him! His overtly political stance was refreshing as he took the audience through conceptualism, 1080s postmodernism, the deconstructive 1990s and the performative wave that is ongoing. Examples from the collective in which he works. Freee, were exciting and fresh.

The final paper was given by Pavel Buchler, who is a Czech-born artist and teacher now based in Manchester. His talk on Work for Words introduced the audience to the work he has undertaken using the links between cryptography, Morse cord and letter frequency, and the presentation of the work using letterpress and Google Translate. The way he described the work, and the examples he showed demonstrated his witty, lively approach to his work.

The whole day was a wonderful experience, even though there were some misgivings both about the exhibition itself and the symposium, the overall effect was remarkable. Obviously having such a challenging exhibition in a beautiful place in itself sets up many contradictions, and the quality of the symposium and the reactions of the audience were equally contradictory. But that makes for much thought, much self questioning and that has to be a good thing.

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