CHICAGO – Crude words printed in Futura Bold, in one piece after another of Barbara Kruger’s comprehensive exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, clash like military battalions, invading our mental spaces. The visitor must stand above and inside these composed missives and decode message after message. I left the show feeling exhausted, only to fall back into a world where the nearby T-Mobile store uses equally immersive and cajoling visual seduction tools. This is what Kruger does best: it reveals the scaffolding of capitalist culture; how power dynamics play out in messaging. His first solo exhibition in the United States since 1999, Think about
You, I want to say Me, I mean you, is a full blast mix-tape of room wraps, videos, audio installations, billboards, floors, gift shop products, words on risers and windows, and of some classical figurative sculptures.
Barbara Kruger’s words have been part of visual culture in America since the early 1980s, when they interrupted the pictorial excess of Neo-Expressionism with red, white, and black commentary. Kruger’s often feminist work in the 1980s emerged, along with the Guerrilla Girls posters, as Second Wave imperatives for women to be more visible in a male-dominated art world. Women needed to cry out to be seen. It all made sense amid the explorations of dialogical contingencies of media by other artists of Kruger’s photo generation. As the first generation to grow up watching television, these artists were born to provide a critical analysis of their new era.
Some of Kruger’s early works, such as “Untitled (Your Body is a Battlefield),” produced in 1989 for the Women’s March in Washington, remain woefully relevant today, as abortion law drags on. in court. His 1987 work “Untitled (We Don’t Need Another Hero)” offers a cheeky blow to gender dynamics as boy flexes his muscles for little girl, book-like initiation. This intertextual style incorporates multiple stories and references (eg Rosie the Riveter, war propaganda) into succinct statements and visuals. Kruger’s early works were smaller and more intimate, coming from his background in composing and designing magazines. These collages or âcollagesâ (1981-1989) have a DIY aesthetic that later evolved into wall art and billboards. Twenty of his 1980s cut-and-paste collages are displayed near the center of the exhibition as a plumb line or some sort of hand-forged orientation to noisy installations elsewhere.
The exhibition opens with a bang: the spectator enters via a roadway where a projection of puzzle pieces is put in place and forms Kruger aphorisms, including the white on red type “Untitled (I shop therefore I am) Â»(1987/2019). Like much of his work, this wonderfully pithy anti-capitalist beard easily breaks party lines. I remember seeing it like a magnet on my conservative sister-in-law’s fridge, a confirmation of her consumer lifestyle. Nearby, wallpaper-covered images show giant hands holding cellphone screens pasted with Google images of commercial appropriations of Kruger’s aesthetic. She never seemed to care that the very world she was criticizing co-opted her style and spat it out in the publicity. Kruger herself gladly donated t-shirts and tote bags, bridging that great gap between art and product.
Passing through this entrance space, the huge first immersive room (70 feet by 30 feet) of black and white signage from floor to ceiling vibrates. The viewer is flanked at each end by two oval-shaped panels that begin with the word YOU. Right, a quote from Virginia Woolf: âYou know that women have been used for all these centuries as glasses possessing the magical and delicious power to mirror the figure of a man twice his natural size. ” Yes! I immediately felt that tingle of feminist affirmation, even in this funhouse setup.
Kruger’s work is based on the malleability of language and how removing it from its everyday context can turn it into a weapon. What seems harmless as a headline, advertisement, or billboard becomes aberrant, even violent, when isolated in a huge exhibition space. When she sings “Bad it’s good, it’s high it’s low, happy it’s sad, it’s true it’s false, the truth is fiction, everything happens” (2020) , this tumult of empty sentences somehow effectively describes our world upside down, highlighting how a shift in cultural context shapes our reality. The other large oval in this room says, âYou are here, looking through the mirror, gloomily seeing the invisible, the invisible, barely there. You. Whoever you are. Wherever you are. Engraved in memory. Until you, the spectator, go. Invisible. No more. You too. âDisturbingly, Kruger reminds us that YOU are contingent, temporal, abstract.
The imposing walls of the show’s typography create an architecture of containment. The installations position audiences to perform – you might be wondering: is this a giant set up for Instagram? Are we mice in a maze? Visitors start to snap as soon as they enter. Kruger continues to show how the media addiction that characterizes contemporary culture prevents so many of us from fully seeing and understanding the power of what we succumb to. It is too easy to ignore surveillance for the sake of convenience and pleasure, to forget the illicit markets where our identities are stalked and sold. Perhaps the show was structured to be self-generating: Photos of visitors float across social media, expanding and narrowing Kruger’s posts as part of the act.
Cell phone cameras also help cancel the sting of those words, shielding us from direct confrontation with Kruger’s statements, which are often too abrasive to approach unarmed. A room-sized installation, Untitled (Selfie) (2020), insists that visitors only enter if they have a cell phone. A sign says, PLEASE DO NOT ENTER UNLESS YOU AGREE TO BE PHOTOGRAPHED DURING THE PHOTOGRAPHY. A PHONE / CAMERA IS REQUIRED FOR ENTRY. THANK YOU. Inside, there is nothing to photograph but the feeling of your own complicity. Two security cameras record visitors meandering past two opposing walls printed in white, green and black saying, “I hate myself and you love me for that” and “I love me and you hate me for that”.
It’s easy to overlook the formal beauty of Kruger’s work. His stacks of words sparkle and shine in gradations of light. Artfully color-coded, stretched and densely wrapped letters are scaled like monuments. But it is the sense of participatory energy that truly electrifies the exhibition, co-designed by the artist. We are in there together, dragging a little guilty in this quagmire of language, the accusing flame of words. Our oblique self-images sparkle. Even as we escape to the gift shop, an audio stream floods us with a voiceover, “May I help you,” over and over again, endlessly.
Barbara Kruger represents an important chapter in art history, but she is more than just a 1980s bookmark. Her work shifted attention from feminist ideology to disturbing, echoing abuse of power. to the declaration of Roland Barthes: “Language is never innocent”. As Kruger might say, thank you for visiting the show “It’s Our Pleasure to Disgust You” (1991). But I still want the tote.
Barbara Kruger: Thinking about
You, I want to say Me, I mean you continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) until January 24.
The exhibition was organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It was co-organized by James Rondeau, President and Eloise W. Martin Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Robyn Farrell, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. The exhibition will be presented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from March 20, 2022 to July 17, 2022 and at the Museum of Modern Art from July 18, 2022 to January 2, 2023.
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