“Photographs are encouraged.” The words I was told when I asked if I could take photographs in Modern Art Oxford galleries earlier in the month with manaXi…the words that you don’t often hear in an art gallery nowadays, even in the wake of the National Gallery’s recent OK for photographs to be taken in their galleries – read the full article here. I am a gallery photo taker…largely for use on this blog to share with the world and to encourage viewing in the flesh (as such) and critique. I completely understand, as stated in the article, that the allowance of photo-taking in galleries can stop people from really engaging, connecting, understanding and experiencing art, with what they see as they often just see through a screen (which I have been known to do and am now very conscious of). Art becomes consumed rather than contemplated…when art deserves time, it needs time, it is time – a process, a moment. This notion of art consumption, how art is consumed, is something that I reference within my PhD thesis in relation to art being viewed in China versus the West, stating that art today, on average, is barely given more than seconds of viewing. How can this be changed is what has become such a culture of instantaneous-disposable-accessible proportions?
I have followed the work of Barbara Kruger since my Foundation Studies in Art days circa 2001…since the real growth of my love affair with text (art), translation, language and words (another reason why I’m called wordgirl). I even wear the limited edition Barbara Kruger glasses by ForYourArt (as shown below…I changed them from sunglasses into glasses and have been very distressed at the sight of Paris Hilton in them, although this creates a Kruger parody in my head as well that’s what her work is about, so it’s ok and meant to happen…the layman versus the celebrity…powers at play).
Kruger is known as a conceptual artist (though I feel this is tenuous definition in part) beginning her career as a graphic designer. She formalised her practice as an artist by the late 1960s after studying for a year at Parsons, mentored by photographer Diane Arbus who introduced Kruger to the world of commercial and fashion photography. Here, Kruger appropriated commercial imagery, coupling visuals with powerful language and bold typography, creating motifs that have become her signature, drawn from and redefining a graphic design vocabulary. Her vocabulary. Kruger is now renowned for this use of advertising text and sensational phrasing that always critiques thematics of consumerism, misogyny, power and desire with an undertone of feminism.
In 2008, after my time of living and working in New York, I travelled across America taking in as many places as I could. During my visit to LA, specifically LACMA, I saw, and have never forgotten, Kruger’s then new commission – Untitled (Shafted) (2008) (as shown below) – a three-storey elevator installation for the opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. The piece uses the words of common household products such as “MOISTURISERS, COMPUTERS, SNEAKERS, SUNGLASSES, HAND BAGS, SWEATERS” that are then bisected by the phrase “PLENTY SHOULD BE ENOUGH – RIGHT?”. I would show my own photographs but back in 2009, I accidentally deleted the entirety of my external hard drive where the images were stored. I had them retrieved but they are now numbered 1-14,000 in one folder. No time and no chance of locating them right now! This installation is unique in the respect that it utilises a spaces that is in part hidden, in part transitory, in part fundamental to the viewing and negotiation of the building. You can never see it all. I’d love a room in my future grown up house (the one I’ll design rather than buy) to be lined with a Kruger. A wordgirl can dream right?
The exhibition at Modern Art Oxford presents a broad representation of Kruger’s practice from the smaller framed collage works and paste-ups from the 1980’s in the middle galleries, the video installations Twelve (2004) and Plenty LA (2008), and a site-specific installation in the Upper Gallery called Untitled (Titled) (2014). Twelve (2004) functions as a site of resistance, stating new perspectives and refuting standard narratives about how we should look, think or act. Twelve conversations, seen as a soap opera or chat show, play out across the screens overloading you with images and words, as with Plenty LA (2008). “In this work Kruger plays with televisual conventions to destabilise meaning and challenge our expectations of cohesive narrative”.
Untitled (Tilted) (2014) is what I came to see, experience, soak up every typographic part of…hitting your eyes straight away as you enter the Upper Gallery. It is a standard Kruger textual overload where you can’t read the words fast enough. Kruger is again looking into the relationship between power and society where, through the placement and scale of the text in different sizes and angles, she is asking viewers to adopt multiple standpoints to understand and “read” the piece…read the negative and positive play of words, personalities, powers that be. “BRUTAL RELENTLESS” are the words that have stuck with me since my experience as it is often how the world feels to me. Sometimes the world doesn’t give you the space you need to just make sense of what’s happening. You are constantly confronted by media – social or digital – people with their standards and benchmarks. I swear if you could walk around my wordgirl brain (first find the key, I lost the map to it a long time ago so good luck) it would more often than not look like a Kruger installation…a room consumed by words and languages, play offs and societal wars, confusion and (mis)comprehension, small whispered words next to bold screaming phrases. Today’s world in words. As Kruger states – “Remember me?” I’ll never forget.