We saw an amazing Jenny Holzer show today at the Museum Of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Most of the pieces were her signature streaming LED words, pouring through the gallery space like headlines on the news marquees in Times Square. But the words were instructions for detention and interrogation, and in their multiple strips of cascading text they seemed both instruction and disinformation, untraceable, as if they came from no human agency but simply directives pouring from above, from authorities. They abstracted torment, as government language does. They made you feel that language had been so removed from its referent, and came twisting or spiraling down in such anonymous cascades, that it bore almost no relationship to the work it so clearly effected: one person harming another.
On some walls were blow-ups, on canvas, of documents Holzer had gotten through the Freedom of Information Act, censored pages deacribing the torture of detainees in Iraq, along with the half-blacked images of the handprints of American soliders accused of harming Iraqi civilians. In one room, there were two tables of bones, arranged by size and shape, very orderly, some with little metal cuffs on them engraved with almost unreadable texts. But the dominant thing were the streaming electronic words, going across the floor, through the wall, curving down to the floorboards, barreling across a horizontal scaffolding, many lines of text echoing and repeating. A few of the lines seemed to belong to the tortured, the violated, but most of the words were in the language of directive, and some of them seemed to echo Elaine Scarry's description of torture in THE BODY IN PAIN, how the torturer takes away the identity of the victim, becoming the center of the victim's world, destroying any stability.
Holzer's show, which is called PROTECT PROTECT, is amazing; it somehow makes the reality of what our government has done alive to us, perhaps by avoiding the expected used of photographs or much in the way of concrete evidence. Nothing here but words and bones. This is political art that doesn't use any of the standard methods. The terrible reality of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo is made of language; words permit and proceed the pain, justify and normalize it. Words are my stock in trade, they're where I place my belief, and here that medium goes streaming, dealing out lies and murderous instructions, bending and sliding under our feet.