Artist Discovery: Jenny Holzer at Tate Modern – Rhys Drout ‘22

“You have to visit Tate Modern!” I heard this exclamation over and over from friends who heard I was going to London, as they all know my love for modern art. Because of this, my expectations were incredibly high as I walked through the doors of the former Bankside Power Station. At first, I was taken aback. It looked nothing like any gallery I had been to, with towering industrial ceilings and an almost empty main room. Sound was lost due to the vastness of the space, which led to a very different ambiance than the perpetually crowded MoMA or Whitney. 

Following the signs, I eventually discovered the main galleries housing their collections. Again, due to the sheer amount of space the former power station affords, I felt that the art was really able to hold its own space; a change from many other galleries and museums. Walking through the various galleries, I admired Tate Modern’s ability to at once teach about the art but also let people appreciate it for themselves and come to their own conclusions. This is a difficult balance for a museum to strike. I felt that Tate did a great job providing resources such as labels, film, and audio that were not too overwhelming. 

The Artist Room I found most interesting was that of Jenny Holzer. Her work is purposefully incendiary, with its main method of communication being words that she recorded from various conversations about socio-political issues such as gender and various crises. She uses language in text form to make her art accessible for all people, while also provoking wildly different responses. For example, the first gallery you enter in the exhibition features her work Truisms. They are short snappy sentences that contain conflicting, often harsh, and at times funny points of view. These have been displayed on public billboards and in shops around the world, provoking a response in the public domain. For example, the sentence “Morals are for little people.” is juxtaposed with “Monomania is a prerequisite of success.” Sentences like these cover an entire room that is overwhelming and intensely interesting. 

Continuing through the gallery, one is forced to confront neon banners with letters that were purposefully difficult to read. I found myself mouthing the words aloud which seems intentional on the artist’s part as the viewer has to interact more closely with material they could usually glaze over. To me, the most powerful piece in the gallery was a set of benches called Towards the Clouds with excerpts about WWII on them. You had to get very close and view them at different angles to make out the engraved words, but once you did the sentiments were very chilling. The use of a bench, an object of rest and community, to tell stories from a great tragedy, is the brilliance of Holzer’s work. What she is saying is understandable to all and easy to view, but forces you to grapple with avoided subject matter. 

This exhibition was unlike any I had been to before and has enabled me to look further into Holzer’s work. I think art as a way to spread a message of awareness and activism is extremely important for the future of the art world and the world at large. I am very grateful that Tate Modern gave me an opportunity to view a large body of her work.

Photo courtesy of the Rhys Drout.

View from the gallery level of old Power station building. Photo courtesy of the Rhys Drout.