Barbara Kruger’s Standing Joke Gets Turned on Its Head

An ‘anti-retrospective’ repositions the artist’s work as a meme-presaging détournement of late capitalism’s spectacular logic

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BY Jessica Baran in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 16 NOV 21

Barbara Krugers first career-spanning survey in 20 years, presented at the Art Institute of Chicago, starts the moment you approach the museum. One-word provocations – ‘DENIAL’, ‘DECEIT’, ‘DISSENT’, ‘PROMISE’, ‘PROPERTY’ and ‘POVERTY’ – cover the edifice’s street-facing windows, while above its temple-like entrance, banners proclaim the exhibitions title: ‘THINKING OF YOU / I MEAN ME / I MEAN YOU’ (the first ‘you’ and ‘me’ crossed out in Kelly green). Its a heart-palpitating sight that feels distinctly fascistic, a quality heightened by the building’s neo-classical design and the sheer scale of Kruger’s intervention – announcing the 76-year-old artist as both a seasoned critic of institutional power and, perhaps now, a formidable embodiment of it.

Eschewing a historicizing appraisal that would have contextualized her socially attuned practice within the political climate in which it was produced, this ‘anti-retrospective’ – as Kruger has dubbed the show in the accompanying catalogue – opted to revise and enlarge works made across the artist’s oeuvre, positioning them as a perennially potent and meme-presaging détournement of late capitalism’s spectacular logic and lexicon. For instance, her iconic 1987 text-and-image collage, Untitled (I shop therefore I am), appears here as an animation on a massive LED screen. Blown up nearly ten times its original size, the white hand holding a red, credit card-shaped text box loops through variations of its Cartesian refrain – ‘I love therefore I need; I shop therefore I hoard; I die therefore I was’ – with each phrase punctuated by the jarring ring of a cash register.

Barbara Kruger, 'THINKING OF YOU / I MEAN ME / I MEAN YOU', 2021, exhibition view, Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy: the artist and the Art Institute of Chicago
Barbara Kruger, ‘THINKING OF YOU / I MEAN ME / I MEAN YOU’, 2021, exhibition view, Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy: the artist and the Art Institute of Chicago

Similarly, Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground) (1989), which depicts a white female face bisected by solarization, is up-scaled and digitized, its now infinitely hashtagged phrase scrolling through revisions that read: ‘Your neck is squeezed,’ ‘Your skin is sliced,’ ‘Your humility is bullshit.’ Additional sounds – ranging from the clang of a boxing bell to a woman’s voice cloyingly intoning: ‘Sorry’ – combined with wall-to-wall textual assaults, create a truly nauseating cacophony.

In the catalogue introduction to Kruger’s 1999–2000 survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Gary Indiana wrote that people who get ‘freaked out’ or ‘threatened’ by this work are those who ‘never got the joke’ or ‘don’t want to get the joke’. While Indiana’s assessment came of having witnessed Kruger’s rise during the 1980s, when her frank collages – a poignant suite of which lines a narrow gallery that runs like an aortic artery through the middle of this show – did indeed, as Kruger herself wrote in a 2012 Artforum article, ‘cut through the grease’ of the AIDS crisis and the corporate conservatism of Ronald Regan’s administration, it perhaps did not foresee either her work’s inevitable mainstreaming nor the nature of a new era of large-scale mortality and injustice.

 Barbara Kruger. Untitled (Brain), 2007. Private collection, Delaware. Courtesy of Art Finance Partners, LLC. Photo courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York.
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Brain), 2007. Private collection, Delaware. Courtesy: Art Finance Partners, LLC and Mary Boone Gallery, New York

As we emerge tentatively from a pandemic that forestalled this exhibition for over a year, the world seems more image-saturated than ever before, but with its locus of power notably shifted. Mass political movements – each with their own respective iconography – flooded the streets. Media itself collapsed into a realm of necessity. And the imagery that circulated – entering our homes, flickering on the screens in our hands – portrayed graphic racial violence, mass death, ever-escalating disparities between economic classes and ideological factions to serve as galvanizing evidence. Out of this tumult, strategies of healing, intimacy and reprieve have felt more anarchic than re-inscriptions of systemic violence and inequity. If the people now get freaked out by reading ‘your neck is squeezed’ writ large, then perhaps the joke is no longer funny.

Barbara Kruger’s ‘THINKING OF YOU / I MEAN ME / I MEAN YOU’ is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago until 24 January 2022.

Main image: Barbara Kruger, ‘THINKING OF YOU / I MEAN ME / I MEAN YOU’, 2021, exhibition view, Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy: the artist and the Art Institute of Chicago

Jessica Baran is a poet, curator and critic. She lives St. Louis, USA. 

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