Its title drawn from an un-redacted line in an FBI report, ‘Softer Targets’ brought together 33 works from throughout Jenny Holzer’s career. MOVE (2015), the first work encountered, seemed to confirm my reluctant suspicion that Holzer’s presentation of texts has, over time, tended away from the Delphic imperiousness of Messages to the Public – her 1982 takeover of the Times Square lightboard – into something overbearingly impressive and distracting: flashy, in a word. A square column comprised of four two-and-a-half-metre-long LED panels, MOVE was suspended from the rafters of the gallery; thanks to a motion sensor, it swung jerkily to and fro in response to visitors’ proximity. Streaming with direct transcriptions of declassified reports and testimonies (not short on misspellings and jargon) the movement of the piece did not make the screen’s texts easy to read. However, as Purple (2008) – a Dan Flavin-ish blur of unreal colour installed high on the wall of a later room – made clear, legibility is not always Holzer’s priority.
It may seem perverse to frame MOVE in any terms but those of a concern with militarized surveillance yet, in its awkward robotic movements, it also enacted an odd, clumsy longing for an individual, embodied reaction. The effect was not threatening but vaguely sad and absurd, like a toaster seeking a dance partner.
I later learned that Holzer studied with Yvonne Rainer on the Whitney Independent Study Program in the mid-1970s, and wondered how Rainer’s art of moving bodies might have influenced her. ‘My ideas come from my skin,’ reads a sentence in a design displayed here for one of the 13 sarcophagi that, paired with 13 LED strips, originally formed the artist’s 1989 exhibition, ‘Laments’, at Dia Art Foundation, New York. In the same room stood two antique wooden trestle tables, lain with a quantity of human bones. While the ‘Laments’ series was conceived during the AIDS crisis, Lustmord Table (1994) belongs to a group of works addressing the atrocities of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. In 1993, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung ran a special supplement Holzer co-produced with Tibor Kalman, including photographs of skin on which the Lustmord texts were written, and a special card, printed in ink mixed from blood donated by Yugoslav and German women. The fragmentary texts are opaque, poetic accounts of a sexual crime – Lustmord being a not-easily-translated German term for a murder committed in desire. For me, it’s one of Holzer’s most enduring interventions. By contrast, Table seemed both drastically literal and, simultaneously, not literal enough: with no direct connection to the conflict inspiring them, the bones were anonymous. (Apparently they were purchased from a Lower East Side shop, though I was later assured that they were the remains of women who had donated their bodies to science).
It was more moving to learn that, each time the work is presented, Holzer configures the bones differently. Here, ribs formed concentric chains, femurs a grid, and teeth were heaped into a fragile cone. The basic acts of arrangement and orientation became profound: expressions of thought, and care. In a 1994 interview, Holzer expressed her admiration for Donald Judd, not only on account of the ‘repetitions and the space made by his boxes’, but because ‘everything of his lined up’. In the show’s final room, a granite sarcophagus from the ‘Laments’ series and two sandstone benches (Memorial Bench I-II, 1996) formed a neat row. How similar tomb and bench suddenly seemed! It was like discovering every public park contained funeral biers.
I couldn’t help but think of another sinister shock involving incised stone: Nicolas Poussin’s shepherds, finding that death, too, is in Arcadia (Et in Arcadia ego, 1637–38). It is not irrelevant, I think, to understanding the grim pleasure of Holzer’s work – her pairing of beauty and trauma, the seductive and the unthinkable – that she has produced memorial gardens in the past. The best known of these, her Black Garden in Nordhorn, which commemorates victims of Nazi persecution as well as German war dead, was completed in 1995. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that this show’s most affecting moment occurred to me outside, in the gallery’s abundant grounds. Under the searing July sun, I read on a small granite bench the words of Under a Rock: Blood goes in the tube ... (1986): ‘You want to die and kill and wake like silk to do it again.’
Wake like silk – I can barely parse the phrase, let alone defend it but, for a moment, it renders me swooning, suddenly the softest of targets.