Making Poetry Public

A look back at three decades of Jenny Holzer's work.
Jenny Holzer’s installations have been connecting people to public spaces through words. John Yau traces the development of her work.

Ever since Jenny Holzer created Truisms, a collection of commercially printed one-liners that she handed out as well as pasted anonymously around New York, her subject has been the use (and misuse) of language in the public realm, where dialogue and an exchange of ideas presumably takes place. Typeset in alphabetical order, the one-liners were, as the artist slyly remarked, “Jenny Holzer’s Reader’s Digest Version of Western and Eastern Thought.” In their bland assertion of opinions, conclusions, and attitudes disguised as indisputable facts, they mimicked slogans, sound bites, pull quotes in newspapers and magazines, advertising, the language of the media, and slogans. Truisms suggested that the mass media had contributed to the downfall of debate in the public realm, which had become an arena of unrelenting antagonism.

Truisms’ other effect was to subvert the idea of authorship. Statements such as “a man can’t know what it is to be a mother” are reminiscent of the homilies the “wise Oriental” detective Charlie Chan uses to wrap up the sappy poetic parables he spins out when he reveals the guilty party. Holzer’s Truismssuggest how quick we are to generalize and, consequently, how seldom we are the authors of our own words, not to mention thoughts. Offering no middle ground, judgments ultimately prevent dialogue rather than encourage it.

a relaxed man is not necessarily a better man

abuse of power comes as no surprise

artificial desires are despoiling the earth

believing in rebirth is the same as admitting defeat

dying and coming back gives you considerable perspective

elaboration is a form of pollution

even your family can betray you
Holzer’s Truisms ran the gamut of feelings. Nearly 30 years after they first appeared, they continue to be funny, bitter, narrow-minded, trenchant, and, more importantly, provocative. Much to the consternation of a number of poets I know, they became that most enviable thing of all, a topic of conversation. And to make matters worse, they did so by raising generalization and cliché to a level of visibility few poems ever achieve. They attained this status because of the success of Holzer’s direct intervention in the public realm, a swiftly changing place of spectacle largely occupied by headlines, come-ons, signs, and advertisements.

Holzer’s anonymous statements existed alongside other kinds of discourses as well as subverted their authority. The Truismswere powerful satire, as effective and dead-on as Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal was in its day. They reminded the public how prone everyone is to using clichés and uttering truisms. We were no longer using language in the way it could be used. Rather, both as a society and as individuals, we seemed hell-bent on emptying language of meaning. Sound bites had replaced debate. We spoke, but we no longer listened. There was something undeniably grim and pessimistic about the flat, clipped pronouncements one found in the Truisms, and that, I think, was what bothered Holzer’s audience most of all. We have to laugh ourselves, but it is more mournful than mirthful.

I have brought up Truisms, Holzer’s first successful piece, because it suggests how much her use of interventionist language in the public sphere has developed over the past three decades. For one thing, she has moved from pasting terse, anonymous statements inexpensively printed on sheets of paper to using large-scale xenon projections and electronic LED systems in which texts are displayed. In order to make this change, Holzer has had to successfully negotiate with all kinds of institutions and individuals, ranging from museum directors and city officials to real estate developers. She has had to gain entry into the buildings on which she may have once pasted her Truisms.

One of Holzer’s most recent installations is in the lobby of 7 World Trade Center, a newly built 52-story office tower seemingly made entirely of clear, non-reflective glass on Vesey Street, just north of Ground Zero. The granite-clad building that once stood on this site caved in at 5:28 p.m. on September 11, 2001, some eight hours after the attack, and 7 World Trade Center is the first building to be completed in this area since 9/11. The real estate developer Larry Silverstein, who was the developer of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and is the leaseholder for what is now known as Ground Zero, owns the building. The installation required Holzer to work with the architectural design team of Skidmore, Owens, and Merrill; James Carpenter, who is best known for his work with architectural glass; and Larry Silverstein and his wife Klara, who had final approval over all the texts the artist wanted to incorporate into her installation. One of the key elements of the design is the use of large sheets of clear glass, which keep the heat out but which don’t glare. At night the base of the building will emit a mysterious blue glow. A system of motion detectors is connected to the lights, causing them to respond to the pedestrians walking on the street. The emphasis on different kinds of light and its reflective qualities is what led the design team to recommend that Silverstein invite Holzer to do an installation.

Holzer has chosen 30-plus hours of poems and essays to scroll across a 65-foot-wide, 14-foot-high wall in which an LED system has been suspended between two planes of glass. The text appears in five-foot-high letters that move across the wall at a deliberately slow pace. The texts include long prose passages and little-remembered poems dating from colonial times to the present. At the beginning of each text, Holzer acknowledges the author and distinguishes him or her from the others by using a different font for each quotation. In keeping with the building’s modernist design, all the fonts are sans serif.

The emotional setting of the site—the lobby is located just steps away from where the Twin Towers once stood—shaped Holzer’s choices, all of which are about New York City and, in its earlier incarnation, the island of Manhattan. In addition, the wall across which the texts scroll functions as both a security wall separating the public from the building’s occupants, and a blast shield that can withstand powerful explosions and high heat. Both in her Truisms and at 7 World Trade Center, Holzer demonstrates an astute understanding of how we tend to read when we are in the public realm. Full of what Tennyson called “the noise of life,” the public realm is the opposite of the white box of a gallery or a museum, not a “pure” space for aesthetic contemplation. Cognizant of this, Holzer has found a way to effectively use the public realm to underscore the fact that written and printed language is connected to life, and ideally should be brought to bear there. In contrast to her Truisms, which were short and simple and could be easily remembered, in this installation she makes reading an active act. The words literally scroll by, always just a snippet of something larger. How long we stay is up to us, which reminds us of what it means to pay attention. Within this time-based situation, we become responsible for our actions. Given the public context in which they appear, the viewer is invited to speculate upon the relationship between the texts and the historical environment in which they both come into view and disappear.

In the Truisms, the short, quick statements define their own context rather than depend on a previously established one. Consequently, the reader tries to provide the context for statements such as “mothers shouldn’t make too many sacrifices,” “murder has its sexual side,” and “occasionally principles are more valuable than people.” The power of these statements resides in their resistance to being assignable; one cannot say with absolute authority who made these statements or in what circumstances they might have been made. Made into a list, they seem to have been authored by different so-called authorities. Holzer disconnected her Truisms from a particular speaker and also called the very idea of authority into question. Floating in our memories without ever anchoring themselves to an individual, they made us conscious of our capacity to sound both pretentious and stupid. Holzer’s mimicry of our collective language reflected rather badly on us.

In 7 World Trade Center, it is clear that Holzer has traveled a considerable distance from her earlier work. Despite the site’s disquieting location, this piece offers the audience a more optimistic vision, which is that our collective language can be made up of testimonies to human strengths, aspirations, fears, concerns, and our capacity for love and empathy. Invariably, it is up to us to decide which language—truisms or poetry—best reflects us, and to make that apparent in our debate. In a site indelibly marked by destruction and death, Holzer has carefully selected a wide range of works, many of which underscore that change and renewal is integral to history. At the same time, she reminds us that reading is necessarily selective, that in an age full of memory aids, we tend to remember snippets rather than entire texts. And in doing so, we are likely to provide our own perspective. At this particular site, however, our perspective is heavily inflected by the area’s recent history. We are standing where a horrific event occurred. Thus, how will we read this section that I have excerpted from Holzer’s presentation of the entire essay “Here Is New York” (1948) by E.B. White? And aren’t we likely to read it differently each time?
A man was killed by a falling cornice. I was not a party to the tragedy, and again the inches counted heavily. I mention these merely to show that New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand foot liner out of the east or a twenty-thousand man convention out of the west) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants; so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.
Against the background of 9/11—both a wrenching collective event, particularly for New Yorkers, and a tragedy that continues to incite all kinds of feelings—White’s text evokes different meanings than the author originally intended. As the writer’s work scrolls from right to left at a slower, statelier pace than that of a ticker tape, we are left to reflect upon our own feelings of what occurred here as well as what is now occurring, the contentious dispute over what should be built on Ground Zero. In moving to the left, the writing points toward the site where the Twin Towers once stood, then literally disappears in that direction, a fact that is most likely not lost on anyone who reads the words parading by. The slow, steady pace of Holzer’s presentation adds gravity to the writing and encourages the reader to break everything down, to extract and read snippets within the context we inevitably end up providing. Holzer’s straightforward presentation reminds us that interpretation is an integral part of reading, an idea that challenges those who believe there can be only one correct reading of a text. In doing so, Holzer implicitly critiques both those who engineered the destruction of the Twin Towers and those who believe they possess the meaning of the tragedy.

The entire presentation takes 30-plus hours, which means that it cannot be viewed in its entirety. Thus the punctual employee who enters the lobby every day at precisely 8:15 a.m. will not read the same text or snippet twice. Reality does not succumb to a routine. One effect of Holzer’s presentation is that poems by Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara, Claude McKay, Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Ginsberg, James Schuyler, May Swenson, James Merrill, David Lehman, and C.K. Williams are repeatedly displayed in a place that is both new and tragic, both a place of commerce and one of remembering. Life literally goes on where for many others it was cut short. And yet as odes to, and observations about, renewal and endurance, the writing literally becomes part of that process.

For decades now we have heard poets and others lament poetry’s marginal status, and the fact that few people read it. At 7 World Trade Center, Holzer joins essays, observations, and poems of all kinds to a historic event, as well as suggests that they can offer us a fresh understanding of an enormous, ongoing tragedy. In effect, poetry becomes part of both our individual and collective life, which is what it has been all along. Holzer makes clear that poetry and the printed word are things that can and should be used. Without denying tragedy or the horrific world, she challenges our penchant for gloom and the bitter comforts we take in being pessimistic.

Photo credit: Corey Hunt (Curious Photography) [flickr source]
Originally Published: September 6th, 2006

Poet, art critic, and curator John Yau has published over 50 books of poetry, fiction, and art criticism. Born in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1950 to Chinese emigrants, Yau attended Bard College and earned an MFA from Brooklyn College in 1978. His first book of poetry, Crossing Canal Street, was published...

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  1. December 14, 2006

    I am a Poet in Ghana, and a Publisher who wants to establish a writers center here. May l know if you can introduce me to any organisation that could help me realise this. We don't have such centers in this country.