Playing with conditionals

Conceptual artist Barbara Kruger makes people question their assumptions.

Art by conceptual artist Barbara Kruger (photo credit: COURTESY HIRSHORN MUSEUM)
Art by conceptual artist Barbara Kruger
As social and political voices grow increasingly extreme, taking their messages in one or another single direction, US conceptual and graphic artist Barbara Kruger, 71, continues to frustrate such oversimplification. For decades, Kruger has used clear, direct and attention-grabbing phrases, often superimposed on large images, to instigate critical thinking in her audience.
In her large installation work at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in the American capital, titled “Belief + Doubt = Sanity”, Kruger superimposes her voice onto space rather than image.
She has plastered her phrases over the downstairs lobby and museum shop using the architectural context to do what she does best: make people question their assumptions.
“You could say that I’m interested in the built environment,” Kruger tells The Jerusalem Report. “I’m always engaged with architecture – which was my first love.”
In the mid-1960s, Kruger attended Syracuse University and Parsons School of Design, each for one year, before leaving to work as a graphic designer for Condé Nast, the mass media company. By the early 1970s, she was showing as an artist, exhibiting in New York galleries and being included in the 1973 Whitney Biennial. In 1976, apparently seeking more social engagement in her art-making, Kruger moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where she taught as a visiting artist – simultaneously studying thinkers, such as Walter Benjamin, in order to develop a theoretical foundation for her work.
During this period, Kruger took up photography, which resulted in a series of works published as an artist’s book titled “Picture/ Readings” (1978-79) – each page featuring an architectural detail with a prose narrative fragment that filled out the image with a story. After this, she began appropriating images and plastering her words in bold banners of black, white and red – creating iconic images with iconoclastic messages.
But Kruger’s interest in “built environments” continued and she began filling gallery and public spaces with her signature bold writings. While they develop ideas and themes that Kruger has developed over decades, the works are site specific, planned for just the space where visitors come to see the show.
“Not all installations offer the possibility of aerial views or movement other than walking,” says Kruger, referring to the two-directional escalators that punctuate the Hirshhorn downstairs lobby. It’s a challenge and also an opportunity to spatialize meaning.”
Kruger explains that built environments have tremendous power on our lives – determining the feelings of our days and nights, our work, sleep and movement. When she works with a space, the particular context is important and she has to get an idea of how it functions where it actually is.
“[The Hirshhorn] is a museum with incredible density, with a great amount of attendance because of where it is,” she says, referring to the National Mall. “It has to do with nationalism, globalism and tourism.”
The work’s location inside the museum shop adds another element – leading her to think about commerce, exchange and desire.
“There’s the premise that desire exists where pleasure is absent,” she says. “The ‘be here now’ of pleasure tends to fade away with desire. Shopping is not the same as buying. It’s like cruising – focusing in on the image of perfection.”
The implication might be that people are sometimes less interested in filling their needs than in feeling their neediness – experiencing the sensation of looking for something rather than genuinely finding whatever they think they want. People don’t like to have. They like to want to have.
Her museum shop installation is full of verbs – actions words of doing something like HOARD IT, CRAVE IT, HATE IT, DREAM IT – without ever saying what “it” actually is. It doesn’t actually seem to matter because objects give us a sense of purpose in themselves. They give us something to do.
We buy something not because we need it but so that we have something to then return.
Consumption is no longer to fill the void of having things – it’s to fill the void of having things to do.
THESE SPECIFIC concerns, however, aren’t limited to themselves – they’re connected to larger issues and the way we not only experience the world but also organize that experience in our minds.
“People like to categorize,” explains Kruger, “separating between politics, beliefs, power, sexuality. But how we experience the world and our lives is a sequence of those things toward and away from each other.”
Kruger’s approach is to open up the interrelation between all these aspects of life through questions – reviewing ideas and trying to point to how they work together or against each other.
“Who is granting power? Who’s withholding power? What are the systems of absence, presence, seen, unseen, heard, unheard? It’s a question of fluidity and who has agency.”
Kruger is master of asking questions through statements and making statements through questions – seen in her panel that asks WHOSE VALUES? – which she first used on the cover of Newsweek in 1992.
“During the presidential elections, Newsweek asked me to do a cover on values,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to do a cover on values because ‘values’ were a talking point of the ideologues on the right. I asked – whose values? It was a questioning rather than accepting conditions without doubt.”
Kruger points out that these questions don’t seem to get old – especially the importance of asking or focusing on them as questions.
“There are so many ways to think of values,” she adds. “Value as that which one holds important, value in terms of capital, value in terms of how a person is empowered.”
Again, these questions point to issues of power, which Kruger tries to address using irony and tragic humor – as she does with the panel “IT’S A SMALL WORLD BUT NOT IF YOU HAVE TO CLEAN IT.”
“Look at the density of construction in Manhattan,” she says, “and think of all the undocumented construction people in New York who died in construction accidents.
I’m not explicitly saying this [in the panel] but it points to the gap between the world as experienced and the maintenance of that world.”
Yet, Kruger insists these ideas and concepts are also grounded in the material conditions of the viewing – in this case the physical space where they walk through the installation. This provides an experience that’s meant to be varied.
“Hopefully, there’s affirmation in the work,” she says. “Some people might experience it thinking, ‘that’s the way it is,’ or ‘I get it,’ or ‘absolutely not.’ There’s substantiation and denial, and all the gray areas in between.”
That gray area is the DOUBT that Kruger suggests tempers BELIEF to come up with SANITY.
“Beliefs are up to whoever or whatever needs those constructs in the world,” she reflects. “There are more oblique ways of approaching belief than to say ‘why do we need it.’ The notion of believe is not a consolidated thing. It’s a moment to moment acknowledgment of what we believe. It’s the way we perceive the world.”
She gives the example of eating lunch.
First we say, “Yes, I enjoyed lunch.” Later we say, “Yes, I had lunch.” Later still, we might ask, “Did I forget I had lunch?” Thinking about belief this way, she adds, shreds it into nanoseconds of whether I experienced something or not.
“Belief is not constituted by a book or a list of laws. It’s how we perceive every moment.
We say, ‘I can’t believe that,’ or ‘believe me,’ or ‘do I believe what I just heard?’ Belief is how we apprehend reality – or what we think is real.”
FOR KRUGER, these concerns are anything but hifalutin and disconnected from reality. They connect with the most basic aspects of everyday life – and the need to introduce critical thought into how we develop our societies.
“I came from a poor Black city,” says Kruger about her upbringing in Newark, New Jersey – a city that had been home to a large Jewish community until the post- World War II period. “My parents traded their labor for wages. They didn’t have undergraduate degrees and I don’t either. I had a full-time job for years.”
Kruger has referred to herself in the past as culturally Jewish – and says the marginalization of Jews, which she experienced firsthand, contributed to her understanding of the marginalization of other groups. This included not only Black society but the art world, as well. Marginality, she told Israeli art historian Milly Heyd, produces a kind of commentary on society.
Her background informed her thought and work, she says, adding that many of her colleagues in the arts didn’t experience that kind of difference – which materially grounded her experience. When she first went to Europe, the cultural homogeneity there seemed to have shocked her.
“I went to the UK and everyone looked like George Bush’s mother. In France, everyone was French. In Italy, they were all Italian. What’s going on in Europe now [with the migrant crisis] is complex and deeply tragic. America’s struggle with racism has always been more public.”
Kruger took this conception of grounded difference with her to the visual art world of the 1960s and 1970s – which she says was totally marginalized.
“Artists wanted to exhibit because they wanted to show their work and have discussions,” she says. “This was long before the art became a dumping ground for disposable income. It was a subculture just as arcane as any other.”
The conditions of art-making have changed since – but its essence remains critical. And she seems to suggest that this ongoing shift is part of art-making itself.
“Making art was, for centuries, a kind of commentary,” she says, and yet it was “made by a small group of white men in Western culture.”
Today, that role has been expanded – but, by nature of the cycles of power, it needs to be expanded again. The sense of ongoing cycle is precisely what Kruger tries to evoke in her work – reflected in the “Belief + Doubt = Sanity” installation itself.
“I had done this installation in New York in 1994,” she recalls. “Then I redid it for a show in Lucerne in 2006. Everybody asked me whether it was in reaction to 9/11. But it had been done long before.
The powers, moments and states at play in the world then had been going on for some time. They were periodizing a work as a reaction to an event that itself was a reaction.”
Kruger’s installation is as relevant in today’s world of growing tension as it was in 2006 and 1994. Her powerful perspective gives voice to questions that undermine power structures aiming to lead society in one direction or another while sacrificing nuance and gray areas. She focuses on those things that last while questioning those things that pretend to last – always focused on the relation between perceptions of what’s temporary and what’s permanent.
“To say something ‘is’ is very conditional,” she suggests. “I just like to play with conditionals because our world is so much not about conditionals.”