I must warn you to be careful not to walk over SUICIDES, or tread on DIVAS, BEAUTIES and BEASTS. And don’t mind the FATUOUS FOOLS and BLOATED EGOS. These are the words, emblazoned floor to ceiling, in black, white and neon green, of Barbara Kruger’s newest immersive installation and site of resistance, Titled (Untitled) at Modern Art Oxford.
“I want you to question things.” Kruger says, as I walk across ARTISTS and THINKERS to read the words REMEMBER ME. This is what Kruger does best. She bullies the viewer into thought, shakes the foundations of society and makes us question our inherent consumer desires and the violence of the male gaze. She makes her politics clear “I am absolutely a feminist.” And indeed one of her works, a photograph of a female Classical sculpture with the phrase ‘Your gaze hits the side of my face’ is both a metaphorical and physical punch in the face. The series of her early works, her ‘paste-ups’, are a stunning reminder of the politics society has overcome, and is still fighting. “But who is the correct thinker? Who is the correct feminist?” Kruger asks.
Now Kruger, who is one of the only American artists of this generation to force us into feeling with media-based work, has moved on from her pointed political critiques of hierarchy and power to more ironic works that explores our social media obsession.
IS THERE LIFE WITHOUT PAIN? and THE BRUTAL RELENTLESS FEARFUL END OF IT ALL are the statements that scream the loudest from the wallpaper of words that dominates the Upper Gallery. It’s like you have entered a Tumblr blog of an existential crisis. Kruger’s words attack you from every angle, underfoot and overhead. It’s a blinding haze of media-focused messages like WHO WILL WRITE THE HISTORY OF OUR TEARS punctuated with pop culture cliches of AIR-KISSERS, SINGERS, ASSHOLES and CREEPS. Immersive is a word too commonly used to describe installations, but this is the very definition; we are enveloped by Kruger’s accusations and dialogues as we are brought to the core of her inquiry. “Architecture is one of my foremost passions. It’s so thrilling doing an installation of this size and scale.”
Kruger came into prominence in New York’s art scene in the early 1980s, and is often lumped in with postmodern feminist artists Cindy Sherman and Louise Lawler (whose exhibition is currently at Spruth Magers London) as well as other members of their girl-gang of radical thinkers. Although she is quick to dismiss this categorisation: “I am a woman, and an artist, who is a feminist. I do not make feminist art. There are so many different kinds of ‘feminisms’. It’s plural. There isn’t just one recipe. But besides that, I just don’t think that my work should be confined or ghettoised by that way of thinking. I try to resist categories, just as people resist queer art or black art.”
Her work is instantly recognisable: phrases range from the fiercely political (Your body is a battleground) to acidic criticisms of culture (Charisma is the perfume of your gods) to destabilising existentialisms (You are not yourself) and are juxtaposed with images from TV advertising, websites and magazines, the currencies and measures of modern day value.
When Kruger asks IS THAT ALL THERE IS? she is shaking us out of our digital silence as she questions if there really is space for community, humanity and kindness in our hyper-visual world driven by capital. “I’m not saying I’m not a part of it. My work says ‘I shop therefore I am’. We are all threaded through this intensely ferocious, brutal and pleasurable circulation of capital.”
The internet is seductive, and today we are constantly plugged in, as smart phones and tablets become like surrogate limbs. Although, Kruger stresses that her work is not a judgement call. “I see it in the next generation, they have quite a limited attention span. But I am not nostalgic. There are no good old days.” In a way, Kruger’s works represents a skewed sense of reality and how we pose ourselves. “They tell us important things about what we consider to be valuable, our addiction to materialism and consumerism”.
For an artist to be truly contemporary, they must reflect the world they currently live in. We are now at a cultural tipping point as the virtual is slowly blended with the real, and so embracing the digital in art is the truest reflection of our contemporary age. “It’s very exciting. We are going to see digital art get richer and richer in its content.”
Kruger is very much on the pulse with popular culture, and explores these themes in her films, two of which are featured in the exhibition and echo her feelings about the explosion of social media. The first, Plenty LA (2008) is particularly trite as “Plenty should be enough, enough, enough” flashes repeatedly among images of tacky accessories and crystallised mobile phones. It feels as though we, the generation of ‘I want’, are being scorned by our mother for this over-privileged sense of lack. It is an anti-capitalist warning to us all.
“But, I guess you have to live inside of capital. The only people who don’t have to are those with huge inheritances. Only they can afford to have these pipe dreams.” In a way, Kruger may subvert the strategies of mass media and its manipulative logic, but she also occupies and poeticises them.
The second video installation, Twelve (2004), shows four characters, a face projected on each wall of the room, having an argument. As insults start flying, their inner thoughts read like subtitles beneath them. A young couple appear to be breaking up, but secret thoughts betray their angry threats: “Get me a beer!” he shouts, “Don’t leave me. Please don’t turn me inside out” he thinks. Kruger is exposing the lack of sincerity and fakeness of modern culture. “I’m fascinated with conversation and language, and how we are to one another. I want you to sit down, turn around and not only watch passively, but read and listen”.
For the hours I spend with her and her art, Kruger has seized my attention, jolted me out of complacency and forced me to reflect. We live in a world of data overload, hollowed out by the instant; these ideas are not new or particularly original but Kruger’s motive is clear “I want to instill doubt” she insists. “Don’t believe the hype. You must always question stuff.” The proverbial Kruger has spoken.