Whitney Focus presents Jenny Holzer: PROTECT PROTECT

November 7, 2019 posted by

NICHOLAS HOLMES: Jenny Holzer’s PROTECT PROTECT focuses on works from the last 15 years. For people who have been following her career, this exhibition may seem like somewhat of a departure. Holzer’s primary material has always been language. She’s put text on LED, or light-emitting diode displays, t-shirts, hats, light projections on buildings and other unconventional places. Now her LED displays have morphed into more elaborate sculptures, and she’s been making paintings. The overall visual effect of the exhibition PROTECT PROTECT is seductive. The gallery walls are awash in colored light, and text moves hypnotically across the sculptural surfaces. The work draws you in, and in doing so, brings you closer to the work’s often disturbing content. Since 2004, Holzer has drawn her text from declassified government documents. The earliest of the documents relate to the Reagan administration’s support of Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s. The latest take us through the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She obtained these through the National Security Archive and the American Civil Liberties Union. Both of these groups use the 1966 Freedom of Information Act to bring government documents into the public record. Holzer made a strategic decision to make documents into paintings, reproducing them, unaltered, in oil paint on linen. She’d noticed that people give paintings more time, attention, and value than other art forms. She wanted people to look at these documents in the same way. Like most of her document paintings, “Request for Approval Green, White” is a bit hard to read. Holzer has enlarged the original, letter-sized page, which was already a poor quality print after having been photocopied, scanned, or faxed a number of times. She’s reproduced a memo containing a kind of interrogator’s wish list. It asks permission to conduct twenty-hour interrogations, to subject prisoners to enforced grooming, specifically shaving their beards, and to deprive them of things that give them comfort, like religious objects. Holzer accessed the documents through the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, and the National Security Archive. Kate Doyle is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive. DOYLE: The National Security Archive, despite its somewhat sinister name, is not a government agency. It is not the National Security Agency. It is not the National Archives. It is actually a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that was founded in the 1980s by journalists and analysts, investigators to, first and foremost, promote and defend the public’s right to know. HOLMES: Working with the National Security Archive and the ACLU, Holzer looked at about 40,000 documents including autopsy reports, policy memos, statements by American soldiers and other products of the bureaucracy supporting the war. This painting, “Jaw Broken,” reproduces a statement by an Iraqi detainee who has had his jaw broken during an interrogation, and ends with his declaration of forgiveness of his abuser. The content of the documents Holzer has used varies widely, but most of them have one thing in common: they’ve been edited or redacted by government censors, blackened out so that the content is illegible. Again, Kate Doyle. DOYLE: Although the Freedom of Information Act provides people with a legal tool to request information from their own government, there are exceptions to the kind of information that the government will or can provide. Those exceptions, or exemptions, are specified in the law, and they might be for reasons of, for example, national security. B1, the National Security exemption in the Freedom of Information Law, is one of the key exemptions that are used in denying us information that we request to government agencies. And those black marks will cover anything from the most sensitive intelligence information such as the names of sources of intelligence, or the methods that are used by the government to gather intelligence, whether it be wiretapping or spying. HOLMES: Holzer has also used government documents in LED sculptures, and in some cases, these too are redacted. The text in the sculpture “Purple” comes from accounts of criminal proceedings against members of the armed forces. She’s reproduced the redacted areas with X’s. Often, the history of a document’s declassification is visible on its surface. The painting “The White House 2002 Pink, White” reproduces a memo George W. Bush sent to his administration detailing his position on the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. In the lower left corner, we can see that the document was partially declassified in June 2004, and not fully declassified until October 2004. DOYLE: When you are talking about policies that walk the line between what’s legal and what’s not, immediately, even in the moment of the creation of those policies, comes the cover-up, comes the attempt by the administration to protect itself. And what you’re seeing when you see documents with text that has been released over a long period of time is you’re seeing the “push me, pull you” of public demand. When we first request a document from the government, we might get back a highly classified, highly censored text. We then have the right to appeal that decision, and that will usually produce a less censored text. We will have more information. And if we really care about this issue, and most of these issues that we’re talking about– torture and detention policy and the War on Terror– we cared about and care about tremendously, we will go to court over it. HOLMES: In some cases, the government will declassify documents that have been completely redacted. DOYLE: The law actually stipulates that they have to provide the document. So even if the document is entirely blacked out, we will receive that document. And the tiny scratchings at the bottoms and tops of those pages sometimes tell us things about the document that are hard for other people to see. For example, it will tell us what exemption they used to hide that information. And that gives us a clue that this information was about a national security issue, or a privacy issue, or it was about law enforcement, depending on what exemption they cite. Each president, when he comes into office, issues an executive order on classification and secrecy. And each president interprets his administration’s position on secrecy in a different way. There are very real, concrete efforts to investigate, possibly for prosecution, some of the officials of the Bush administration for policies that were clearly illegal at the time they were carried out. So in that sense, this exhibition couldn’t have a better timing because these are precisely the questions that members of Congress, human rights lawyers, both in this country and in countries around the world, are asking themselves. HOLMES: Power dynamics and sexual violence have been important subjects in Holzer’s work for many years. In 1994, Holzer produced a series of works called “Lustmord,” a German word that translates loosely as “rape murder.” The works respond to the genocidal war in the former Yugoslavia. Early in that conflict, it became evident that Serbian soldiers were raping Bosnian women in a deliberate, systematic fashion, using rape as a weapon of war. For “Lustmord,” Holzer wrote text from the perspectives of the victims, the perpetrators and, because these crimes were often committed very publicly, the observers. In this version, the texts have been engraved on metal bands encircling human bones, which Holzer purchased from natural history stores. In earlier presentations of “Lustmord,” the texts were written on people’s bodies. Laurel Fletcher is Professor of Law, and Director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic, University of California Berkeley. FLETCHER: In virtually every conflict in the world involving displacement of civilians, you will see incidences of rape of women. The degree and the extent and the patterns will vary, but I think that the war in Yugoslavia and the way rape was used there, specifically as part of an effort to terrorize and induce a population to move, was something new. HOLMES: The War in the Balkans began in 1991. At that time, under President Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbians seceded from Croatia, hoping to form Greater Serbia, an ethnically pure nation. FLETCHER: And it was that desire to have ethnically pure territory that meant that you had to drive out the inhabitants who had been living in those areas, in some cases for centuries. So it was part of, “How do you get civilian populations who have lived in rural communities for hundreds of years to leave those communities and uproot?” That is where the use of rape as a tool of terror came into play. HOLMES: A pattern reigned from 1992 to 1993, as Serb forces gained control in Bosnia. Soldiers would lob artillery into a Bosnian village; its inhabitants would begin to flee. Paramilitaries, or militias, often run by criminal gangs, would then arrive. FLETCHER: But in general, men and women were separated. Then, women might be rounded up and taken to separate detention facilities where they would be raped. They would be pulled out of those detention facilities at night by soldiers and raped. Sometimes, as they were rounding up villagers, they would go door-to-door and conduct house searches. And in the context of those house searches, women would be raped. So they might be raped in front of their family members, they might be raped in front of their children, or certainly within earshot. The shame and humiliation that accompanied this practice needs to be understood in the cultural milieu of that rural population, where purity and chastity were prized among women. So if a woman was raped and defiled, that brought shame not only on herself, but shame on her family. And for that reason, then, women would want to flee and never return to their homes. Sometimes women would become pregnant, and they would be told, both in the course of the rape and afterwards, that now you’re going to bear a Serbian child. Others, if they were lucky, were able to then escape or be released because they had been impregnated by a Serb, in a sense sending the woman and her full womb as a testament to the conquest of her body by Serbian forces. And so as she returned to her community, then that would send a message in a ripple effect. HOLMES: We asked Professor Fletcher to respond to Holzer’s “Lustmord” from her perspective as an expert in human rights violations. FLETCHER: I think that one of the challenges to all of us is not to turn a blind eye, or to shutter our hearts, to the pain and suffering of victims, which can become overwhelming if you pay attention to the stories. And sometimes it takes focusing in on the fine details that may not be the precise descriptions of physical acts. But it’s as though… you can’t look directly at a star to see its reflection, you look to the side and it will come into focus more clearly. I think that the exhibit serves the same function. It allows us a pathway that is perhaps easier to journey down, but is an invitation to honor the suffering and experience of victims. HOLMES: PROTECT PROTECT is on view at the Whitney Museum until May 31, 2009. This is Nicholas Holmes of the Whitney Museum. .

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