I've been a fan of Jenny Holzer since I was about 18
when I was introduced to her work during my art foundation course before my degree. Since then, I've continued to work with text using it as a catalyst within each piece. Between Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, I've had a lot of inspiration from two women who have an interesting design background. Holzer, for instance, was a typesetter and created political posters as part of a collective in the '70s.
Holzer is known for changing things in the art world. She was the first woman ever to show at the Venice Bienniale (in 1990) and that marked that words could be art. In fact, Holzer's works are about the viewer's experience and not at all about Holzer – she writes the texts but the work becomes personal by the way in which each person reads and reacts to it.
Today, Holzer's show, Light Streams, opens at Pearl Lam Galleries. It's her first solo show in Hong Kong, offering 25 custom-made works. Having not been to Hong Kong for 25 years, Holzer had to rely on her memories to create something for the city. She chose to focus the frenetic energy that the busy city has, which Holzer compares to the frenetic energy of a packed gallery.
But one of the most important things about this show is that Holzer has translated much of her work into traditional Chinese. It enfranchises most of the audience here. The translations were worked on by five different translators and Holzer worked hard to make the translation suit Hong Kong particularly, digging into the nuances of the fast-moving language. "I was intrigued to see the flow of syntax: Where verbs would fall. I wanted to see how well it would translate too, to see how the audience will react. I wanted to see if I could do it," she explains. At times, she admits it's frustrating not knowing which statement she's looking at, but at others it's a relief. "I can take more care over the aesthetic side that way," she says.
Entering the exhibition, there's a lot more happening than I expected, perhaps because I'm more au fait with her Truisms and most of her works that I've seen are in collections and not new. The room has a colourful glow from the works spread throughout: Some leaning alone, some leaning together like a game of Kerplunk, some strewn and others mounted.
Light Stream includes strewn hoop shapes, reminiscent of public hand rails or bike railings, alongside a plaque of frantically animated statements, based on her Truisms. In fact, the housing of the LEDs is a huge consideration for Holzer. With her design background, it's no surprise that every detail counts. "This shape is a reference to a type of gravestone that was popular in New England. It's called a life to death tombstone," she explains.
Meanwhile, the wires around Light Stream are left visible, adding to the general clutter, the backdrop to these lively lights. "This really challenges me, I'm very tidy," says Holzer. But it creates the feeling she wanted.
That technology has changed her work is undeniable. "The infinite colours are carefully programmed for my work. Some loops are over five hours in this exhibition," she says. In other exhibitions, she has works that don't loop for over a month. Within each loop is a number of sequences (the way in which the words are delivered) which are often random: Fast, slow, sliding, bouncing, stretched, normal and so on. "Sometimes it seems to relate to the content but the animation isn't always so planned," Holzer explains. "Sometimes it's a choice and sometimes it just needs a lift, like when the letters blast out. I like to change between easy to read and really hard – unamenable – which is what life is like."
Inclined is a four-sided post of LED messages and really new. "This is deluxe programming," explains Jenny, who says they were working on it until the minute it was packed for shipping. There are animations of words flowing or passing each other from different directions, allowing two layers of text. Sometimes the words fall away in an animation that would remind you of the ICC's lights. "We took videos of weather and referenced it for this," she says.
Reflections are another unexpected part of the show. With glass screens in the gallery, reflections across the room add depth to the work but also the viewer's experience, enabling views from a greater distance too.
And let's not forget the marble benches. I almost dumped my bag on one before realising it was another piece of work. But the benches, which create a place from which to watch these works as well as giving a kind of park or memorial feeling to the room, are subtle and powerful. Thoughout history, there's been a relation between words and material. Marble has authority and status, having been used for plaques and statues. But a bench is comfortable, too. Holzer comments that she gets tired walking around galleries and thinks there should be more places to sit, so that you can really appreciate the art. "I don't mind if you sit on them or leave your bag there. I'm happy for them to be placed outside and I want them to take on the life around them. If they grow moss, that's great," she says.