The Unspoken Truths in Jenny Holzer’s Truisms

Gaza looms large over Jenny Holzer’s new exhibition Light Line at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. And yet, the name of the besieged strip isn’t mentioned once.

That’s just how Holzer’s art is: truisms without the explicit truth; political art minus the down-and-dirty politics. This aversion to identifying her targets — barring riskless choices like villainous former United States presidents Donald Trump, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush — may very well be the secret to her institutional success for nearly five decades.

Despite this, I found myself genuinely moved by parts of the exhibition, even against my will.  

The show orbits around an expanded and updated version of Holzer’s 1989 installation in the museum’s spiraling rotunda, with LED screens flashing dozens of aphorisms addressing power dynamics (“abuse of power comes as no surprise”), men’s wars and bloodshed (“because there is no god someone must take responsibility for men”), Big Brother surveillance (“I see you, I watch you, I scan you”), and other existential anxieties. 

The artist’s familiar stone benches, onto which more maxims are carved, and other previous works criticizing the US wars in Iraq and Vietnam are also included. So is a series of malignant Trump tweets stamped onto patinated lead and copper plates, which would’ve felt trite if not for the imminent danger of his comeback this November. But the best part of Light Line is the LED spiral, which has been touched up with new visual effects.

As a father and a Palestinian, it was the lines about wartime children that stopped me in my tracks and chilled my bones:

You wouldn’t know it from walking through the exhibition, but these shattering lines, written by graffiti artist Lee Quiñones onto wheat-paste posters of Holzer’s longer text in a gallery on the first floor, are all from or about Gaza (alongside texts from war-torn Ukraine, Syria, and other locations). Only if you download and then navigate through the Bloomberg Connects phone app would you discover that the first line is a Gazan father quoted in a 2023 Human Rights Watch report; the second is a Gazan child speaking to a United Nations investigation into Israel’s 2014 war on the besieged city, which killed at least 2,251 Palestinians, among them 551 children and 299 women; and the third is from Kathy Engel’s poem “Life Support” (1982) in the 2007 collection We Begin Here: Poems for Palestine and Lebanon (edited by Engel and Kamal Boullata). 

And then there are more harrowing lines from Holzer’s own writings, dating back to her residency at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program in 1977:

It’s impossible to read these lines and not think of the butchered, mutilated, displaced, famished, and traumatized children of Gaza between them. The Guggenheim’s maximum capacity is 1,400 visitors. The Palestinian children the Israeli army has killed since October 7 would fill up the museum more than 10 times over.  

Holzer not only avoids addressing Israel’s aggression directly, but also chooses to include these lines by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai: “My child wafts peace / When I lean over him.” 

This juxtaposition wafts bothsidesism and safe play — but in my view, it doesn’t matter much. 

It doesn’t change my immediate emotional and physical reaction to the work. Grief is present in the show whether it was invited in or not. I don’t even feel like wagging my finger at Holzer. I’m thinking about those children who, thanks to Israel’s unceasing bombings, don’t have any fingers left to speak of.

Jenny Holzer: Light Line continues at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 29. The exhibition was curated by Lauren Hinkson, associate curator for Collections.

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