A woman of words and light

Huge outdoor projections like this one in Venice have helped to make Holzer's name Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ProLitteris, Zürich

American star artist Jenny Holzer is known for her ability to combine spectacular LED installations and text projections with unsettling messages.

This content was published on November 4, 2009 minutes

A selection of her work is currently on show at the Beyeler Foundation near Basel, the first time that such a large exhibition has been devoted to Holzer in Switzerland. Large projections will also light up locations in Basel and Zurich.

Holzer began her career in the late 1970s putting "truisms", a collection of one-liners she had devised, on street posters.

By 1982 she began to employ LED technology, which is normally associated with advertising and news. Soon phases such as her famous, "Protect me from what I want", were being sent round an electronic billboard in New York City's Times Square.

"Since then 'Protect me from what I want' has travelled, because it's an all purpose admonition to the self and to others. Plus it's short, that's a good thing in public art," said Holzer, with humour, at a press conference to introduce her show at the Beyeler.

Glittering LEDs

The exhibition, which started on November 1 and runs until January next year, is made up of important works from various stages of Holzer's career since the 1980s. Many are recent pieces, which are being seen for the first time in Europe.

Glittering LED works form the backbone. Particularly impressive is the massive For Chicago, consisting of ten long LED tracks on the ground that use a selection of her words, which, coloured orange, stream towards the viewer like lava.

This was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, which has co-curated the exhibition and was the show's first port of call.

Also striking is a the huge column, Monument, from 2008. Winking in bright magenta and other colours, it forms a turntable of aphorisms: "Decadence can be an end to itself," it says. "Enjoy yourself because you can't get to change anything anyway."


She does not shy away from topical themes either. The electronic sculpture, Thorax, from 2008, is based on documents surrounding the case of an Iraqi civilian who fled and was killed by United States forces and the differing accounts of this event.

"What makes her so big is that she is able to give very complex ideas and thoughts an overwhelming visual form," Philippe Büttner, the Basel curator of the exhibition, told

"It still remains complex but it comes to you in a form that is so powerful that the art really reaches you."

The emotional aspect arrives from the visual art, said Büttner. "It comes from the colour, the movement and just the sheer impact of what she does. And then there is the mental aspect, the more thought-like thing, which may also come from her texts and both together give a very interesting mixture."

Projecting a message

Outside projections of text are another speciality and Holzer's work has already graced the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris. Not to be outdone, the Beyeler has arranged several projections on public buildings in Switzerland.

The first have already taken place on Basel's city hall and cathedral, with the latter being lit up for the last time on November 4. Basel's main station is next.

Holzer sometimes uses the writings of others, such the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek and the Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, for the texts. Holzer told at the press conference that she would be favouring Szymborska for Basel.

"She is such an intelligent and clear-headed, yet feeling, poet," explained Holzer. "I always find her work enormously good for public spaces because she's so lucid and not detached."

That is why she decided to put Szymborska's poems on the city hall and the cathedral, rather than going heavy on her own.

"I'm kind of sick of my stuff!" she smiled.

Still to come is Zurich later this November and Binningen near Basel early next year.

Water Police

Büttner said that arranging these events had been a challenge, not least persuading the Swiss authorities who had, for example, been worried that a projection over water might blind the Water Police.

"But that was interesting, that's something we don't do so much here, so it was thrilling for us to actually get out of the museum. That was the special part of it," Büttner said.

Holzer has been very involved with what has gone into the museum exhibition. She said that she liked the serenity of Renzo Piano-designed Beyeler building. "A good counterpoint to some of the things I've placed in the rooms," she said.

Only four other contemporary artists have had a solo show at the Beyeler – Jasper Johns, Anselm Kiefer, Ellsworth Kelly and Wolfgang Laib – and Holzer is the first woman to join this list, a move she sees as an honour.

A great humanist

Beyeler Director Sam Keller described her as a great humanist, who addressed themes such as sexism, racism and violence.

This is also expressed in other mediums: also on display is a tableau of 24 paintings by Holzer from 2008, called Hand, which are based on prints of American soldiers accused of crimes in the Middle East. Lustmord, from 1994, is an assemblage of bones laid out on wooden tables which addresses the rape and murder of women during the war in the former Yugoslavia.

Büttner said that he hoped that people would be receptive to Holzer's works and that, perhaps someone who is usually not interested in art might see "Protect me from what I want" on Basel city hall and stop and think. He said that this was Holzer's aim too.

That was why Keller said she was a humanist, he explained: she still hopes for some kind of process of improvement to happen.

"But she's an artist, she's not a politician, she's not an esoteric person and that's ok, that's not her thing. Her thing is to create artworks that have a meaning, but at the same time have to work as artworks."

Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Basel,

The exhibition

The show runs from November 1, 2009 until January 24, 2010.

Conceived in close cooperation with the artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the exhibition is curated by Elizabeth A.T. Smith and Philippe Büttner. It has already been held in Chicago and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. After Basel, it will more on to the Baltic Museum in Newcastle in the UK in spring 2010.

Paintings, sculptures and her renowned LED installations are on view. Her art is supplemented by a selection of works from the Beyeler Collection.

In addition to the museum space the exhibition will extend to the public space, Light projections have taken place or will take place in Basel and Zurich. The next dates are: Basel main railway station November 5 - 8, 2009, 7:30pm - 12:00pm (midnight). In preparation: Zurich Lindenhof projection over the Limmat, November 11 - 22, 2009, 7:30pm - 11pm, Margarethenhügel, Binningen near Basel, 2nd week of January, 2010.

Holzer is also creating her first project for the mobile phone in collaboration with the Beyeler Foundation and Sunrise.

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Jenny Holzer

Holzer was born in 1950 in Gallipoli in Ohio. She now lives and works in New York.

She has presented exhibitions and projects around the world and won many awards, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1990.

The main focus of her work is the use of words and ideas. LED artworks are her signature medium and she is also known for her projections. Holzer has shown works in the public space in New York city's Times Square and on the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, France.

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