Jenny Holzer in front of an image of a Jenny Holzer.
A bunch of people squeezed into the auditorium at SAM Wednesday night for a worshipful hour with Jenny Holzer. It was sold out. Dale Chihuly sat front row, center. We have been worshipping Holzer in our own way around The Stranger's offices since 2003, when Kathryn Rathke drew portraits of famed geniuses throughout history for the first-ever Genius Awards and Holzer was among them. Ever since, Holzer's portrait has presided over one of the desks here, the one where Emily Nokes, the music editor, now sits. (I just walked by and was surprised to see that Jenny, for the first time in nearly 10 years, was not on the wall; she'd been unceremoniously rolled up and stuffed into a lower shelf. Emily was quick to unfurl her and allow this picture to be taken. The question remains: Does Emily Nokes hate Jenny Holzer? A matter for another day…)
The first thing Jenny Holzer did was ask for the lights pointed at her to be less intense. "Da Vinci light," she said. She seems like a person very comfortable with giving instructions—at the very least she must be used to it. Asked about her projections of text on rivers and landmarks, her LED displays of text, even text she's done that's been written by hand on other people's bodies—almost all of it, she said, has been physically accomplished by other people. She instructs them. The lights dimmed, Holzer then said, "Can we be dimmer?" And the lighting guy made the lights still dimmer.
In the course of the conversation, images of her work from around the world flashed behind Holzer and Catharina Manchanda, SAM's Jon & Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, who conducted the interview. Here are some of the things that were said:
"I was making paintings full of facts. They were ugly AND stupid." —Holzer discussing her earliest works in art school, which were abstract paintings with words she found in books painted on top of them
"I wanted to figure out what I believed but also wanted to make a series of portraits of belief." —Holzer on why she started distilling entire books into one or two or three sentences
"Putting out breadcrumbs and making pigeons eat geometry." —Holzer on other early failed works she made in urban spaces
"I wanted people to think about the content and not really think about who was doing it." —Holzer on why her earliest works were plastered anonymously on posters around New York City
"I've lost lots of skin postering. Winter postering is rough on the hands." —Holzer said, rubbing her hands
"A friend of mine worked at an ad agency that operated it." —Holzer on how she got to use an electronic billboard at Times Square
"It was fun to go from an underground format to a kind of Big-Brother one." —Holzer reflecting on the Times Square project
"No." —Holzer's response to Manchanda, who followed up on that Big Brother comment by saying, "Do you want to elaborate on that more?"
"Cooked ink on the magazine page." —Holzer's description of one of the materials used in a series that was a response to the war in former Yugoslavia. The work considered rape from three points of view: the female victim, the perpetrator, and an observer. It was published in a magazine in ink that was blood-based and some readers were outraged, feigning concern that there might be illnesses transmitted through the ink, which was ludicrous. Holzer added, "Some of the blood used [for the ink] was donated by women in the former Yugoslavia."
"Give me a second, I love questions, I'll be right back." —Holzer excusing herself briefly, presumably to the bathroom, between the interview and the Q&A
"That's part of the show." —Holzer said as she stood up, a response to her microphone pack swinging out in an arc toward the audience (and Dale Chihuly's head) but still attached, by a long cord, to her lapel
"Yeah. Jenny Holzer's Cat is better." —Holzer's response to the question, "Do you know about the Twitter handle Jenny Holzer's Mom?" This was the only question asked about Twitter all night, sadly; no one followed up to get Holzer's sincere response to a medium that's practically an homage to her. By the way, @JennyHolzer is not Jenny Holzer, it's someone else tweeting old Jenny Holzer truisms. Holzer doesn't know who it is. "Maybe it's somebody's conceptual art project," Holzer told the LA Times. "I would be embarrassed to do it myself—I like being invisible. But when I look at the website, I think: Go, Not-Me."
"Futura Bold. It's hopeful." —Holzer on being asked what her "favorite font" is
"That's a real 'we,' not a royal 'we.'" —Holzer on being asked why she refers to herself as "we" instead of "I." She mentioned the people she works with to accomplish her projects as well as her quest to represent as many points of view as she can.
"…" —Holzer's response to a question about which younger artists she's interested in. She eventually admitted she couldn't think of a single young artist she's interested in.
"I don't think that abstract painting is wholly different than a room filled with blue light." —Holzer on the glow that lighted signs give off
"But when large groups of people who didn't know each other will stand together, in a big city, quietly, reading? Okay!" —Holzer on watching people watch her work