Barbara Kruger’s Artwork Speaks Truth to Power

The mass media artist has been refashioning our idioms into sharp-edged cultural critiques for three decades—and now brings her work to the Hirshhorn

Barbara Kruger photographed in her New York studio. (Chester Higgins Jr. / The New York Times / Redux)
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In a virtual world, virtual words are becoming virtually weightless, dematerialized. The more words wash over us, the less we understand them. And the less we are able to recognize which ones are influencing us—manipulating us subtly, invisibly, insidiously. Barbara Kruger rematerializes words, so that we can read them closely, deeply.

I arrived early for our lunch at LACMA because I wanted to see the installation she’d done there, covering a massive three-story glassed-in garage elevator with an extraordinary profusion of words and phrases. Among these words and phrases is a long, eloquent description of the work itself:

“The work is about...audience and the scrutiny of and the imperialism of garments, community and the discourse of self-esteem, witnessing and the anointed moment, spectacle and the enveloped viewer, narrative and the gathering of incidents, simultaneity and the elusive now, digitals and the rush of the capture.” There’s much, much more just in case we miss any aspect of what “the work is about.” Indeed the work is in part about a work telling itself what it’s about.

Notice how much of it is about extraction: extraction of “the anointed moment” from the stream of time (and stream of consciousness), finding a way to crystallize the “elusive now” amid the rush of “digitals.” It’s the Kruger of all Krugers.

But gazing at this, I missed the single most important extraction—or at least its origin. The elephant in the installation.

It was up there, dominating the top of the work, a line written in the biggest, boldest, baddest letters. The central stack of words is superimposed over the brooding eyes and the advancing shoes of a man in what looks like a black-and-white movie still. His head is exploding into what looks like a blank white mushroom cloud, and on the cloud is written: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face forever.”

Have a nice day, museumgoers!

Not long after, I was seated in LACMA’s sleek restaurant with Kruger, whose waterfalls of delicate curls give her a pre-Raphaelite, Laurel Canyon look. (She lives half the year in L.A. teaching at UCLA, half the year in New York City.) One of the first things I asked about was that boot-stomping line on the elevator installation. “I was glad to see someone as pessimistic as me about the future. Where’d you get that quote?”

“It’s George Orwell,” she replied.  Orwell, of course! It’s been a long time since I’ve read 1984, so I’m grateful that she extracted it, this unmediated prophecy of doom from someone whose pronouncements have, uncannily and tragically, kept coming true. And it reminded me that she shares with Orwell an oracular mode of thought—and a preoccupation with language. Orwell invented Newspeak, words refashioned to become lies. Kruger works similarly, but in the opposite direction. Truespeak? Kru-speak?

“Unfortunately,” she went on to remark ominously of the Orwell quote, “it’s still very viable.”


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