Barbara Kruger’s iconic red, white and black words are finding their way back into a familiar place—one that is not a gallery. “Belief + Doubt,” the latest exhibition by the artist famous for slogans like “I shop therefore I am,” opens August 20 in the bookstore at the Hirshhorn Museum. Until then, visitors can preview a site-specific installation in the lower lobby that plasters the escalators, floors, walls and ceilings with words that portray themes from absolutism to consumerism.
The space is one of the Hirshhorn’s most highly trafficked locations, but it has long remained a subdued passageway that simply connected visitors to more contemplative, artistic galleries. Exhibition curator Melissa Ho says that the decision was “based on a larger effort by the museum to activate new parts of our campus to show art. The lobby is a place of total movement. It is not a sheltered place but one with lots of bodies, all going places.”
Kruger’s work was deemed a perfect fit for both the museum’s iconic architecture and for the bustling hum of the lobby. “ art operates outside of galleries, in the middle of everyday life. It really has the power to grab your eye and stick in your head. This space was previously ignored, but now people are riveted. They spend a long time reading down there.”
“Belief + Doubt” invites its audience to participate in a lobby of language. The power of words can be found not only in meaning but also in size, with some words taking up entire walls, and open-ended questions covering the floors and ceilings. Kruger makes use of architecture so that reading, an act generally considered still and personal, becomes a much more physical experience.
Many of the themes represented in the exhibition will be familiar to Kruger fans, including consumerism and questions of the circulation of power. Different, though, is how these themes echo given their new context: the nation’s capital during the onset of an election year. The largest display and the inspiration for the exhibition’s title, reads: “Belief + Doubt = Sanity.” This language contrasts starkly with the absolutism that abounds in many political campaigns. “It’s telling us that ideological absolutism isn’t always a good thing,” says Ho.
The exhibition continues into the museum’s newly renovated gift shop, forcing shoppers to consider the act of purchasing while browsing. The words, “You want it, you buy it, you forget it” loom over museum-goers as they shop, a detail that Ho says makes the experience more valuable. “When those words are actually executed,” she says, “you understand them all the more.”