If someone isn’t eyeing us, we’re eyeing ourselves. (1)
For every artist who professes that her work “speaks for itself”, Barbara Kruger is the rare artist who actually delivers on that promise. The directness of her messaging and its unmistakable legibility owe much to our fluency in typefaces such as Futura Bold Oblique and Helvetica Ultra Compressed – which read as recognizably as if they were Kruger’s own signature, since she has used them consistently throughout her five-decade-long career as a conceptual artist. With the observational skill and rigor of a social anthropologist, Kruger has maintained a lifetime interest in recording human behavior in capitalist society, drawing on social semiotics and retinal perception to reflect our basest impulses and most selfish desires back to us.
In January 1991, Barbara Kruger created the first iteration of what would become her room wraps at Mary Boone Gallery in New York City. Room wraps are what the artist calls the space-enveloping texts with which she wallpapers all of the planes within an interior space, transforming it into a full near-disorienting spatial environment. As viewers, we are enfolded by Kruger’s words, statements, cautions, and admonishments. In this very first version, white text on red ground overtook the expanse of ceiling above and the floor below m. As one entered the space and looked down, one was met with
ALL THAT SEEMED BENEATH YOU IS SPEAKING TO YOU NOW. ALL THAT SEEMED DEAF HEARS YOU. ALL THAT SEEMED DUMB KNOWS WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND. ALL THAT SEEMED BLIND SEES THROUGH YOU. ALL THAT SEEMED SILENT IS PUTTING THE WORDS RIGHT INTO YOUR MOUTH.
Upon looking up:
DON’T LOOK UP TO ANYONE BECAUSE POWER MAKES THEM HOT. THEY DON’T WANT TO LOSE IT AND THEY NEVER GIVE IT AWAY. SOMETIMES THEY ACT HUMBLE BUT DON’T BELIEVE THEM. THEY FOLLOW THE LAW AS LONG AS IT WORKS FOR THEM.
Kruger creates situations where we can meaningfully engage in systemic critique as well as self-reflection. How often might we otherwise consider the psychosocial stakes of feeling superior or inferior to others? Of examining our own actions when looking down or someone else, or reflecting upon the circumstances dictating whom we look up to? A clairvoyant narrator confronts us, conjuring images in the mind’s eye of our vulnerabilities and those, unseen, who might exploit them. Caught between this proverbial rock and hard place, the viewer must choose where to stand between hierarchies of speaking up and hero worship. Miwon Kwon notes that Kruger can “radically explode the viewer’s habituated complacency.” (2) Kruger’s use of language actively engages the enveloping architecture in order to immerse the body and reinvigorate the mind. Our surroundings become impossible to ignore. The text for the floor of a second room of the installation unfolds like a postscript:
THE VOMITING BODY SCREAMS “KISS ME” TO THE SHITTING BODY WHICH COOS “SMELL ME” TO THE VAIN BODY WHICH HISSES “I WANT YOU INSIDE OF ME” TO THE DEAD BODY WHICH IS HARD TO DISPOSE OF.
Like an involuntary bodily emission, Kruger’s words regurgitate our unheard thoughts, suppressed urges, and unexpressed motivations. The bodies scream, excrete, struggle to verbalize, crave, whimper, and ultimately die – but not before seeing themselves being seen. (3)
In this way, Kruger engages our voyeuristic tendencies, not in the clinical, psychosexual meaning of the word voyeurism but as the term has been redefined by media studies. Lemi Baruh, a professor of advertising and communication, specifies, “Rather than emphasizing sexual deviance, recent accounts of contemporary culture conceptualize voyeurism as a common (and not solely sexual) pleasure derived from access to private details.” (4) This “curious peeking into the private lives of others,” notes Baruh, is exacerbated by the contemporary use of electronic media. Kruger, for her part, has long been aware of this societal trend. In her 1987 critique “Contempt and Adoration,” the artist likened Andy Warhol to “any good voyeur” (5) for his ability through his films to be a withholder who became the doorkeeper at the floodgates of someone else’s expurgatory inclinations. (6)
Indeed, Kruger could be referring to any number of scripted “reality” television programs when she pinpoints Warhol’s “ability to collapse the complexities and nuances of language and experiences into the chilled silences of the frozen gesture.” (7) Our willing consumption of stereotypes, then, can be construed as an act of voyeurism. Kruger summarizes “in my production pictures and words visually record the collision between our bodies and the days and nights which construct and contain them. I am trying to interrupt the stunned silences of the image with the uncouth impertinences and uncool embarrassments of language.” (8) Whereas earlier works revealed in the difference/distance between the close-up depictions of figures in black and white, face-to-face with the physical presence of our own in-living-color bodies, in the room wraps, we become the observing bodies and the observed figures simultaneously. In Untitled (Forever) (2017), a central, bold YOU. is printed in black on white as if convex in shape, and addressing the viewer:
YOU. / YOU ARE HERE, LOOKING THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, DARKLY. / SEEING THE UNSEEN, THE INVISIBLE, THE BARELY THERE. YOU. / WHOEVER YOU ARE. WHEREVER YOU ARE. ETCHED IN / MEMORY. UNTIL YOU, THE LOOKER IS GONE. / UNSEEN. NO MORE. YOU TOO.
Kruger’s YOU recalls James Baldwin’s 1962 insight in an interview with artist Ben Shahn and composer Darius Milhaud:
Art has this advantage: that you can see yourself in it, if you will bring yourself to it. The trouble with art in our time, it seems to me, is that most artists are not involved with that. They are involved with creating a fantasy that corroborates my fantasy of myself and yours of you and imprisons all of us in it. [...] It is always you. (9)
Baldwin cites the then-popular soap opera Peyton Place (1964-69) as being inescapable in its appeal because its narrative validates private fantasies in which we wish to indulge. We binge on it like junk food, are left malnourished, yet come back for more. As the viewer looks and makes value judgments as she reads, all the while being “read” by the onslaught of text from all sides, the room wraps enclose her physically while exposing her emotionally. There’s no solace in the words, as we square up to reminders of our anonymity and mortality. By playing with perspective anamorphosis within the cartouche inscription, Kruger holds up a distorted mirror into which we peer, one that acknowledges the gawking subject only to dismiss and disregard that person. In the artist’s recent work, she ensures that we the viewers are active participants rather than passive receivers of content. We have agency and must exercise it by moving around the room in order to fully apprehend the messages. The texts in our peripheral vision taunt us and court our attention. It could be argued that the only perspectives provided by contemporary media are varying degrees of anamorphosis, contributing to a social dysmorphia.
Barbara Kruger forces us to ask, “What constitutes the construction of self now?” In 1988, the artist was invited by The Museum of Modern Art in New York to curate an exhibition drawn from Moma’s permanent collection. The result, Picturing “Greatness,” included forty black-and-whtite photographic portraits, capturing historical definitions of, in Kruger’s own words, “what it means to look like an artist,” At the time, the artists who had achieved greatness were mostly male and mostly white. Kruger was there to hold up the mirror, asking, “What tropes construct self-presentation?” While what an artist looks like has expanded greatly today, Kruger’s observations remain relevant:
These images can also suggest how we are seduced into the words of appearances, into a pose of who we are and who we aren’t. They can show us how a vocation is ambushed by cliché and snapped into stereotype by the camera, and how photography freezes moments, creates prominence, and makes history. (10)
It is here worth bearing in mind that stereotype and Cliché are both historical printmaking terms related to the cheap and quick reproduction and circulation of printed texts, describing a cost- and labor-saving mechanism – a single cast copy of all the complex original component parts, and thus a simpler whole – that prevented the typesetter’s having to reset individual letters each time a page of text was reprinted. Stereotype entered common parlance as the term for generalizing, over time being understood as a prejudicial behavior primarily motivated by the need to classify difference. The adherence to stereotype or the unfounded belief in differentiation between human beings has been helpfully described by Homi K. Bhabha as something fundamentally unstable and always in a state of flux, a “fixation which moves between the recognition of cultural and racial difference and its disavowal, by affixing the unfamiliar to something established, in a form that is repetitious and vacillates between delight and fear.” (11)
Perhaps nowhere is that conflation of delight and fear more acute than on reality television, one of Kruger’s sources of observational material. The phenomenology of reality TV is founded on reductive, fight-or-flight emotional states wrought from minor misunderstandings. On camera, individuals tend to small hurts until they flower into explosive outbursts for the viewer’s voracious consumption. “We observe TV as it transforms people into personages, ironing out the complex pleats of the social into a flatly fragmented continuum of demi-associated moments.” (12) These moments of loose association to which Kruger refers are the editorial underpinning of reality television today. And yet they weren’t invented by the producers of Keeping Up with the Kardashians or The Real Housewives. In psychology, illusory correlation is the phenomenon within human perception whereby we misperceive group differences and behaviors by overdetermining what we observe. This practice can cement an infrequent occurrence as a stereotype: We come to believe what we see, based on information as limited as a onetime occurrence. Observing and being become intertwined and conjoin.
Kruger’s chosen medium, then, addresses the systems of prejudging in both form and content. Between Barbara Kruger’s sharp demarcations of black, white, and red, she expands the frame for the existence of liminal spaces between self-doubt and self-belief, superiority and oppression, fiction and reality. Kruger also cleverly remixes technologies new and old. Her earlier oeuvre presented two-dimensional scenarios in which the late Craig Owens identified that the artist mines a seam of recurrent, arresting immobility. Kruger has since turned to producing moving-image works and has also returned to previously static works, remixing them through a range of available technologies, first through lenticular prints and subsequently reinventing compositions through LED animation design. In Kruger’s Untitled (Selfie) (2020), the mobile phone has become the mirror of choice. In order to enter the work, viewers enter a contract with the artist, agreeing to participate by being photographed within the gallery.
As stereotypes are relentlessly amplified around us through digital television, streaming services, and social media, we find ever more ways to be simultaneously repelled and beguiled by our own capacity for self-absorption. The audience is self-selecting, drawing on the artist’s core motivators of questioning and casting doubt. Does one choose to avoid the room altogether or to indulge in narcissism in the name of art? Kruger makes way for multiple meanings to be elicited from the spectators as they participate voluntarily.
The effectiveness of Kruger’s conceptual interrogations lies in their inclusiveness. To again quote Miwon Kwon, the artist’s installations are “also a space for the possibility of intersubjective empathy,” (13) Kruger’s 1988 photographic silk screen on vinyl Untitled (Heart), in which the question DO I HAVE TO GIVE UP ME TO BE LOVED BY YOU? Is printed atop what looks like a dissected human heart, can be understood as either a self-centered complaint or a heartrending plea. It calls to mind the 1982 documentary All by Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story, directed by Christian Blackwood. An unapologetic and uncompromising Kitt drops such self-worth gems as “I feel very safe within myself and I like me very much,” and on matters of love she offers: “Yes, I fall in love with myself and I want someone to share me.” These affirmations have new afterlives online, as memes, Youtube clips, and #self-care GIFs. What out of context could be viewed as wholly selfish has been embraced by contemporary calls for self-love and unapologetic self-regard.
Selfie, like so much of Kruger’s oeuvre, lays bare the performative strategies of ego construction and self-definition. A poetic forebear to this project can be read in the closing lines Of Nikki Giovanni’s “Poem for a Lady Whose Voice I Like”:
and he said: you pretty full of yourself
so she replied: show me someone not
full of herself
and i’ll show you a hungry person (14)
Barbara Kruger doesn’t stand apart from the critiques she evinces, nor does she judge her audience for the positions individually taken to behold or to opt out. Instead, she optimistically offers, “There can be – and hopefully there is – separation between self-belief and narcissism.” (15) For all its black-and-white clarity, Kruger’s art ultimately revels in the gray areas, luring us into the nuances to be found in between extremes.
1. Barbara Kruger, Remote Control: Power, Cultures, and the World of Appearances (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 39
2. Miwon Kwon, “A Message from Barbara KrugerL Empathy Can Change the World,” in Barbara Kruger (New York: Rizzoli, 2010), 95.
3. The room also featured a wallpaper version of Untitled (It’s our pleasure to disgust you) (1991)
4. Lemi Baruh, “Publicized Intimacies on Reality Television: An Analysis of Voyeuristic Content and Its Contribution to the Appeal of Reality Programming,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 53, no. 2 (June 2009): 190-210
5. Kruger, Remote Control, 23
6. Kruger, 23.
7. Kruger, 23.
8. Barbara Kruger, quoted in Ann Goldstein, “Bring in the World,” in Barbara Kruger, exh, cat,ed. Goldstein (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999, 35.
9. Conversations with James Baldwin, ed, Fred L. Standley and Louis H. Pratt (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989), 31
10. Kruger, Remote Control, 222.
11. Homi K. Bhabha, “The Other Question: Stereotype, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 73.
12. Kruger, Remote Controlˆ, 98.
13. Kruger, 97
14. Nikki Giovanni, “Poem for a Lady Whose Voice I Like,” in The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni (New York: William Morrow, 1996). Also available at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48226/poem-for-a-lady-whose-voice-i-like
15. Barbara Kruger, telephone conversation with the author, January 15, 2020
Barbara Kruger, FOREVER; Installation view, Sprüth Magers, Berlin, September 16, 2017-January 20, 2018. Photo: Timo Ohler.