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Believers, doubters, airheads

11 July 2014

Jonathan Evens on an artist whose work is bold and ambiguous


Surrounding the viewer with slogans: Untitled (Titled), 2014, by Barbara Kruger, in her current exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, in Oxford

Surrounding the viewer with slogans: Untitled (Titled), 2014, by Barbara Kruger, in her current exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, in Oxford

WERE I to be in ministry in Oxford at present, Barbara Kruger's current exhibition at Modern Art Oxford would be an ideal location for a discussion-based café church/fresh expression/home-group session* (*delete as appropriate) exploring belief, consumerism, and/or the power of words - particularly as the café has good coffee, organic food, and free wifi, and is welcoming of children and families.

Kruger came to prominence in the New York art scene of the early 1980s, as one of the so-called Pictures Generation, together with Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, and Cindy Sherman. She originally worked as a graphic designer for magazines such as Mademoiselle, and now appropriates the styles and language of advertising to criticise and subvert the belief structures of capitalist consumer culture.

Her work is predominantly text-based across the media of installations, videos, and collages.

She was best-known initially for laying aggressively directive slogans over black-and-white photographs found in magazines, as in the paste-ups included in the Middle Gallery; but her range now also includes impressive immersive text installations, which, as with Untitled (Titled), in the Upper Gallery, envelop the space and those within it in slogans.

The Piper Gallery has a multi-channel video installation with 12 conversations played out across four screens, where subtitles document the unspoken thoughts of the protagonists. Elsewhere, more linear video installations use the words and images of consumer culture to question its basic premises.

Each medium reproduces for us on some level the impact of overload associated with the mass media. The immersive environment of Kruger's text installation forces the viewer into multiple perspectives in order to apprehend the meaning of words pasted across floor and walls.

Twelve, the multi-channel video installation, creates a multitudinous cacophony of sounds, words, and images, in which we can never see or know all that is occurring. Big, bold, and brash statements characterise Kruger's work, but can never be simply taken at face value, because, since they are juxtaposed with other conflicting but equally big, bold, and brash statements, ambiguity is constantly created through alternative realities.

All this leads naturally into reflections on the nature of belief. The words BELIEVERS, DOUBTERS, AIRHEADS are at the very centre of Untitled (Titled), and could be read either as a linear statement condemning believers and doubters, or as a set of categories distinguishing believers and doubters from airheads. Further ambiguity is introduced by setting these words and concepts in a room full of other labels, plus questions concerning the nature of reality.

In his catalogue essay "Winners, Losers, Believers, Doubters", Timothy Williamson, Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford, considers the nature of labels and the balancing of belief and doubt. He notes, for example, that an earlier Kruger installation contained the equation BELIEF + DOUBT = SANITY. Kruger's work, he suggests, refuses cheap solutions to that balance and the question of our own identity. By toying with off-the-shelf words, Kruger reveals that the words we use to identify and label are rarely an exact fit. While not strictly inaccurate, they can still be misleading or inadequate. Although we need to apply words, he suggests, they are potentially explosive and to be handled with care.

If all this is beginning to sound too philosophical for that imagined discussion-group session with which I began, Kruger says: "I attempt to investigate the complex inter-relationships between power and society, but as for the visual presentation itself, I try to avoid a high degree of difficulty. I would like for people to be drawn directly into the work."

The sensory impact of her visuals is where philosophical engagement begins. Connections for continuing that engagement could easily be made with, for example, the subversive statements of the Beatitudes, the teaching on the power of words in James 3, or that of the love of money in some of the epistles.

The visual engagement of the Church with the type and style of texts used by Kruger has generally been limited: Rose Finn-Kelcey's emoticon of an Angel on St Paul's Bow Common, is probably the best-known example. More modestly, the creative artist and churchwarden Caroline Richardson has, with subtlety and style, introduced a series of artworks to the Church of the Good Shepherd, Collier Row. Most recently, these have included text-based graphics in the church hall. The emoticon and texts used in both of these examples are, however, overwhelmingly positive, in contrast to the questions and challenges found in Kruger's work.

While I have imagined church groups actively engaging with Kruger's installation and exploring the questions posed, it may be that her works also challenge us to express visually in our buildings the questions that are explored in our own texts, both biblical and theological.

Barbara Kruger's exhibition is at Modern Art Oxford, 30 Pembroke Street, Oxford, until 31 August. Phone 01865 722 733.  www.modernartoxford.org.uk

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