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
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
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