sat 13/04/2024

Barbara Kruger, Serpentine Gallery review - clever, funny and chilling installations | reviews, news & interviews

Barbara Kruger, Serpentine Gallery review - clever, funny and chilling installations

Barbara Kruger, Serpentine Gallery review - clever, funny and chilling installations

Exploring the lies, deceptions and hyperbole used to cajole, bully and manipulate us

Still from 'Untitled (No Comment)', 2020, by Barbara KrugerCourtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago

American artist Barbara Kruger started out as a graphic designer working in advertising, and it shows. Her sharp design skills and acute visual intelligence now produce funny, clever and thought provoking installations in which words and pictures illuminate the way language is (mis)used to cajole, bully, manipulate and lie.

The Serpentine Gallery show opens with one of her most iconic pieces – a hand holding up a card which reads: “I shop therefore I am” (pictured below), a witty rejoinder to the famous maxim “I think, therefore I am” penned by philosopher René Descartes in the 17th century. The piece has been reconfigured as a video in which her original message (from 1987) disintegrates into jigsaw pieces before reconfiguring in a sequence: “I shop therefore I hoard”; “I need therefore I shop”; “I love therefore I need” and “I die therefore I was”.Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.,(Installation view, 1 February – 17 March 2024, Serpentine South) Photo: George DarrellAppearing in her work for the first time, the past tense is tragi-comic in its hideous finality. Dropping like a guillotine blade, it marks the end of an apparently pointless life spent accumulating stuff in a vain attempt to quench unfulfilled desires. As with much of her work, its resonance grows and grows over time as life increasingly seems to imitate her art. For instance, her words evoke a sad loner, yet these days we are all allocated the role of consumer – born primarily to buy, buy, buy – while the role of citizen, part of a supportive community, is increasingly undermined.

Your body is a battle ground, 1989/2019, (pictured below left) is another work that becomes ever more prescient with the wars raging over gender politics and renewed bans on abortion. It makes Untitled (Forever), 2017, (pictured below), a room dedicated to dystopian visions of society, the more chilling since it seems to anticipate the rise of fascism and another Donald Trump term. Spelled out in emphatic black and white capitals across the floor is a quote from George Orwell: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.” And covering one wall is a list of the antagonisms stoked up to fragment society: “civil war, class war, trade war, race war, gang war, holy war, bidding war, cold war, world war … war without end”.

Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.,(Installation view, 1 February – 17 March 2024, Serpentine South) Photo: George DarrellHaving explored similar territory for 50 some years, you’d have thought Kruger would run out of ideas. Not a bit of it. Dominating the central space is a huge screen showing Untitled (No Comment) (main picture). Using her own aphorisms plus found words and images, she explores the Orwellian soup of delusion, manipulation, hypocrisy, lies, hyperbole, double think and double speak in which Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and their like swim freely and thrive. Trump cuddles the American flag; a plump grey cat says “Help us trust in your word”; the Austrian writer Karl Kraus reveals that ‘The secret of the demagogue is to make himself as stupid as his audience so that they believe they’re as clever as he is”; a contortionist defies gravity; satnav advises “take the roundabout at denial”; a black man shoots his mirror image; French writer Voltaire warns that “Those who make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities” and the voice-over says “Thank you for sharing” !

The piece is clever, funny, and beguiling but also terrifying in its nifty simulation of the barrage of stuff aimed at us every minute of every day; stuff that comes so thick and fast we don’t have time to analyse, assess, digest and absorb it, or reject and spit it out. So we slosh around in it and, unwittingly, soak it in. While playing the game, though, Kruger also lifts the veil on the tricks employed in the art of visual and verbal seduction and deception.

Barbara Kruger FOREVER Installation view, Sprüth Magers, Berlin, September 16, 2017-January 20, 2018 Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers Photo: Timo OhlerShe clearly loves language and how the meaning of words changes in response to the issues and concerns of the day. Untitled Artforum, 2016/2020, is a video of a magazine double-spread in which you see her riffing on the word post. “A post,” she writes, “used to be something you hitched a horse up to.” Now it has become a prefix which is added to nouns to denote a perceived state of being. She lists a few including post-identity, post-race, post-gender and post-human. Then asks laconically, “Can we really hope for a post-end. Can we stop the Grim Reaper?”

Her final query “Who’s selling this and who’s buying? ” is a question that underpins everything she addresses. And it’s why her work feels like a breath of fresh air, a moment of truth, a glimmer of sanity – a straw for the drowning to clutch at.

It’s a question we’d do well to ask ourselves every single time we read something, whether it seems plausible or wreaks of bullshit.

A breath of fresh air, a moment of truth, a glimmer of sanity

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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