Barbara Kruger: Complex Mechanisms Of Power Gender And Class – Nico Kos-Earle

Barbara Kruger I shop

En route to the Serpentine in Kensington Gardens, a black and white taxi blurs past me, drawing my gaze along Exhibition Road. I glimpse the words YOU, ME, YOU in bold capitals – two of them are crossed out with a green X. These words trigger a random set of emotions: love, regret, yearning and something I cannot name. I recognise that bold, imperative Futura type; it characterises iconic works by the artist Barbara Kruger. 

The taxi is one of a series of public art interventions that form part of Kruger’s solo show Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. I Mean You now on at the Serpentine South. Kruger’s first institutional solo show in London in over 20 years, it features iconic works reconfigured in recent years as video works, including Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) (1997-2019) and Untitled (Your body is a battleground) (1989/2019), recently presented at LACMA and MoCA, and adapted to specific locations within Serpentine, both indoors and out.

Whilst the artist was not present at the PV (the condition for publication of this article is that no portrait of the artist is published), her voice was everywhere. Kruger (b. 1945, Newark, New Jersey, USA) is widely known for her impactful work with images and words. Drawing from an early career as a graphic designer for magazines, Kruger developed a high-impact lexicon that frequently borrows from the techniques and aesthetics of advertising. Since the 1970s, her artworks have called out, named and sometimes shamed the complex mechanisms of power, gender, class, consumerism, and capital. “I try to make work that joins the seductions of wishful thinking with the criticality of knowing better,” she says in the catalogue.

Kruger Taxi
Barbara Kruger London Taxi 2024 Photo © Artlyst

Much of the force in the work derives from her eyeball-to-eyeball, direct address to the viewer, so emblematic of potent advertising campaigns. Associated with the Pictures Generation, who questioned the patriarchy of language and sign, Kruger has often shown with feminist postmodern artists like Jenny Holzer, Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman, as she uses the language of mass communication to explore gender, identity and power. Rarely interviewed or photographed herself, she often states her work attempts to represent “how we are to one another”. If that is the case, things are not looking good right now in our increasingly polarised society; Kruger’s monochromatic, shouting aesthetic, shot with blood-red lines, reflects the anxiety of our present like no other artist.

Her early, seminal works from the 1980s are characterised by large-scale black and white photographs bordered in red (like the Time magazine cover) and overlaid with provocative captions, stated in white-on-red Futura Bold Oblique or Helvetica Ultra Condensed. Frequently, she deploys pronouns – you, your, I, we, me – highlighting how cultural constructions of the self and sexuality are co-opted into consumerism.

Pay attention! she is telling us. Look at all the intrusive, self-serving visual imperatives surrounding us in the urban landscape and how they increase in the digital world (propped up by massive hidden servers in sheds lining the highways). Consider how they drive or trigger us and could stop us from seeing what we should look at.

Naturally, Kruger excels in the realm of public works of art. For those who want to follow the floating signifier, this taxi leads us back to 1994, when L’empathie peut changer le monde (Empathy can change the world) was installed on a train station platform in Strasbourg, France; then 1997, in New York, when Kruger wrapped city buses with quotations from figures as divergent as Malcolm X, Courtney Love and H.L. Mencken. For her first retrospective at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Kruger created 15 billboards, followed by a public awareness campaign to promote arts instruction covered a bus with phrases like, “Give your brain as much attention as you do your hair, and you’ll be a thousand times better off”. We could do with that bus in London right now.

Barbara Kruger Your Body Is A Battleground Serpentine 2024 Photo © Artlyst
Barbara Kruger Your Body Is A Battleground Serpentine 2024 Photo © Artlyst

If you must ask why her work is so vital now, then you have not been listening. Every serious artist has a moment in which what they have been thinking about and making suddenly becomes urgent or iconic – a poster to the present. Countless examples spring to mind: Peter Doig’s harlequin costume overlaps with Harry styles at the Brit Awards; Soheila Sokhanvari’s Rebel Rebel opening at the Barbican, as #WomenLifeFreedom protests began in Iran on the death of Mahasa Amini. However, on multiple occasions, Kruger has said, “My work is seldom incident or event-specific”.

Given her resurgence of power, one might say Kruger’s work is endlessly generative precisely because we are not listening; this exhibition features recent video reconfigurations – or as the artist calls them, replays – of numerous iconic pieces from the 1980s, including Untitled (Your body is a battleground) (1989). The show opens with Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) (1987), centrally placed on the back wall, framed by the doorway. Playing on Rene Descartes’s famous dictum “I think, therefore I am”, the video begins with an image of the original 1987 work being shattered into puzzle pieces, which are then reassembled to ‘rebuild’ the work. Made to hold our shortened attention spans, she offers us a language of irony and double meaning, open to interpretation depending on your familiarity with her work or the history of ideas in general. One would assume everyone coming to this exhibition would know Descartes; crushingly, I realise my daughter might not.

The walls that frame this looped video are wrapped with a large-scale photographic work: black and white hands holding up strange placards that read like an infinity mirror. UNTITLED (THAT’S THE WAY WE DO IT) (2011/2020) seems composed of Pinterest mood boards on a Kruger theme. In each red-framed rectangle, we see endless appropriations, imitations and fake iterations of Kruger’s signature monochrome style, overlaid with bold Futura text on a red ground. Unlike the rest of her works, these have no central message. It has more to do with looking at a DNA sequence; we can see the artist’s influence proliferate, reconfigure and fracture unexpectedly. This work speaks precisely to the confusion of our era: they multiply, manufacture and distort the original message to the point of nullity.

Barbara Kruger You Serpentine Gallery 2024 Photo © Artlyst
Barbara Kruger You Serpentine Gallery 2024 Photo © Artlyst

Untitled is in the room behind this, placed precisely in reverse to the endlessly reconfiguring opening work (No Comment) (2020). The exhibition is the UK premiere of this immersive three-channel video installation, exploring contemporary modes of online creation and consumption. It is fabulously, audaciously surreal. Combining text, audio clips, and a barrage of found images and memes, ranging from blurred-out selfies to animated photos of cats, it captures our endless capacity to accept the random, discombobulated nature of capitalism and how that traps us like mice in ever-increasing circles. It is hilarious and haunting – I want to post about it instantly. I do, but it does not carry.

I keep going, past PLEDGE, WILL, VOW (1988/ 2020) UNTITLED (OUR PEOPLE ARE BETTER THAN YOUR PEOPLE), (1994) and UNTITLED (FOREVER), (2017), accompanied by Kruger’s ROGUE RADIO – a chorus of recorded greetings, and sentiments that address us directly. I am looking for her seminal work UNTITLED (YOUR BODY IS A BATTLEGROUND) (1989/ 2019), which, unlike the other pieces, was made in response to a particular event. Made for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington in support of legal abortion, a woman’s face is bisected into positive and negative photographic reproductions and overlaid with three red lines. The forehead reads “Your body”, the nose “is a”, and the chin is “battleground”. A year later, Kruger used this slogan in a billboard commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts. Soon after, a group opposed to abortion responded to Kruger’s work by replacing the adjacent billboard with an image depicting an eight-week-old foetus.

One historic poster might have provided some conceptual or aesthetic DNA to this: a recruitment poster created by Alfred Leete for the cover of London Opinion magazine in September 1914. The stern-eyed Lord Kitchener, replete with a handlebar moustache, is looking straight at us and pointing a finger. His black and white visage is underscored by the red words “Your Country Needs You”. An image now symbolic of the horrific number of lives called to and lost on the front in World War One, this connection to Kruger’s iconic “Battleground” gives me pause. If you are watching the current news cycle, there is a clear and present danger of war becoming our reality again – for so many, it already is.

Meanwhile, our bodies are still a battleground for at least half the population and counting. What happened to those who protested for Women’s Life Freedom? What can we do about Palestine or the Ukraine whilst there is so much energy wasted fighting at home? These resurrecting arguments we thought were settled (how much mudslinging are we going to be subjected to with the forthcoming elections in the UK and USA)? Therein lies the power of Kruger’s well-chosen words and the genius in this exhibition titled Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You Kruger’s work speaks to the now, whatever your NOW is, because we are all in it, being duped and manipulated, manipulating and forgetting images in the media. Kruger says, “Anyone shocked by what is happening now has not been paying attention. YOUR BODY IS A BATTLEGROUND, still.

Words: Nico Kos Earle Photos P C Robinson © Artlyst 2024

Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You Serpentine South 1 February – 17 March 2024 FREE

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