PRINT September 1990

Lars Nittve

“MONEY TALKS” were the buzzwords, accompanied by knowing winks, during the press days at the Café Florian. More or less wild rumors were circulating about how many dollars and deutsche marks had been spent on the installations of Jenny Holzer and Reinhard Mucha: Holzer in the American Pavilion with superelegant diamond-pattern floors in Italian marble, neoclassicist marble benches, and electronic LED signs, over 500 feet long in all, supported by fancy computer software; Mucha with a room within a room, built in exactly the same stone as the rest of the West German Pavilion, and with perfect glass-and-aluminum vitrines, some of them housing 40 sculptures of cast brass. Through their attention to detail and to their sites, these two shows managed to suggest that they had been there ever since the pavilions were built.

Money talks, but its language is far from clear. It may speak an intimidating message of national power and authority. But it may also say that the first woman to represent the United States in a one-person show at the Venice Biennale was given the resources she asked for. It may express respect for her intentions, and for Mucha’s—something that many artists, including those from the other wealthy nations of the world, seldom if ever receive, even in circumstances such as these. In short, of course it cost money—plenty of money—to create Holzer’s and Mucha’s installations, but that was not what made them the most disturbing, complex, and powerful shows in the Biennale; for me, the shows that actually made the trip to Venice worthwhile.

Both artists were born in the same year, 1950; both in what might be regarded as the heartland of their respective countries, the Midwest and the Ruhr valley; both seem to view art as something in and of this world, in and of this context, and both owe a debt to Minimalism, with its insights into the theatrical space of the object. Holzer and Mucha, then, are almost archetypal representatives of North American and German contemporaneity. They are perfect participants in the Biennale.

As visitors enter the American Pavilion, most choose to turn left from the entrance rotunda. They continue on through the first gallery, moving slowly, scanning Holzer’s early “Truisms,” 1977–79, which are carved in English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish on the red and white tiles of the marble floor and on the red-marble benches. Then, in the passage from this solemn antechamber to the next gallery, they stop as if thunderstruck: for here is a glowing furnace, an aggressive, threatening fusillade of three-colored texts aimed at the viewer from the back and side walls of the relatively small space, all further reflected and multiplied in the polished red-marble floor. The antechamber too may supply a surfeit of information, yet its presentation is restful—the restfulness of the silent chapel or funeral parlor. But here the viewer confronts an implosive superabundance in which the accelerating chatter of information bits and the visual heat result in a subtle loss of meaning. Sitting on a word-covered bench back in the antechamber, itself overflowing with languages and texts, I knew that I had read something and that it had hit me, but not what, or even exactly how. It was as if this intense installation had been designed not so much to communicate Holzer’s texts as to address the idea of the communication gap. This impression was further heightened by the unstable meaning that the “Truisms” produce through their impersonal form of address: is this what she means, does she mean that this is what we mean, or does she possibly mean that this is what they mean?

Retracing their steps through the central, neutral little rotunda into the opposite wing of the pavilion, visitors come to another antechamber that seems almost a mirror image of the first one, though some of the information flow is filtered out and slowed down. The texts merge with the white benches of the room and receive a relatively calm setting in the red and black marble floor. “Truisms” like FATHERS OFTEN USE TOO MUCH FORCE and RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS THE SAME WAY had time to hit not only my eyes but also my mind before I entered what the pavilion’s commissioner, Michael Auping, refers to as Holzer’s “post-modern Madonna”: an anxious, even aggressive tribute to motherhood (or why not parenthood?), The Venice Installation, 1990, is 12 vertical LED signs flowing like a slow, restful waterfall from floor to ceiling and back, reflected in the white marble floor and repeated as a carved inscription in a red-marble tablet in the center. Thus a walk through Holzer’s installation is a walk through an implosive, impersonal superabundance of messages that ultimately spell out their inability to reach us, only to arrive at a transparent, harmonious flow of texts phrased in a fathomless, intimate form of address, triggered, it seems, by the experience of motherhood: I AM INDIFFERENT TO MYSELF BUT NOT TO MY CHILD. . . . SHE MUST STAY WELL BECAUSE HER MIND WILL OFFER NO HIDING PLACE IF ILLNESS OR VIOLENCE FINDS HER. . . . FUCK MYSELF AND FUCK ALL OF YOU WHO WOULD HURT HER.

Despite its silence, Holzer’s installation suggests an incredible din. Mucha’s does exactly the opposite. An unstoppable, cool silence surrounds one before one even enters the Kaaba-like cell that rises pale white and threatening in the center of the West German Pavilion. Once inside, the silence is deafening. On the felt-covered walls are large cases behind whose glass are assembled, in their original arrangement, the planks from the floor of Mucha’s studio, in a former railroad factory in Düsseldorf. The arrangement resembles both a gigantic book and an enlarged computer microchip, these images in their turn connoting memory—Modern and post-Modern. The planks seem impregnated with a dying industrial era, but also with an artistic process inspired by that era’s swan song.

The floor is everywhere in this cell: under our feet, on the walls, in the ceiling. On the glass of the display cases is a system of gray lines, an upside-down chart of the doors and windows of Mucha’s studio. The room’s claustrophobia is further heightened by this condensation and rotation of space. The cell may be seen as a charged arena of memory, but also, perhaps, as a frightening metaphor of the artist’s position in relation to the contemporary world.

What kind of cell is this lugubrious, anonymous gray box, which resembles both a piece of machinery and a coffin equipped with something like exhaust or ventilation pipes on its outside wall? Why is it in this room, which, with its neutral stone walls and denuded classicism, has the clinical feeling of some public institution rebuilt after the war? The sense of history here is completely different from the History signaled by Holzer’s marble inscriptions and White House classicism. A kind of dumbness in the surfaces of Mucha’s installation, a certain light, such subtle details as the way in which the walls meet the floor—it is through things like these that the feeling of a special time and a special period is crystallized. And even when Holzer’s installation hangs on the verge of a total collapse of meaning, it has a certain clarity, a visibility, a transparency, in stark contrast to Mucha’s opaque and sluggish processes. In place of Holzer’s “American obscenity,” in Jean Baudrillard’s phrase, one is drawn into a complex network of happenings where biographical and general, industrial culture and art culture, all rub up against each other and recombine.

Just look at the colonnade of display cases that surrounds the stone cell and its machinelike sarcophagus. Each contains a footstool—each stool with its own history of different uses in different homes—that balances on a cast-brass copy of itself. And each copy is propped up on a tape-measure case, so that the stools’ angle recalls the clever machine from which the whole installation takes its name: Deutschlandgerät (Germany tool), a hydraulic device designed to put derailed locomotives back on track. There is an association here with the industrial culture of the Ruhr, and the train reference, combined with the multivalent word Deutschlandgerät and the dark questions raised by the coffinlike cell machine, almost automatically brings to mind the unforgettable, sinister images of trains in Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust film Shoah, 1985. In Mucha’s complex piece, the reflection on history so often claimed for Anselm Kiefer’s work actually happens. Furthermore, the practical little stool and the tape measure broaden that reflection’s scope, suggesting all kinds of matter-of-fact, everyday activities forming and formed by industrial culture. The display cases in fact suggest what might be a mental portrait of Esch, the accountant in the second of Hermann Broch’s trilogy of novels Die Schlafwandler (The sleepwalkers), 1929–32: a man whose petit-bourgeois ideals force him to view his life in terms of balancing imaginary accounts, and who, as the scales of value erode, looks for an immutable bookkeeping order in which the balance of debts and credits will serve to guarantee justice.

The display cases give off an air of petit-bourgeois yearning for security that is also addressed by the Viennese artist Franz West in the Austrian Pavilion. West’s Paszstücke (Well-fitting pieces, 1990), nonspecific sculptural shapes in a white, hard-to-define material, rest on their rough pedestals not like monuments but like things put there by accident, things that may be moved away at any minute. There is a system, but anyone in the room can violate it at any time simply by picking up one of the objects. With this light, informal installation, West demonstrates the sense of insecurity that Mucha simultaneously generates, analyzes, criticizes, and undermines in his considerably more complex construction.

Lars Nittve is the director of the Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art, in Malmö, Sweden.

Translated from the Swedish by Kjersti Board.