New York

Barbara Kruger

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

In her recent installation Barbara Kruger used the royal “we” to subjugate, threaten, and harass “you.” That “we” was given an audible Big Brother voice—male, of course—coolly meting out invective in a brilliantly mixed soundtrack punctuated with cheers, laughter, screams, church music, gagging noises, and an ominous sample from the song “We Are the World.” “My people are better than your people,” the voice intoned, “More intelligent, more graceful, more powerful, more beautiful, more chosen, more agile and cleaner. My people invented everything.” While the gallery walls were papered with a repetitious crowd scene to give you that party-rally feeling, the voice of Big Brother resounded in ten tremendous and typically Krugerian works complete with red text boxes—“Talk like us.” “Look like us.” “Think like us.”—and arresting, close-cropped images. In one work, the words “Hate like us” hovered in their red box against a black and white picture of a man who looked like he could have been making a speech before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A smaller, black text box delivered recriminations and accusations: “Your fear and loathing. Your resolute cruelty. Your relentless humiliations.” More sound bites lined both the floor, embedded with plaques, and the ceiling, painted with even more invective: “What I hate deserves it. It’s more evil, more insidious, more dangerous.” In sum, Kruger’s installation was a gesamtkunstwerk of self-righteous, hate-mongering propaganda.

Hitler would have loved it, presuming he was too dumb to figure out that Kruger uses his techniques precisely in order to expose them as techniques, and to point out that they often make ideas that are themselves highly suspect credible and acceptable. In fact, the propagandistic strategies outlined in Mein Kampf bear an uncanny resemblance to the devices deployed by Kruger in her last installation: appeal to the emotions, not the intellect; present a one-sided, unambiguous point of view that reduces issues to simple either/or and us/them oppositions; etc. Hitler also sings the praises of black, white, and red, which are not only Kruger’s signature colors, but those of the Nazi flag. In short, when Hitler writes that the task of propaganda “is not to make an objective study of the truth . . . and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly,” he could have been writing a foreword to Kruger’s latest exhibition, or even to her entire oeuvre, were he to ignore Kruger’s skillful and single-minded exploration of the awful powers of manipulative propaganda.

By talking the talk of hate but refusing to name any specific class of persona non grata (the hate is always generic or, perhaps even more frighteningly, has no target), Kruger is able to demonstrate just how hollow such rhetoric really is: depending on your inclination, you can see that it lacks substance, or you can plug in any old name you care to condemn. And when it’s delivered by a powerful instrument, it’s like the hollow-point bullet (which shatters after entering the body) that New York City police want to start using: just because it’s hollow doesn’t mean it’s less dangerous.

Keith Seward