New York

Jenny Holzer

Gladstone Gallery | West 21st St

Ludicrously disproportionate to its quarters, Jenny Holzer’s uncanny, hulking construction gobbled up all available space, fostering a sense of claustrophobia in no way diminished by the impossibility of grasping its overall shape. Literally shrouded in darkness, the “thing” (Is it sculptural object? architectural structure? theatrical set?) exuded seduction and menace, invitation and entrapment. A pulsating ruby glow pulled one along the exterior wall toward a gaping, arched rear entrance and the source of the light—a newfangled, 3-D volumetric LED display sign generating vectors of radiant letters that spelled out words that turned into sentences that told a story that hovered before our eyes and then disintegrated. The same narrative—a description of a rape from the perspective of the perpetrator, the victim, and the observer—was tooled into the leather lining the dim interior of the structure. Thus unfolds Untitled (Lustmord), 1993–94, which loosely translated from the German is “sex murder.”

Lustmord cleaves to both an antiquated past and a technological future. Oddly reminiscent of a sci-fi survival capsule, its beautifully appointed interior seemed designed to accommodate its inhabitant(s) in the civilized mode of their mother culture at the same time that its exterior must meet the demands of a hostile environment. In Holzer’s hands, the disparity between the familiar and the unfamiliar becomes allegorical fodder for her ongoing eschatological meditations on being here, alive, human, and then . . . dead. From a phenomenological point of view, the imagination has its limits, yet it’s those very limits that Holzer most wants to test and perhaps to obliterate, but definitely to know from the “other side.” That is her theater, her fiction, her art. The ritualistic, mortuary, Gothic-futuristic aspects of her fantasy settings—all extremely pumped up in Lustmord—are, in effect, window dressing for her excursions into brooding romanticism and the poetics of perversity.

Holzer mercifully sidesteps the sort of “rape is bad” didacticism that insults the intelligence of the viewer: she views violence as a given and plumbs its depth for those moments of acute insight and sensation produced by extreme situations. While Lustmord is scripted for three characters, as in all of Holzer’s “spirit texts,” the most important persona is one who is never named but whose voice is actually the only one we ever hear. It is an ephemeral she, who bridges time and gender and the vagaries of cultural conventions, a she who never judges but possesses each of her subjects as though to learn their secrets. She lives their longing, their silence, their death, but somehow can’t escape her own superior knowledge and remorse.

Another important object-element completed the Lustmord event. Displayed in a room of their own were human bones, each outfitted with an engraved silver band. Viewers were invited to handle the bones and, in so doing, to imagine a death, perhaps a violent one, as though it were their own; to engage in the perversity of holding someone’s bones, as though they were art; to remember their own sublime moments of fear or terror or alienation, as though they belonged to another. More so than all of the special effects put together, such relations vividly brought Lustmord to life: we were afforded the opportunity, in Holzer’s words, of being “awake in the place that women die.”

Jan Avgikos