By Heather Newberger
“We are not what we seem.”
Artist Barbara Kruger is not only a creator of slogans but images and photographs. One of those rare individuals who can combine artistic vision with innate design skill, Kruger began her career as a designer and photo editor for Conde Naste Publications and Mademoiselle. She now uses her specialized skills to subtly attack the nation – her work, often accusatory in tone, frequently targets “you” directly and by name.
Looking at Kruger’s early 80’s prints, one might take them for overexposed photographs instead of serious art. The photos depict cheap situations – a woman placing a glass eye back in her socket, for example, or a child’s wind up toy staring blankly at the camera. Kruger engages the audience with white text placed on a black or red background, choosing to let the words speak instead of the minds of art critics and viewers. She makes definitive decisions with her pieces; they tell you how to feel, imposing her views against your own.
Kruger’s field installations pieces oftentimes accompanied by audio, attack the apathetic art-goer; it’s art that physically yells at you, overwhelming your ears as well as eyes. One of her most publicized works was featured in New York’s Mary Boone Gallery in 1994 and functioned as a living, breathing organism, asking questions of viewers to spark dialogue.
That same year Kruger installed a similar display in the Serpentine Gallery in London. The work simply asked “why are you here?” and “what do you want?” on red steal beams that covered the ceiling, while the walls displayed eyes, tongues and other body parts making harsh statements. The words “talk like us” were featured across a picture of a mouth, while smaller letters beneath it asked, “who knows that empathy will change the world?” The side of the wall then asked, “how dare you not be me?”
In the 1990’s, Kruger worked with the French government to make one of her installations permanent. In a train station in Strasbourg, France, Kruger used many of the elements featured in her other displays, again painting red beams that ask questions such as “where are you going?” in hope that travelers ask themselves the very same thing when beginning a journey. On other concrete beams, Kruger wrote different questions that she herself continually asks, “who speaks,” “who is silent,” “who dies first,” and “who prays the loudest.”
There is an existential and almost jarring component to Kruger’s work, which begs the viewer to leave their circumscribed idea of art. Combining the concepts of art design and media, Kruger creates pieces that not only have the capacity to be distributed in mass quantity but create intimacy between the viewer and the art. They establish almost a para-social relationship between the piece of art and the art-goer, and it soon becomes hard for the viewer not to be compelled by the image. Marilyn Monroe receives the tag “not stupid enough,” while a couple kissing wears surgical masks under the label “fight like us.”
Taken in and out of context, these images make a direct comment on personal ethics and morals. There’s something classy about the art, something compelling and simple, yet messy and earnest. Kruger’s work sheds a lot of light on her personal and political standpoints and does so in way that’s beautiful and refined, but also completely catastrophic.
Heather Newberger is a freshman IMC majoer who wants you to walk this way. Write like this to hnewber1 at ithaca.edu