Jenny Holzer, We Don’t Know 2014, Oil on linen 80 x 62 x 1 1/2 inches. Image courtesy of Cheim & Read
NEW YORK, NY., – As the United States prepares to attack the terrorist group known as the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraqi and Syria, one issue that continues to emerge from the dark corridors of power is the Iraq War. Proponents of the Iraq War like Dick Cheney have come out to criticize the Obama Administration for unnecessary delay in starting another war in Iraq and Syria. Supporters of the Obama Administration have, however, argued that Dick Cheney and his war hawks should be held responsible for leading America into a false war and all the problems in Iraq today. Cheney and his cohorts have also been reminded of what General Colin Powell told the Bush Administration before the Iraq invasion: “if you break it you own it.” He was right.
As the finger pointing continues, a show at the Cheim & Read in New York is trying to clarify and bring perspective to how mere conjectures became facts that lead to an unjust war that claimed the lives of more than five thousand American soldiers with many more injured. Titled Dust Paintings, the exhibition features recent painting by Jenny Holzer.
Holzer is well-known in the art circle for her unique approach to art. To create her paintings, Holzer uses government documents as a source. This has been her modus operandi since 2004. In her approach to art, Holzer focuses on language and subtext in discourses as a way of unraveling how opinions become facts. Although she began investigating the power of language as primary medium in the late 1970s, it has continued to inform her works. Many of her works are interactive and engage viewers in a way that they are forced to try and decipher smudged texts in some of her works.
One of the works in Dust Painting links the chain that led to the Iraq War by investigating the language and discourses of its architects and executors. Before the invasion of Iraq, there were many postulations by advocates of the Iraq War who insisted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and an attack on the United States would come in the form of a “mushroom cloud.” The language that laid the foundation for the Iraq War was well-crafted to present opinions as facts. These manufactured truths were used to ascertain an existential threat that made the Iraq War inevitable.
Probing government documents in 2004, months after the invasion of Iraq by the United States and the United Kingdom, Holzer reveals how faulty premises and language were effectively used to stir emotions for war. Holzer’s investigation of the Iraqi documents, however, extends beyond the language that led America to War in Iraq. The documents painted most recently also brings to the fore the human wreckage in the global War on Terror that has claimed many American lives. Holzer’s new works, hand-rendered, not only bring depth to issue of War on Terror, they are particularly poignant now with the beheading of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were just doing their best to bring attention to the plight of Iraqis and Syrians.
Torture is one of the major fallout from the Iraq War and the War on Terror. During the Iraq War, many Iraqis were arrested and incarcerated in the Abu Ghraib prison. While there, they were subjected to intense interrogation by Military Police personnel of the United States Army and the Central Intelligence Agency. When the photos of the activities in the Abu Ghraib prison surfaced in the news, the world was left in total disbelieve that a country that has a tradition of not engaging in torture was actually torturing people. To wish away the accusation of torture, the Bush Administration and its lawyers tried to redefine the word “torture” but that only further solidified the notion that what happened at the Abu Ghraib prison was torture. Jamal Naseer who died in the custody of U.S. Special Forces helped deepened that perception.
Several works in Dust Painting address the issue of torture especially the death of Jamal Naseer, an Afghan prisoner who died while in the custody of U.S. Special Forces. Using the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command’s Gardez Report as source material, Holzer presents works that evoke a dark moment in the history of the United States. Painted in whites, blacks, and grays, she illuminates the core of Command’s Gardez Report .
Command’s Gardez Report details the investigation of Jamal Naseer’s death. While in the custody of U.S. Special Forces, Naseer and seven other men were made to kneel on the ground while a mixture of snow and water was poured over them. Besides the chilling punishment, Naseer also sustained beating on the back, face, and legs. The shock and bewilderment that has come to characterize the revelation that prisoners of war were so badly treated by American interrogators are revealed in some of Holzer’s paintings. Some of the paintings have disintegrated grounds while others are left incomplete, leaving ragged black holes. In some paintings, the backgrounds blend with words in a way that makes the texts difficult to decipher. It is Holzer’s way of saying “These are unspeakable horrors.”
Heavily redacted CIA and FBI reports inspired a group of paintings that struggle to conceal their truth. Since the truth inherent in the redacted CIA and FBI reports are masked, Holzer decided to impose her own truth by placing colors and words like “secret” and “terrorist operation” on the redacted spaces. Some of the works which reference Suprematist or Color Field paintings engendered deep curiosity among viewers.
Dust Paintings is not Holzer’s first appearance at Cheim & Read. In 2006 she had a solo exhibition that brought to the fore what happens to people after years of war. Using documents structured on language, Holzer addressed the Fog of War, a lingo that became common place after years of war in Iraqi and Afghanistan. As the War on Terror continues, “Fog of War” is gradually been replaced with “War Wary”, a signification that Americans are tired of endless wars, even as the debate of whether to return to war in Iraq and Syria rages on.
Comparing works in Holzer’s 2006 exhibition with the ones in Dust Painting, it is clear that a lot has changed. Holzer earlier paintings were screen-printed in a manner reminiscent of Warhol’s Death and Disaster series. Her recent paintings are, however, done by hand. Instead of screen printing, Holzer undertakes the performative labor of tracing and transferring the content of her new work. Each letter and its surround are cautiously hand-painted and re-painted in a manner that echoes and amplifies traditional Arabic calligraphy or ghubar. Literally translated, ghubar means “dust writing.” Henri Cole in his catalogue essay for Dust Painting, reveals the predictable and yet unpredictable essence of Holzer paintings that made them engaging to art lovers. He writes:
These new paintings of Jenny’s are a kind of dust-writing, or to be more exact, a kind of dust-painting. After all, they sometimes verge on darkness or dust, and, for me, they are more interesting to ponder as artworks than real evil, which can be predictable or banal. Standing before Jenny’s dust-paintings, if I squint my eyes and let my imagination run wild, I can hear a call to prayer. I can see a crowded street with men rushing past, stirring up dust. And I also can see shrouded women behind them sprinkling water—quietly, methodically— to settle it.
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Jenny Holzer’s Dust Paintings at the Cheim & Read in New York is very poignant as it reminds Americans about how language was effectively used to rouse emotions that led to the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan. As America begins to contemplate the attack on the terrorist group known as the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria as part of the War on Terror, Holzer’s Dust Paintings is a reminder that everyone must do due diligence not just by analyzing the discourses but also the facts. While President Barack Obama’s prime-time speech lay out plans for “degrading and ultimately destroying the terrorist group, everyone must be vigilant on how this new War on Terror is executed.