NORTH ADAMS - "I've learned how to disappear space," says artist Jenny Holzer. "If you turn the lights off, it doesn't seem so big."
Holzer is standing in the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's cavernous Building 5, where she and her crew are about to test an interior xenon projection that will fill the 252-foot-by-53-foot space with moving text. Holzer's first interior light projection in the United States, the new work is the highlight of a major yearlong exhibition at Mass MoCA, which also features silkscreened paintings, shown for the first time in America, from her ongoing series on declassified documents pertaining to the US "war on terror."
The interior projections are the latest evolution of Holzer's unmistakable oeuvre, which over the last 30 years has explored sociopolitical issues such as power, war, and death through text. With pieces in the permanent collections of the world's top museums, Holzer is considered one of America's foremost living artists.
But at Mass MoCA, all the reputation in the world doesn't help get this exhibit up and running. "I'd be pacing around and freaking out if I didn't have the side show to worry about," says the 57-year-old artist. Though her work is highly conceptual, Holzer is down to earth. Very tall yet unimposing, with long, stick-straight brown hair and thoughtful brown eyes, Holzer is sporting Levi's, a gray wool crewneck, and a brown field jacket. Her easy, unassuming style matches her straightforward and, despite her immense success, self-effacing approach to art making.
Holzer moves to the smaller back room to choose paintings for the show while crew members set up projectors on either side of the main room. Each will project the same text, at the same speed, across the floor, up the opposite wall, and back across the ceiling. Using chain pulleys, they hoist the massive machines into midair and turn them on. Words cover the room, swaying from the movement of the projectors dangling in space. "From time to time/ someone still must/ dig up a rusted argument/ from under a bush" wiggles on the floor in front of a visitor before settling down.
Then there is a quick rewind of the 3- to 4-hour film loop, with words whizzing by at a breakneck speed. "Do you like the majestic pacing?" asks Holzer, laughing as she emerges from the back room. "It's the Evelyn Wood speed-reading version."
For the Mass MoCA installation, which runs through next fall, Holzer is employing the work of several writers, with the texts switching out every few months. She has chosen to begin the show with poems by Nobel prize-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska.
"Szymborska writes on a number of subjects that are of interest to me," Holzer says. "She has a poem about torture, about refugees. There's one about a terrorist. These are things that are on people's minds now. She writes about writing. She writes about being guilty. And then there's one about parting that I like at the end because it's a gentle release.
"Szymborska manages to speak to everything essential," Holzer continues, "and I think that's a good thing to proffer to people. Here is what's essential, written by a superb poet, floating by you. It will be a little mysterious. It's almost a representation of what floats around in one's mind. That's a little cornball and literal, but I think of it that way."
Soon the crew gets the first projection moving at the right speed, which Holzer says is "slow enough to be accessible and serious, fast enough that you won't drift off." There is certainly a chance of that, as Holzer has designed enormous beanbags for the show, to be scattered around the floor of the space. "A lot of what will appear here will be on the ceiling, and it's just mean to ask people to crane their necks for extended periods of time," she says.
"Can we have it cover more of the walls?" she asks one projectionist as an "A" slowly slides up her back. "We might as well use the side walls." The projection is tweaked, and in a few minutes the side walls are covered as well. Then the second projector starts up, and suddenly the entire room is awash in a sea of text. We walk across the room, back to the entrance, and stand in the doorway. The words are small and legible as they emerge from the floor, then stretch and distort - what Holzer refers to as the "Star Wars thing" - as they move across the room to the far wall, where they once again become legible before fracturing on the beamed ceiling. "There's our composition," she says. "You go in and out of reading text and looking at funny lights. So that's our little trick."
Holzer has created only one other interior xenon projection, at Vienna's MAK museum last fall. "We've done any number of them outdoors," she explains, "and then there was a chance to work in the MAK. They have a beautiful large interior space with a glass ceiling, and I couldn't think what to do there and didn't have the money to do something material to fill it. So I thought, oh, what about bringing the projections in?"
Holzer first gained attention in the late 1970s and early 1980s with guerrilla art pieces placed around New York City that featured her own cryptic statements and aphorisms on posters, movie marquees, and even the giant LED zipper in Times Square. She has since created numerous text pieces on large-scale LED screens as well as massive xenon projections on building facades and other exterior spaces, including the Louvre's pyramid in Paris, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, New York's Rockefeller Center, and the Pacific Ocean off La Jolla. Last month, Holzer presented her second xenon projection in Washington, D.C., with quotes from John F. Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt projected from the terrace of the Kennedy Center onto the Potomac River.
"Can you stand to see this from one more angle?" Holzer asks as she traverses the room and climbs the stairs to the balcony, where three more paintings are being displayed. From there one can take in the entire expanse of the space and see how Building 5, despite Holzer's earlier statement, has not "disappeared" but has instead become articulated by the play of light and shadow of the text.
As the words drift by and dissipate, Holzer says, "Oh, this is Szymborska's torture poem - perhaps a bit too timely right now. It has a great ending, though." When quoted by her, it seems oddly ironic given its current ephemeral context: "The body is and is and is, and has no place to go."