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Art Review

Poetry in motion

Jenny Holzer's 'Projections' offers the marvel of immersion in light

Jenny Holzer's 'Projections' In an installation by Jenny Holzer, the poems of Nobel-winning Polish writer Wislawa Szymborska sweep across Mass MoCA's Building 5 from projectors at both ends. (Courtesy of Mass MoCA)
Email|Print| Text size + By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / December 14, 2007

NORTH ADAMS - Jenny Holzer's "Projections," a brilliant, hypnotic installation of projected texts rushing like waves through Mass MoCA's giant Building 5, makes canny use of the nearly empty gallery. The work's fluidity and spaciousness envelop you. The only objects are large beanbag chairs on the floor, inviting you to lie down and enjoy the light show.

It's akin to a deep, cleansing breath after the disaster involving Christoph Buchel's massive, unfinished installation "Training Ground for Democracy," which sprawled through the museum's signature space for months.

Holzer, whose text pieces often deploy advertising media such as billboards and crawling LED displays, has worked with projections for more than a decade, creating installations on the face of the Reichstag in Berlin and the Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao. Pale letters slip like water over parapets, curves, and windows, caressing the architecture. Just last year, Holzer began making interior light projections; this is her first in the United States.

Building 5, roughly the size of a football field, has stairs at one end, a balcony at the other, and crossbeams stretching below the peaked ceiling. The tart and imagistic poems of Polish writer Wislawa Szymborska, a 1996 Nobel laureate, sweep back and forth across the space from projectors at both ends, elongating illegibly along the side walls. (Text by other writers will be featured intermittently throughout the show.)

Stand at the gallery's entrance, and as poems such as "In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself" scroll upward against the far wall, the effect is epic, like watching the opening text of "Star Wars" at an IMAX theater. You may not realize at first that you are part of the installation, as illuminated text from the other end rolls up and over your body, glaring as it hits you in the eye.

Holzer has made a landscape. The beanbags that lie ahead like beached baby whales appear to be simply more forms for the lights to stretch and puddle over. Walk into the space, and you're immersed; text is harder to read and gives way to a light show. Letters dash across the floor at you, like waves on the shore. It's a magical experience, and that's partly because of the interior setting. Unlike Holzer's outdoor projections, with this piece, the four walls of Building 5 contain the crawling lights and surround the viewer in them.

It's sobering to pass from Holzer's installation, which prompts marvel, into the small galleries on two floors at the far end of Building 5, where she has mounted several of her latest silkscreen paintings depicting formerly classified government documents. These include maps that were part of a 2002 US Central Command PowerPoint briefing to the White House planning the invasion of Iraq, as well as an e-mail debate on the limits and definitions of torture (the correspondents' names and other identifying information are blacked out).

For Holzer, these works are a radical departure. It's not only the use of a traditional medium like painting, which she hasn't done much of since graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design in the 1970s. It's the text itself, which has a searing gravity not present in her earlier pieces, which could be scolding or oblique or aphoristic or beautiful, and often pushed the viewer to self- reflection. These paintings simply say, "Look." She serves the chilling information straight up. Blocks of censored text inflame the imagination.

The artist has blown images of the documents up to approximately 6 1/2 by 8 1/2 feet, printed over linen canvases covered in pale paint - purple or pewter or blue, giving way to shimmering spots of green or crimson. The tones brood and have a sickly iridescence that recalls an oil sheen. The content, silkscreened over the paint, is indelible.

"The gloves are coming off gentleman (sic) regarding these detainees. (Blacked out) has made it clear that we want these individuals broken."

The "Alternative Interrogation Technique (Wish List)" includes open-hand strikes, pressure-point manipulation, close-quarter confinement, white-noise exposure, sleep deprivation, and stimulus deprivation. Phone book strikes, low-voltage electrocution, closed-fist strikes, and muscle fatigue inducement are also suggested, as long as medical personnel are on hand.

This is the sort of material that is sometimes brought to light in the news media, to which many have become inured. On a museum wall, it's enlarged and elevated to art. It commands engagement. Too bad the museum-going public is relatively small.

Holzer's paintings and her installation make an odd but effective pair. Each body of work is lean and visceral. One fills an empty space with light and poetry. The other is a punch in the gut.

Jenny Holzer: Projections

At: Mass MoCA, North Adams, through October 2008. 413-662-2111, massmoca.org.

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