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Word art and the art of domination at the Tate Modern

Mon. 20 Nov. 2017

As I mentioned in a recent News item, I visited the Tate Modern late in October and I was impressed by a great deal of what was offered for public viewing in the many extensive exhibition halls. There was probably a number of individual exhibits that might have made worthy subject matter for my News page, but none more so than one of the “provocative statements” made by American artist Jenny Holzer as part of her Inflammatory Essays from 1979–82. It is little wonder this one caught my eye:

The most exquisite pleasure is domination. Nothing can compare with the feeling. The mental sensations are even better than the physical ones. Knowing you have power has to be the biggest high, the greatest comfort. It is complete security, protection from hurt. When you dominate somebody you’re doing him a favor. He prays someone will control him, take his mind off his troubles. You’re helping him while helping yourself. Even when you get mean he likes it. Sometimes he’s angry and fights back but you can handle it. He always remembers what he needs. You always get what you want.

According to the gallery’s blurb on the piece, Holzer fly-posted her collection of statements all over New York City (actually only Manhattan, apparently) “so that people could stumble across them by chance”. I dare say the one that caught my eye would have raised a few eyebrows, perhaps more so than many of the others. But then apparently that was the whole point of the exercise: to raise eyebrows and, in Holzer’s own words, to “instill a sense of urgency in the reader. I wanted the reader to jump...and maybe consider doing something useful”. Quite.

Each of Holzer’s statements – or “essays” – has 100 words in 20 lines, and they are not named individually but together form the whole that is Inflammatory Essays; they are offset lithographs printed in New York on paper of various colours and published by Holzer. The dimensions of each one is 17 x 17 inches (432 x 432mm) – you can see them in scale particularly in the fourth and fifth pictures here. Said scale is accentuated due to each “essay” being printed multiple times to form its own towering column of word-art.

The photos I’ve included with this item I took myself, and I think they show this particular exhibit in the context of the venue’s architecture – at least a small part of it, the Blavatnik Building Level 4 Concourse to be precise. The Tate Modern – the refurbished and repurposed Bankside Power station on the south bank of the Thames, central London – is a thoroughly atmospheric building and an attraction in its own right.

Exploring the building and its history was, I admit, one of the goals of this, my second, visit to the Tate Modern. Finally completed as a power station in 1963 and closed in 1981, it reopened as one of the world’s premier modern and contemporary art galleries in May 2000. Apparently, as ever, vandals posing as “developers” wanted to demolish the building in the years from 1963 to 1993 or so, and they were aided by official refusal to have the building listed and protected. Fortunately there were enough people with both vision and clout to produce the result we can all enjoy today – and the gallery has indeed proved popular beyond all expectations.

Returning to Inflammatory Essays, the whole series is on the Tate Modern’s website: Room: Blavatnik Building Level 4 Concourse. To read about the work in more detail, see: Inflammatory Essays 1979–82, Tate Modern catalogue entry.

To learn more about the Tate Modern itself and the building that houses it, see the gallery’s own website, Tate Modern. International modern and contemporary art. And, ever helpful for well-laid-out, quick information (as long as the subject is not controversial), is Wikipedia: Tate Modern.

Now, interested readers have no doubt noticed my photos of another exhibit – the final three pics below those dealing with Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays. I couldn’t resist including them here: Marcel Duchamp’s iconic – or, perhaps more accurately, iconoclastic – Fountain of 1917, signed as “R. Mutt”. One needs an appreciation of art history to know of its importance, so that’s not really a topic for my site.

It’s not often I include so many pictures with one of my News items; in fact, the only other one I can remember was also about art: Banksy’s Dismaland, which I attended when it was at Weston-super-Mare’s old Tropicana in 2015. For those interested in such subjects, here it is: Was Banksy’s Dismaland really so dismal? And for other of my musings on art-meets-BDSM, see Wax series 3: Jackson Pollock meets an insect.

Mistress Geo