Until the late 1970s, making a zine was a labor of love and money. Love as in time spent assembling the thing—the cutting out, the sticking together. Money as in paying a service to print issues. By the end of the 1970s, though, with photocopiers a fixture in public libraries, agit-propagandists could make copies of their pamphlets and artwork themselves. Zine culture flourished. Granular, black and white Xeroxed appropriated images overlaid with Letraset phrases were affordable carriers for political statements and creative theorizing. Plus, they could be pasted up wherever the artists wished (until they were taken down).
This kind of DIY approach has informed Barbara Kruger’s work since the early 1980s. The grain and the grit, the declamatory phrases, the high contrast—both visually and in polemic—were reflected in the Woman’s Art Journal’s review of Kruger’s first European solo exhibition (at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art) in 1983. The Journal positioned Kruger at the vanguard of DIY political art, saying she was “…fully aware of the politics of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Her use of photography is radical, confrontational, agitational and obviously influenced by Benjamin’s theory of montage.”
The Benjamin in question is German art theorist Walter Benjamin, who used his 1935 essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, to predict how reproduction machines would specifically benefit artists whose work has a political basis. Authenticity lost its meaning (“…from a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense”) as the reproductive process itself was baked into the artwork. And reproduction means access—now artwork could be designed to be viewed on any wall, anywhere. Art and technology historian Margot Lovejoy folded Barbara Kruger’s work into Benjamin’s thinking for her 1989 essay, ‘The Copier: Authorship and Originality’, describing Kruger’s “…now characteristic black-and-white photographs re-photographed from existing sources…composed together with phrases typeset in Futura Bold italic and presented in red lacquered wood frame.”
The paste-up photocopying may be long gone but Kruger’s punchy aphorisms and unflinching strength (at nearly eighty) are still firmly evident in “THINKING OF YOU. I MEAN ME. I MEAN YOU” at London’s Serpentine Gallery. It’s been twenty years since Barbara Kruger’s last solo show in the capital and “THINKING…” is an undoubtedly power-packed addition to London’s art calendar. Part retrospective, part recent work, the Serpentine has given over all of its five gallery spaces to Kruger’s large-scale thoughtforms, mixing do-overs of early works with contemporary video and standalone sound pieces.
Barbara Kruger’s multimedia layers of meaning
(Untitled) Remember Me (the two words laid over a Man Ray-esque grayscale all-seeing eye) is soundtracked by 2021’s Untitled (I love you) sound piece, in which a woman’s voice says nothing more than “hello?” and then “I love you”. Add a question mark to the image’s title and its nature changes altogether. Untitled (No Comment) is a huge LED screen video piece featuring found footage and sound. An acrobat bends himself in half while a male voice patronizingly praises women’s work around the house. There are single, loud clock strikes and snatches of quotations from Voltaire and Kendrick Lamar. A satnav tells someone off for their lack of empathic capacity. Amidst images of a talking cat and blurred-out Insta selfies, another anonymous voice says “thank you for sharing”.
Upgrading from paper collages to LED screens suits Kruger’s work—after all, she was making memes before memes were a thing. Double screens for new artwork Untitled (Artforum) show text revealing itself as it’s typed. White pages eventually packed with black words, an invisible hand then adds notes and marginalia in red for added clarity. This is the art of the twin twenty-first-century overs: over-explaining and oversharing.
The desperate urge to be understood in a clamorous, look-at-me-please world. The three screens for Untitled (Pledge, Will, Vow) showcase worked and re-worked snatches of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance, last will and testament legalese and formal marriage vows. Some video screens are static LED images (backlit, never has Kruger’s trademark red looked redder). First exhibited in 1987 and now a motionless video artwork, the expression on the ventriloquist dummy’s face in Untitled (Our Leader) is as judgemental and unknowable in its stare as it ever was. In the age of #MeToo, 1989’s Untitled (Your body is a battleground), with its women’s face, one half shown as a photographic negative, possesses further layers of meaning.
Untitled (I shop therefore I am) from 1987 is here too, of course—the Descartes quote about thinking and being developing onscreen into a series of consumerist and emotional phrases. There’s a whole room dedicated to Untitled (FOREVER). The floor is covered with an extract from Orwell’s 1984 (the O’Brien speech that begins: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever”), and the longest wall is filled with a section of a 1928 Virginia Woolf lecture. The ‘you’ from Woolf’s “You. You are here, looking through the looking glass, darkly…” is magnified as through a looking glass lens, with walls on either side crowded in text that ends, “THINKING OF YOU. I MEAN ME. I MEAN YOU”.
Barbara Kruger is constantly revising her work, and this post-analog tweaking pays off. By keeping her intellectual and political wheels in motion (and swapping the Xerox machine for HD digital images and sound), she continues to lead the pack in her role as social commentator and narrator, neatly avoiding accusations of fustiness on the way. Her text and appropriated imagery remain rhetorical and funny, harrowing and sarcastic, and the new pieces show Barbara Kruger is still adept at flipping the bird at rotten establishment targets, from the patriarchy to capitalism and beyond.
“THINKING OF YOU. I MEAN ME. I MEAN YOU” is on view at the Serpentine Gallery in London through March 17. Booking ahead is advisable.