Don’t Miss: Barbara Kruger’s Enduring Prophecies at Serpentine South

Despite efforts to the contrary, Barbara Kruger’s artwork has become a recognizable and commodifiable brand, but beyond the iconic imagery lurk a series of persisting prophecies.

A black and white photo of a woman with an overlap of words in red covers most of a wall
‘Untitled (Your body is a battleground)’ (1989/2019). Photo: George Darrell

Few contemporary artists are as recognizable, or as imitated, as Barbara Kruger.

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The American artist (1945—), who first rose to fame in the 1980s with artworks that pilfered the language of advertising to broadcast more abstract issues of power, enjoys the rare status of corporate brands imitating her iconic pieces. Supreme, an American streetwear brand, has famously co-opted her red box-white font style, using the same unique typography to sell merchandise in a strange inversion of the artist’s comments on capitalism and consumerism.

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What her original artworks mean today—endure as they do—is an evident preoccupation in “Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You,” a showcase of recent pieces on view at Serpentine South, London that previously toured parts of the U.S. in 2022 and 2023 in a similar form.

It’s the first show in almost twenty years Kruger has appeared in the U.K., with her last institutional appearance at the same gallery in 1994. “I really wanted it to look forward, look back, and be in the present,” Kruger says in an interview with gallery curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. “The fact that certain works of mine became ‘iconic’ made me want to revisit the original meanings of those works and how they could be changed, altered and re-thought.”

The exhibition features reimagined and digitized versions of memorable creations, including Untitled (I shop therefore I am) (1987/2019) and Untitled (Your body is a battleground) (1989/2019), which first brought Kruger widespread cultural recognition. Both works were interested in advancing political issues like conspicuous consumption and feminist thought, taking pithy phrases and making them ironic mottos. Each new idiom was then displayed against black-and-white photographs lifted from magazines and newspapers.

Nowadays, Kruger has updated her visual style for the TikTok age—even creating a bespoke filter for the video-sharing app as part of this specific show.

A large photograph of a gray cat covers most of a wall in a dimly lit room
‘Untitled (No Comment)’ (2020). Photo courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago

“Barbara’s medium is popular culture, which is material that everyone has access to,” Bettina Korek, CEO of Serpentine, tells Observer. “She has talked a lot about how she has incorporated formal strategies of advertising into her art practice… In the age of social media, personal branding, and frayed attention spans, now the world has caught up with her.”

Untitled (No Comment) (2020) is one such work engaging with our smartphone instant-upload video culture. It uses hair tutorials, Kim Kardashian quotes, and footage of acrobats to thread together a long-form video (long at least by today’s standards at nine minutes). Interspersed are quotes from French philosopher Voltaire and rapper Kendrick Lamar overlaid in the trademark Kruger style, as we are invited to see how systems of power—even within innocuous social media videos—lurk unseen.

The short video form has been a medium with challenges for the artist, given she has made a career of ironizing advertising images and weaponizing the newspaper lexicon. “I believe that it’s possible to make work and meanings that engage those short attention spans, that encourage them to linger a little bit,” Kruger says. “We live in a time that’s a sort of car crash and merger of narcissism and voyeurism.” With a career that began as a magazine design and picture editor (including at Mademoiselle and House & Garden), knowing the tricks and trademarks of advertising proved early it was ripe for re-appropriation in the fine arts.

As one part of the show features video reworkings of Kruger’s past pieces, there is also a recent analog wraparound evoking ideas of visibility and representation. The blitz of words displayed in Untitled (Forever) (2017) presents a largely magnifying glass seemingly examining words on a page, largely taken from British writers Virginia Woolf and George Orwell. It’s not unlike Kruger’s past work Belief+Doubt (2012), which posed questions of speaking and silence in similarly loud lettering and aimed at completely enveloping the viewer. The trademark emphasis on personal pronouns (“YOU”) situates you within a loud visual broadcast that both magnifies (“You are here”) and obfuscates you all at once (“You. Whoever you are.”).

Words in black on a white background cover the walls and floors
‘Untitled (Forever)’ (2017). Photo: George Darrell

The use of personal pronouns has long been a Kruger hallmark, one that agitates at the margins of how we respond or relate to her art by putting ourselves in it. “Barbara asks questions and raises issues that activate people on so many levels,” Korek says. “The work depends on having a viewer to complete it—this draws people to it not only as a participatory attraction but as a demonstration of the political power of art, too.”

Occasionally physical objects—like matchbooks and Metro cards—have been the site where Kruger mapped her sharpest critique of power systems found in consumables. Posters, video and murals often achieve the punchiest impugnments about power in mass communication; consumables, which people can take and keep, are sometimes too ironic a mode for Kruger not to play with. For this show, Kruger has reskinned a traditional London black taxicab in white paint, tattooing the eponymous exhibition name to the side. (The cab is parked in Hyde Park near the gallery for the show’s duration.) The symbolic implications of coming and going, arriving and escaping, are boundless.

A classic British taxi reskinned to advertise a gallery show
Kruger’s reskinned cab is parked in Hyde Park near the gallery for the show’s duration. Serpentine South

After more than five decades of producing work, Kruger has, however, attracted some skepticism from parts of the art world. Some critics have charged that her work is repetitive and even propagandistic, complicit in the mechanics of advertising it purports to critique. Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You proves this isn’t a fair criticism. Kruger has evolved beyond her iconic headline artworks and has truly innovated her practices and purview. Now she has adapted to technology—like video and social media—to continue exposing power and politics by mobilizing forms of mass communication. Such inventiveness is on display here, such as her eager embrace of the internet culture of today via Untitled (I shop therefore I am) (1987/2019): “I sext therefore I am.”

Kruger has said she’s never had an interest in copyrighting her work, and its famed iconography and visual style has been appropriated by many (including Supreme). Such copying is therefore apt for Kruger to copy back. The re-appropriation Kruger makes of her imitators in Untitled (I shop therefore I am) (1987/2019)—taking amateur memes and bad copy-cats using her white sans-serif font and red boxes—makes for a wry, if brutally honest, comment on the unending appeal (and basicness) of her eternally copied brand. But it’s only Kruger’s work that delivers razor-sharp maxims that make us think about power systems of class and race.

Kruger remains one of the most influential living artists practicing today, sitting across a rare divide between popular culture and fine art. Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You is less an exercise for Kruger to re-animate past works—like reissuing pieces like Your body is a battleground in sharpened animated form—but to soberly stress the enduring prophecy of these past cryptic statements.

Bodily autonomy, endless consumerism, and embodied identity were all gnawing preoccupations Kruger visualized in previous work. Each declared via a strange oracular message, one that seemed to foretell decades on. Now each piece seems—sadly—just as current and urgent as it did then.

“It would be great if my work became archaic, if… the commentary that I’m trying to suggest was no longer pertinent,” Kruger says. “Unfortunately, that is not the case at this point.”

Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You” is on view at Serpentine South, London through March 17. We recommend booking free tickets, which guarantee timed entry.  

Don’t Miss: Barbara Kruger’s Enduring Prophecies at Serpentine South