Direct hit: Jenny Holzer’s ’Softer Targets’ opens at Hauser & Wirth Somerset

A man and a woman are standing next to the neon art installation, that's in a shape of a long beam with electronic neon writing on it.
Jenny Holzer's 'Softer Targets' is a career-spanning mini retrospective on the American artist 'best known for using language to make art, utilising a range of techniques to employ the power of words'. Pictured: Floor, 2015
(Image credit: TBC)

Even in the colossal threshing barn, the first room we enter in Hauser & Wirth's (opens in new tab) year-old gallery in Bruton, Somerset, Jenny Holzer (opens in new tab)'s new 2.5m LED ticker Move is a commanding presence, able to stand on its own. Or rather hang, vertically; its text rising up to the vaulted ceiling in a rhythm controlled, via sensors, by the movements of visitors.

It's mesmerising, not least because its 'thoughts' are extracted from wartime documents declassified by the US government in response to Freedom of Information requests. To read Move in its entirety would take most of the day, but even ten minutes will get you in the gut. It is the flagship installation in a mini-retrospective that encompasses her Truisms of the 1970s and 80s; her 1994 Lustmord Table from the height of conflict in the former Yugoslavia; and new paintings that faithfully and painfully transcribe declassified documents.

Holzer's work speaks volumes, to twist the cliche. So loaded is it with the power to bewilder and infuriate, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that the artist herself would offer so few words as commentary. What more could she have to say?

Present and amenable at the recent launch of 'Softer Targets', Holzer nonetheless spoke sparingly. Her positioning of Move, dangling downward at the centre of the 18th-century barn, was 'possibly Freudian'. As we proceed to the next gallery, lit naturally from unusually tall windows, she expands on how useful it was to handle the primary source material, gathered over weeks at the National Archives in Washington DC.

'These documents were written in the moment, by people who were not thinking anyone might be reading it one day,' says Holzer. 'It's not just one person's filter – they were reacting to orders and decisions made by others.'

Here are the new paintings, hand-traced from victims' own script, testimonials of 'very sad and very brave things'. One is taken from a woman clearly suffering from mental illness, another from an Afghan prisoner whose brother died in custody. An earlier series reproduces heavily redacted memos – one of which leaves just a single word uncensored: 'waterboard'. 'You wonder if the people tasked with redacting the text were playing around,' says Holzer. If 'waterboard' was the least damning word in the memo, what's been blacked out? Or was leaving it exposing a red herring?

In the Rhoades Gallery, a 12m LED post called Floor butts up against the wall, its cascade of text – extracts from the artist's best known works – seemingly sucked into and spat out by the adjacent wall. It directs us outside, where one-line Truisms from Holzer's early career are carved into a collection of granite benches. 'As a child I thought the art world would be much improved if there was just more seating,' says Holzer.

Nearby, Louise Bourgeois' Spider perches in the full summer grass, leading the eye to the big sky, providing solace. Out here, the inevitable lump in the throat begins to ease. Feelings of peace and freedom pervade the country air. 'It's kind of great having the spider on guard,' says Holzer.

A man and a woman are standing next to the neon art installation in a dark-lit room. The installation is in a shape of a long beam with electronic neon writing on it.

The exhibition is currently on show at Hauser & Wirth's Somerset outpost – it will run until 1 November

(Image credit: TBC)

A man and a woman are standing next to the neon art installation in a dark-lit room. The installation is in a shape of a long beam with electronic neon writing on it. The photo on the left has a blue cast, and the photo to the right has a pink cast.

In Floor, extracts from the artist's best known works are seemingly sucked into and spat out by the adjacent wall

(Image credit: TBC)

The art installation is in a shape of a long beam with electronic neon writing on it. It's vertical and goes from the ceiling to the floor. There are words and numbers in neon lights.

Move, 2014, display reams of text from declassified and other sensitive US documents, including text drawn from censored US Army Criminal Investigation Reports

(Image credit: TBC)

Human bones are set on two wooden tables.

1994's Lustmord Table documents the height of the conflict in former Yugoslavia

(Image credit: TBC)

A close-up of the human bones. They have a metal wrapped around them with writing on it.

The work's 55 sentences are the imagined voices of the perpetrator, the victim and the observer of war crimes

(Image credit: TBC)

Human bones set on a wooden table.

he German word 'Lustmord' means a murder committed for sexual pleasure – the use of real body parts is a reminder that people were hurt in ways that transcended the physical

(Image credit: TBC)

A red granite bench with writing on it.

One-line Truisms from Holzer's earlier career are carved into a collection of granite benches outside of the main space

(Image credit: TBC)

A gray granite bench with writing on it.

The benches provide the visitor with a sense of the diverse media that Holzer has employed throughout her career

(Image credit: TBC)

Solid color artworks are set on granite plates and hung on the wall. There are granite benches with writing on them throughout the space.

'As a child I thought the art world would be much improved if there was just more seating,' says Holzer

(Image credit: TBC)

Large paintings in a blue wash with writing on them are hung in the gallery.

In the Rhoades Gallery can be found four stark black and white ‘redaction paintings’ from 2009 and 2010, which are derived from documents about waterboarding

(Image credit: TBC)

ADDRESS

Hauser & Wirth Somerset
Durslade Farm
Dropping Lane
Bruton, Somerset
BA10 0NL

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