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Jenny Holzer, Like Beauty in Flames (2021)
Jenny Holzer, Like Beauty in Flames (2021)© 2021 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / VEGAP Photo: Erika Ede LIKE BEAUTY IN FLAMES, 2021 Augmented reality application Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa © 2021 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / VEGAP Photo: Erika Ede

Jenny Holzer on NFTs, her new AR app, and finding poetry in the political

The legendary artist tells Dazed about Like Beauty in Flames – the app that enables you to project her provocative statements onto any environment

For over four decades, artist Jenny Holzer has been disseminating provocative and prescient statements that invite us to reconsider the world around us, challenge perceived wisdom, and dismantle existing power structures. From her early days anonymously pasting posters with her compelling text on the streets of New York City, Holzer’s subversive Truisms have since been projected in light onto some of the world’s most remarkable architectural landmarks, emblazoned on digital billboards in Times Square, and a range of art galleries and institutions as well as appearing on condoms, t-shirts, cups, and other everyday objects. Although many of her artworks are ephemeral, the legacy and power of her ideas still reverberate. 

Taking over the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Holzer’s new exhibit Like Beauty in Flames consists of site-specific augmented reality works that interact with the iconic building’s stunning architecture, while the accompanying app enables users to project Truisms in their own environments anywhere in the world. “Like Beauty in Flames harnesses new technology in a continuation of what Holzer does best,” a statement from the gallery explains. “Placing thought-provoking texts in the public sphere in a democratic and accessible way.” “I have always been a technophile, I adore technical things,” Holzer reveals in the video below. “One of the wonders of AR – and of this particular piece – is that you can do it anywhere. You can see it in your house, you can see it against the sky, or the river.”

Above, take a look through the gallery for images of the exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilboa and the accompanying app. Below, we talk to Jenny Holzer about her ongoing sources of inspiration, what she considers the most vital socio-political issues of the day, and her feelings about NFTs. Also, take a look at the videos for a chance to see the exhibition in situ and hear her introduction to the new AR work.

For those of us unable to visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, please could you talk us through the physical experience of Like Beauty in Flames? 

Jenny Holzer: It’s what’s imaginary made to be visual and to feel physical, assuming I didn’t fail miserably. 

How we can experience this artwork using the dedicated app? 

Jenny Holzer: In Bilbao, the app gives views of unreal electronic signs twisting and shouting inside the museum, and what were temporary light projections on the facade are made lasting. Then, any place in the world, truisms in multiple languages do their work when summoned, anytime day or night.

The title is taken from Anna Świrszczyńska’s poem ‘Beauty Dies’. What were the other influences for this exhibition? 

Jenny Holzer: The poems and their magic are central. The architecture is a major contributor, too, so thank you Mr Gehry! I owe the city and the river as well. 

How do you feel about NFTs? 

Jenny Holzer: Hah, good question! I feel humans are an unusual species, as demonstrated by certain behaviours around NFTs. Like much else, there’ll be great, okay, and dumb NFTs. It’s logical and right there’ll be more digital art, and wonderful that plenty of artists can make, present, and sell their work. Environmental concerns merit attention here – and everywhere.

Your work has always felt so vital and prescient. What would you consider the most critical social and political issues of the day? 

Jenny Holzer: I’m stuck on damage caused by Trump, and on what let Trump ascend and operate. He‘s not done, so it‘s truth, adjudication, and prevention time. 

And important issues of the near future? 

Jenny Holzer: How about concentrating on social justice to address omnipresent racism and sexism, practising care and competency in government, working at warp speed for the environment, giving shelter to the vulnerable, mandating a living wage, and foregrounding survival in this pandemic. Immediate international cooperation is necessary to manage COVID.

Like fragments of exquisite poetry or song lyrics, every single word in your artworks always seems perfect. 

Jenny Holzer: That could be because, largely, I’ve turned to writing by others! With my own stuff, I practice the idea that shorter is better. 

Could you share with us a bit about your editing process? 

Jenny Holzer: I hunt what‘s moving, what‘s appropriately emotional but sharp on shared concerns, what‘s lovely, terse, gutting.

Is there a dream location or building you’ve yet to project or exhibit your work? 

Jenny Holzer: I need to worry that question.

Doubting most people would read the important books you drew inspiration from, you once said, ‘I wanted to give short versions of the big versions to people, in an accessible form.’ What books would be on your required reading list now? 

Jenny Holzer: I like what’s offered by the best journalists, those with great experience of the world, laser vision, and a need to tell all. I recommend poets and novelists who transcend. Then please read trash for balance. 

What books are you reading at the moment? 

Jenny Holzer: I’m reading declassified documents for their content and/or their shapely redactions. Many pages are stranger than fiction. I just started Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabuchi.

What feelings and impressions would you most like people to take away from Like Beauty in Flames? 

Jenny Holzer: If I haven’t fumbled, viewers will have eyes and minds full of poetry, newish tech fun, fake fungible electronic signs, projected content that loves architecture, plus clichés that are companionable all through the night.

Jenny Holzer’s Like Beauty in Flames is now running at The Guggenheim in Bilbao. You can find out more information and download the app here