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Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt Presents Barbara Kruger: Circus

The Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt presents Barbara Kruger: Circus on view December 15, 2010 – January 30, 2011.

The US-American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger has created a new, publicly accessible installation for the Rotunda of the Schirn, which covers floor, ceiling, and surrounding walls with the white- and partly red-on black captions typical of her oeuvre. “I work with pictures and words because they have the ability to determine who we are and who we aren’t,” says Kruger.

Barbara Kruger, Installation view © Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt 2010. Photo: Norbert Miguletz

Pictures and texts from the mass media, advertising, and the sphere of consumption provide the material from which she derives her messages: comments on the individual and society, war and violence, but also on popular culture and commercialism. Relying on formal precision and an unmistakable aesthetics, Kruger succeeds in formulating stirring, irritating, and pointed statements that thematize the relationship between the sexes and other social and political issues. In the Rotunda of the Schirn, passers-by will find themselves confronted with such dictums as “GEWALT LÄSST UNS VERGESSEN, WER WIR SIND.” (IN VIOLENCE WE FORGET WHO WE ARE.)

Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1945, Barbara Kruger began to study design at Syracuse University in 1965 and, subsequently, at the School of Visual Arts before she enrolled at the Parson’s School of Design in New York to continue her studies with the photographer Diane Arbus and others in 1966. After studying, she first worked as an editorial graphic designer and later as a picture editor for Condé Nast Publications in the 1970s – for the American fashion magazine “Mademoiselle” and the magazine “House and Garden”, for example. These professional experiences informed her idiom as an artist. She deliberately appropriated the strategies of advertising to subversively employ them against it. In the 1980s, she made a name for herself internationally with works in which she combined black-and-white photographs from the mass media with poignant, partly aggressive textual messages: short statements, open questions, and concrete requests.

Text-image news like “We don’t need another hero,” subtle statements such as “It’s a small world but not if you have to clean it,” or explicitly political statements like “If you are beaten If you are hurt If you need help GET OUT” and “Your body is a battleground” exemplify her approach. They also illustrate the character of Kruger’s interventions in feminist, political, and class-theoretical discussions and her critical approach to today’s consumerist world. Kruger develops her works not only for museums, but frequently conceives them for public space, preferring advertising spaces on buses, advertising columns and lightboxes, or large billboards. On the occasion of the Schirn exhibition “Shopping. A Century of Art and Consumer Culture” in 2002, she covered the entire façade of the Galeria Kaufhof on the Zeil in Frankfurt, Germany’s shopping mile with the biggest turnover, with a 2,200 square-meter work: two gigantic pairs of eyes watched the people in a buying mood. The inscription above the eyes read: “DU WILLST ES, DU KAUFST ES, DU VERGISST ES” (YOU WANT IT, YOU BUY IT, YOU FORGET IT). With this installation, Kruger picked up the thread of her central work “I shop therefore I am” from 1987 on a monumental scale.

Since the 1990s, Kruger has also created large-format film and audio installations, arranging her statements in room-spanning typographical blocks. This development springs from the artist’s continuing interest in architecture and her efforts to address viewers directly in comprehensive environments – by, among other things, always using the language of the country.

Kruger’s clear-cut typography is exclusively based on the Futura font designed by Paul Renner in 1927 under the influence of the Bauhaus. After its publication, it soon became one of the most popular typefaces of the twentieth century and was widely employed in advertising. Its use for large, ostentatious lettering turns the characters into images and makes language perceivable in a spatial manner. Kruger once called places covered with writing all over “walk-in spaces of thinking.” “It is a challenge and a pleasure to make each installation the most powerful statement in a certain place,” she says.

Kruger’s installation “Circus” conceived exclusively for the Rotunda of the Schirn in 2010 will confront visitors with the phrases “BELIEF + DOUBT = SANITY” – “BLINDER IDEALISMUS IST REAKTIONÄR BEÄNGSTIGEND TÖDLICH.” (BLIND IDEALISM IS REACTIONARY SCARY DEADLY.) – “GEWALT LÄSST UNS VERGESSEN, WER WIR SIND.” – “THE WAR FOR ME TO BECOME YOU.” – “WHAT YOU LOVE IS BETTER THAN WHAT I LOVE. WHAT YOU BELIEVE IS TRUER THAN WHAT I BELIEVE. WHAT YOU HATE DESERVES IT.” – “DU BIST VERLIEBT. DU KANNST EINFACH NICHT AUFHÖREN ZU LÄCHELN. DEIN HERZ HÜPFT. DU LÄUFST DAVON.’(YOU’RE IN LOVE. YOU CAN’T STOP SMILING. YOUR HEART JUMPS. YOU RUN AWAY.) The artist’s sentences for the Schirn oscillate between generally valid statements, requests directed at the viewers, and psychological observations. Their enigmatic character is irritating, and their impact overwhelming, not least because of their extraordinary size.

The large-format text collages have long since made Barbara Kruger one of the most important representatives of conceptually oriented contemporary art besides Jenny Holzer, Louise Lawler, Sherry Levine, and others. Her dictums like “I shop therefore I am” or “Your body is a battleground” have become an integral part of collective consciousness. Kruger interferes, and she does so deliberately. She has incorporated the architecture of the building in her installation at the Schirn, using the area between public space and museum premises where her preferred fields of activity merge.

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