With examples from of the work held at SF MOMA and Dallas Art Museum, and its sister work Laments: I am a Man (1987) collected at the Hammer Museum and The Broad, Jenny Holzer’s I am a Man is an outstanding work recognised at the highest institutional level. To exemplify its critical importance, it was exhibited at Holzer’s installation at Documenta VIII in 1987. A trademark LED work that brought Holzer to critical attention in the early 1980’s, I am a Man is a poetic yet elusive musing on race and feminism.
In many ways, the work can be viewed as a feminist appropriation of a historically racial subject matter. Using words as images and language as her medium, I am a Man recalls the famous civil rights slogan popularised by African American workers during the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968 – the height of the civil rights movement. The history of the slogan stretches back further to a medallion Josiah Wedgwood, a prominent abolitionist, designed for a British anti-slavery campaign in 1787. Widely reproduced and popular at the time, the medallion featured the words ‘Am I Not A Man And A Brother’. This history and the iconic placard used by the sanitation workers would later go on to inspire Glenn Ligon’s iconic appropriation-based work Untitled (I am a Man) from 1988 held at the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Inspired by this history, Holzer’s verse takes on a specifically feminist accent. Speaking alternatively about the suppressive power of man (I chase people around the house) and the repressed power of women (I will kill you for what you might do), I am a Man is a key example of the intellectual and poetic imagination that flowered during Second Wave Feminism. In its ambiguity, it is subtly oblique – as much a defiant statement on the position of women at the close of the century as it is a more lyrical exploration of sorrow, pain and ultimately power.
Holzer’s LED sculptures take on the vernacular of billboards and public information points. Echoing this means of factual broadcasting, the sculpture takes on the politics of the public forum while positioning the artist as institution. Holzer states “I want the meaning to be available but I also want it sometimes to disappear into fractured reflections... Because one’s focus comes and goes, one’s ability to understand what’s happening ebbs and flows. I like the representation of language to be the same” (Jenny Holzer cited in: Kelly Shindler, ‘Spotlight on protest: Jenny Holzer’, Art 21, 1 November 2007, online).
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