Barbara Kruger at Modern Art Oxford

The world of popular culture and the devices and trends that govern it has long since been a topic explored and analysed by artists; from the screen prints of Andy Warhol to the sculptural paintings of Ken Lum. Yet Barbara Kruger, whose formative beginning in graphic design so poignantly aided in the design of her later artworks, during the 70’s and 80’s, has since gone on to become one of the most prolific and accessible artists working within this theme. Now, Modern Art Oxford pays homage to her career in a self-titled solo show, which also presents a colossal new site-specific installation in the upper galleries dressed in Kruger’s tell-tale signature aesthetic motif – scrutinising the ever evolving impact and paradoxes of the digital age.

IS THAT ALL THERE IS? WHO WILL WRITE THE HISTORY OF TEARS? BELIEVERS, DOUBTERS, AIRHEADS IS THERE LIFE WITHOUT PAIN? DIVAS, BEAUTIES, BEASTS – are just some of the onslaught of text that confronts the viewer in the upper gallery. The site-specific installation Untitled (titled) (2014) occupies the walls, the floor and the ceiling, which are outfitted in limited pallet of black, white and green stripes. Amongst these stripes, sit the aforementioned text. The inclusion of green, a colour seldom used by Kruger in place of her typical fiery red, was as a direct response to the interior architecture and lighting of the gallery, however, it complements the cities plentiful pockets of rich summertime foliage, channelling an alluring tranquillity. However, the sardonic dialogue emitted from the text is kicked up like a choking dust cloud that immediately leaves the viewer on the defensive.

Two white emoticons – a smiley face paired with a sad face – give Kruger’s installation a space in chronology; the digital age, thus the text becomes, to younger audiences at the very least, synonymous with their experiences in the ephemeral wastelands of social media. As someone whose adolescence as vicariously lived with social media being a mediating force, these labels are all too frequently deployed with no sense of ramification.

Similarly, in the gallery one can’t cover them up, for they can attempt to stand on them or ignore them but no matter what they text prevails in the form of further introspection. This is exactly why Kruger is opening these question to the viewer. When we administer a label to someone or ignore a label on a screen because one values it as a petty annoyance or attention seeking – who will write the history of tears? The title itself plays into this, Untitled (titled) evokes a superficial emptiness contained by something overlooked. Social media is a device people use to air their inner most feelings brazenly not expecting their to be repercussions – thus the phrases and labels which entertained a rhetorical value online now enjoy a paradoxical existence when extracted and placed in a physical environment in as much as they demand a validation.

The over communicated world we live in is subject in Twelve (2004), where Kruger utilizes a floor to ceiling series of four projections, one for each wall, to contain the viewer as they become a fly on the wall in a series of scenarios from a family argument to high school females antagonising one another. Underneath each projection the thoughts of those characters stream in real-time like a news report elevating the banalities to a wickedly sarcastic level. There is a strange brutality and emptiness drawn from the reality television and talk show formats, much like the online world Kruger drew upon previously, they leave one with the lasting insecurities at their own consumption and response to readily available intimate information and personal grievances trying one’s best not to lament the previously encountered labels to the characters in Twelve.

Barbara Kruger at Modern Art Oxford until 31 August, 30 Pembroke Street Oxford OX1 1BP

William Davie

1.Barbara Kruger Belief and Doubt (2012) Hirshhorn Museum (lower level lobby) Courtesy of Spruth Magers Berlin London

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