Review by Laura Bushell
There’s a game children play when they want to enrage their siblings; that of repeating verbatim everything the other says. Maintained to a suitably relentless level, this method of throwing someone’s utterances straight back in their face is passive-aggression at its most potent, with humiliating and infuriating results.
Over the course of her career as a visual artist, Barbara Kruger has enacted something akin to this in her work, drawing on the crisp imagery and pithy language from her days on magazine editorial to pitch consumerism, sexism and other unsavoury cultural mores right back at the viewer. But intriguingly, rather than provoking the wrath that childish repeating games guarantee, Kruger has managed to maintain her place as part of the mainstream that she skewers. Her striking monochrome images, dashed with red and bearing deadpan slogans like ‘I shop therefore I am’ and ‘Buy me I’ll change your life’ are so slick she even sold them to Selfridges as advertising.
In interviews Kruger often restates her desire to show society the way it represents itself, the social semiotics that codify how we create meaning for ourselves. This she has continued in her work in video installation since the early 1990s, most recently with The Globe Shrinks at Sprüth Magers in London. Inspired by cultural theorist Homi Bhabha’s observation that “the globe shrinks for those who own it”, Kruger’s multi-channel piece plays out across four large screens in a cavernous former Royal Mail sorting office occupied specifically for this show.
It’s hard to distill exactly what happens across the looped 12 or so minutes of the film as there’s no beginning or end, just a series of vignettes that dart around the four screens. Scenes include a stand up comedian telling a joke about a talking dog; a pretentious male artist explaining his practice; various religious rituals; a woman sat opposite a fan; and being inside the car with a woman chatting on her mobile phone as well as the enraged man in the car stuck behind her as she weaves along the road. There are title cards with trademark Kruger slogans such as “Shove It”, “Doubt It”, and “Believe It” and text that talks implores “Don’t leave. Please. Stay. It’s nice to be in the dark, right? You can relax a little…” as the screens and space conspire to plummet viewers into momentary pitch darkness.
The Globe Shrinks is a wholly immersive experience, containing polyphonic visuals and sounds that have viewers flitting their heads around to keep up, or which capture viewers in the crossfire between screens and speakers. Space and scale are integral to the piece, with the slightly intimidating chasm-like architecture of the room echoing the imposing structures and architecture of power that Kruger so disputes as being wrongly ingrained within global society.
Working in installation formally expands Kruger’s work both spatially and temporally whilst retaining her preoccupations with language, image and direct address. What’s interesting about her forays into the medium of video installation is that the form takes her out of the accessible mainstream of Selfridges posters on the Tube, images printed on t-shirts and endless imitations to a more of a niche audience of contemporary art gallery goers. Kruger has nibbled the hand that feeds her with her critiques of consumerism leveled at the magazines and retailers that have employed her, but in this converted space in Westminster she deploys work that’s a bit less accessible but all the more probing for it.
Barbara Kruger, The Globe Shrinks, presented by Sprüth Magers Berlin London at 10-12 Francis Street is on display until 21 May 2011. For further information visit www.spruethmagers.com
The Globe Shrinks, 2010, installation view
© Stephen White
Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers Berlin London