For Karlstad

Artist: jenny holzer Tags: Permanent art


Joa Ljungberg

One autumn evening in September 2005, Jenny Holzer’s light projection For Karlstad was shown for the first time. Words in the form of light glid­ed slowly over the cobbles of the square and up towards the rendered yel­low façade of the Town Hall. The textual fragments express fear of war and the hope of peace. They speak of an injured love for their native land and of the romantic war dreams of young men. Thousands of people had gathered on the square to celebrate the centenary of the peaceful dissolu­tion of the political union of Sweden and Norway. For it was in the town of Karlstad, at the Freemasons’ lodge right by the square, that the decisive negotiations took place in 1905.

Early in the planning process, Jenny Holzer asked people to search in their cellars and attics for old letters, diaries and newspaper articles about the dissolution. The textual fragments that now climb the dark autumn sky consist partly of quotations from notes made by the delegates from Norway and Sweden, partly from letters and telegrams sent by the royal household and the government, by trade unions, parishes and private indi­viduals; all written with the intention of trying to influence the outcome of a conflict that very nearly led to war.

A Norwegian merchant appeals to King Oscar II not to go to war: “It would be the most appalling thing if Swedish pride should lead to a war between our two peaceful peoples…”.In a resolution addressed to the Swedish prime minister, 500 Norwegians and Swedes at a temperance and peace meeting in Brakkebygden express “…their sincere desire that the current conflict between the countries should be solved in a complete­ly peaceful manner…”.The unionized workers of the town of Gävle send a telegram to the king in an attempt to encourage a peaceful solution to the conflict: “To succeed in preserving the peace is to win the most bril­liant victory that future will be able to relate”. But the members of the Djurkarn parish see in Norway’s unilateral rejection of the union agree­ment a serious violation and, consequently, they give their full support to restoring the honour of their country: “Genuine patriotism still flourishes in our communities and when the King protects the rights of our native country we intend to stand behind him like one man”. At the same time a 22 year-old American writes to the Norwegian defence ministry, informing them of his wish to become a war hero and offering his services as a mer­cenary soldier: “From what I can learn of your Country it will be admirably suited to my favourite style of war-fare and one which I have studied a great deal…”.

The main square in Karlstad has long been home to Ivar Johnsson’s Peace Monument which was erected to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the dissolution of the union in 1955.The central figure of the monument is a strong working woman depicted in social-realist style. Elevated on a granite podium she gazes severely and confidently out over the square and into the future. Her left foot is trampling on a soldier’s helmet which has become a nesting place for poisonous snakes while her raised hands hold a broken sword. The peace monument was originally framed by a low, octagonal wall with an opening flanked by two figures, one supporting the arms of Sweden and one the Norwegian arms. But with the passage of time the monument has been subjected to severe criticism and the once proud surroundings to the monument have been levelled to the ground.

Unlike many of the people who live in Karlstad, Jenny Holzer came to appreciate Johnsson’s monument, finding it interesting that he had cho­sen a strong woman to symbolise future peace. In her work For Karlstad she involves the monument as part of the history surrounding the dissolu­tion of the Swedish-Norwegian union. Indeed she returns to it a dignity that had formerly been ravished. She has placed four curved benches as a new setting for the monument. These have been cut from the same red granite that provided the podium for the peace monument. Quotations from notes made at the negotiations that finally led to a peaceful solution have been inscribed into the seats of the benches.

Jenny Holzer was born in Ohio in 1950.She is now regarded as one of the leading artists of her time and has exhibited at major art museums and art events around the world: the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and New York, the Venice Biennial, Documenta … All this in spite of the fact that she has often chosen to work outside the “white cube”, showing a particular interest in public spaces. Since the 1 970 s she has consistently worked with text as an artistic medium and, over the years, she has pro­duced a number of text series herself. The first of these, Truisms, consists of what might at first seem to be accepted truths of the day listed as brief statements, some seemingly cliches. Truisms was inspired by disparate writ­ings in the fields of psychology, feminism, Marxism, sociology, etc. that all share the fact of sounding neutral and accepted. Certain truisms may appear unsettling and may deal with subjects that are taboo yet they still seem to be “truths” that we recognize or believe that we have heard in the past. When we read Holzer’s truisms soberly presented in alphabetical order, ironical though very plausible contradictions and absurdities appear in what at first sight seemed logical and accepted.

Throughout her career, Jenny Holzer has been developing new meth­ods and strategies for communicating her texts so that they do not mere­ ly reach an audience of art-lovers but both a large section of society and a governing elite. Her writings have been published on posters and spread as leaflets. They have been printed on T-shirts, caps, condoms and receipts. They have filled advertising hoardings and been projected as light onto the fronts of buildings, on bridges and on water. On many occasions she has hijacked the channels of communication used by advertising to com­municate her message in such a way that the recipient is not aware of its origins. In parallel with this rapid, urban mode of expression she has made use of classical forms for stone benches and sarcophaguses and has skilful­ly exploited their calm and timeless ceremoniality.

The socio-political content of her Truisms is also present in Inflamma­tory Essays, inspired by the writings of Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Leon Trotskij and others. The Inflammatory Essays all contain exactly 100 words disposed over exactly 20 lines. The volume is more propagandistically stri­dent than Truisms. While her truisms are neutral in tone, behind the Inflam­matory Essays we can discern possible dispatchers. For example, someone who appears to be a deeply religious small-town American is speaking in support of the death penalty and about the importance of sterilizing pae­dophiles. The manipulative statesman emphasizes the importance of the great leader’s charisma and recommends fear as the most effective weapon for keeping the masses at bay. The junkie gives rather comic but seeming­ ly meaningless theories and impulses while the furious young man from the suburbs thinks that the entire system should be set ablaze as it seems to have no room for him. Among the essays there is also a rather more anonymous voice that, with an ironic undertone, cleverly points to highly contemporary examples of irrationality and moral ambiguity.

Later writings like Survival Series, Laments and Mother and Child are less politically rhetorical in tone and more personal and introvert. In 1992 Jenny Holzer wrote a series entitled War and in the following year she returned to writing about war but now with the focus directed at sexual­ized violence in war-torn Bosnia. Lustmord [Sex murder) is partly based on descriptions of Serbian soldiers’ abuse of Muslim women and is writ­ ten from three different points of view: the victim’s, the perpetrator’s and the observer’s. Initially she wrote with ink on different parts of women’s bodies which were photographed and published in the German newspaper magazine Siiddeutsche Zeitung Magazin. Affixed to the cover of the maga­zine was a card with quotations from the writings written with blood from German women and women from the former Yugoslavia.1 Lustmord has also been projected onto the Viilkerschlachtdenkmal, a memorial that was erected in 1913as a reminder of romantic battle slogans, but that is here used as something on which to project other and much less attractive expe­riences of war such as the abuse of power, rape and human degradation.2

Jenny Holzer’s For Karlstad testifies to the artist’s interest in war and diplomacy but also in how history is written and in the conventions sur­ rounding memorials. Curator Beatrix Riuf has even described Jenny Hol­zer’s art as “…memorials to the human ability to form opinions unaided”3 and she refers to how the artist often lets the beholder navigate herself among a succession of contradictory opinions and perspectives. Riuf argues that it is precisely this approach that has led to several commissions to design and redesign memorials in contexts where there has been an inter­est in challenging a proud but much too one-sided description of history.4 Among Jenny Holzer’s monuments-or “non-monuments” as they have also been termed-one may mention the Black Garden which she designed for the German town of Nordhorn in 1994. She was commissioned to redesign the Langemarckplatz which is a memorial site commemorating German soldiers who were killed in the two world wars. She removed all the grass and plants and, instead, planted dark ophiopogon, a black apple tree and other dark plants to create a totally dark garden. The only excep­tion was a small group of white flowers that she planted beneath a sign com­memorating the victims of racist and political persecution during the years 19 33-1945.5 On the red sandstone benches visitors can read excerpts from War-a series of writings that Jenny Holzer produced in response to the Gulf War-that have been cut into the stone.

In several of her works, of which For Karlstad is an example, Jenny Holzer has chosen to work with writings by other authors and with docu­mentary texts that have links with specific places. In the entrance hall of the parliament building in Berlin she lets excerpts from speeches given in the building between the years 187 1and 1992 run in electronic letters along a tall pillar. In similar fashion she projects on the architect Daniel Libes­ kind’s metal fa<;ade a textual body consisting of documents from the archives of the Jewish Museum. Shortly after the inauguration in Karlstad Jenny Holzer organized a triple projection in New York City in which she let poems by Fadhil Al-Azzawi, Mohja Kahf, Yehuda Amichai, Henri Cole, Mahmoud Darwish and Wislawa Szymborska, run up the Rockefeller Cen­ter and the New York Public Library. At the same time she projected hither­ to classified documents of the American government on the Bobst Library at New York University.6 In similar fashion Jenny Holzer chose to construct her work at Karlstad out of existing written materials with links to the site. In her projection onto the façade of the Town Hall as well as in her treatment of the sand­ blasted granite benches surrounding Ivar Johnsson’s Peace Monument she lets the political interests and diplomatic strategies of the people in pow­er mix with expressions of ordinary people’s understanding of the con­flict, their fears and their attempts to influence events. Like Black Garden, For Karlstad can be seen as an alternative memorial, a memorial that will inspire people to a more democratic historical narrative and that empha­sizes the importance of individuals in an international conflict situation.

Joa Ljungberg


For Karlstad is a work of art consisting of two parts: sandblasted granite benches and a light projection. The projection is intended to take place annually on the day that the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden was signed. Jenny Holzer’s brief also included producing a plan to show how, in the future, her work can spread to other parts of the square as the municipality refurbishes these by renewing street furnish­ings and lighting.


1. Waldman, D., “The Language of Signs” in Waldman, D. (Ed.),]enny Holzer. Guggenheim Museum Publications, New York 1 997, pp. 2 4-25.

2. ibid., p. 26.

3. Beatrix, R., “The Whole Picture” in Bechtler, C., Schnetz, S., Gedgaudas, A., Phelps, B. (Eds.),]ennyHolzerXenon. Ink Tree Editions, Switzerland 2001, p. 120.

4. ibid.

5. Waldman, D., 1997, p. 26.

6. index.html (2005.1i.16).