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Barbara Kruger

Supervert's review of an exhibit featuring works by artist and photographer Barbara Kruger. Originally published in Artforum Magazine (September 1994).

Exhibit at the Mary Boone Gallery, New York

If you were the Führer of America, you could do no better than to have Barbara Kruger as your Joseph Goebbels or Leni Riefenstahl. Has any other artist so skillfully and single-mindedly explored the awful powers of manipulative propaganda since the collapse of fascism? In fact, it's practically uncanny to read Mein Kampf and see how Kruger works with many of the same propaganda strategies that Hitler himself recommends: appeal to the emotions, not the intellect; present a one-sided, unambiguous point of view that reduces issues to simple either/or and us/them oppositions; etc. In Mein Kampf, Hitler even sings the praises of the color scheme black, white, and red — not only Kruger's signature colors, but those of the Nazi flag. In short, when Hitler writes that the task of propaganda "is not to make an objective study of the truth... and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly," he could have been writing the foreword to Kruger's latest exhibition, or even to her entire oeuvre. "Our own right" is personified in the imperious royal "we" that Kruger typically uses to subjugate, threaten and harass "you." In this exhibition, that "we" is given an audible Big Brother voice — male, of course — that calmly dribbles invective in a brilliantly mixed soundtrack punctuated with cheers, laughter, screams, church music, gagging noises, and an ominous sample from the song "We Are the World." "My people are better than your people," the voice intones, "More intelligent, more graceful, more powerful, more beautiful, more chosen, more agile and cleaner. My people invented everything."

While the gallery walls are repetitiously papered with a crowd scene to give you that party rally feeling, the voice of Big Brother resurges in ten tremendous and typically Krugerian works (complete with red text boxes and arresting, close-cropped images): "Talk like us. Look like us. Think like us," and so on. In one work, the words "Hate like us" in their red box against a b/w picture of a man who looks like he could be making a speech before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. A smaller, black text box delivers incriminations and accusations: "Your fear and loathing. Your resolute cruelty. Your relentless humiliations." More sound bites line both the floor, embedded with plaques, and the ceiling, painted with even more invective: "What I hate deserves it. It's more evil, more insidious, more dangerous." In sum Kruger's installation is a gesamtkunstwerk of self-righteous, hate-mongering propaganda. Hitler would have loved it, presuming he was too dumb to figure out that Kruger uses his techniques precisely in order to point up the fact that they are techniques, and that oftentimes they make credible and acceptable ideas which are themselves highly suspect. Moreover, by talking the talk of hate but refusing to name any specific class of persona non grata — in this exhibition, the hate is always generic or, perhaps even more frighteningly, aimless — Kruger is able to demonstrate just how hollow such rhetoric really is: depending on your inclination, you can see that it's substanceless, or you can plug in any old name you care to condemn. And when you deliver it from a powerful pistol of propaganda, it's like the hollow-point bullet that New York City police want to start using: just because it's hollow doesn't mean it's less dangerous.