Barbara Kruger is consulting with preparators in the rotunda of the Vancouver Art Gallery, midway through the installation of her immersive text work Untitled (Smash-up). Covering the walls and floors of the building’s grand circular staircase in bold black-and-white capital letters and gigantic emojis, it is the dramatic centrepiece of the VAG’s blockbuster exhibition MashUp: The Birth of Modern Culture.
“You’re here at a time when the installation, to me, is the most intensive and exhilarating,” she tells the Straight. “To see the transformation and spatialization of my work is thrilling.” The outsized text confronts us—loud, insistent, and unsettling.
Based in New York and Los Angeles, Kruger is internationally renowned for the black, white, and red silkscreens she began producing in the late 1970s. These highly political works combine found photographs, many of them associated with consumerism, and short, declarative texts, challenging entrenched power structures across social, sexual, and economic lines. Over the years, her art practice has expanded to include writing, editing, teaching, and curating, along with the production of large-scale video and audio works, bus wraps, billboards, floor mosaics, and satirical sculpture.
Kruger often composes the texts for her art, but for her VAG installation she has chosen quotes from three different sources. On the walls are observations from Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes and Mumbai-born, Harvard-based neocolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha. Sprawled across the floor is a warning by the Afro-Caribbean poet and politician Aimé Césaire: “And above all, beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of miseries is not a proscenium, a man screaming is not a dancing bear.”
“I try to make art about how we are to one another,” Kruger says. “I try to be vigilant about how power works, and my choice of text and my choice of images are a reflection—as all art is in some way or another—of the culture that constructs and contains it.”
VAG senior curator Bruce Grenville invited Kruger to create an installation that interacts with both the show and the building that houses it. Speaking to the Straight in his busy office, he notes the striking importance of her role in postmodernism’s use of appropriation—and her mashup of found images and text. “Barbara saw, in a very analytic way.…the power of language,” he says. “And at the same time, she saw that images were languages that needed to be disassembled.” Kruger is also, he observes, highly skilled at reading architecture, understanding how the built environment communicates power, authority, and social control. She responded with enthusiasm to the challenge of making a work in the former provincial courthouse, the 1906 neoclassical building that has been the VAG’s home since 1985. Kruger has the ability to turn the colonial message of the architecture around, Grenville observes.
Although her art has a powerful graphic character and was initially associated with its origins in print media, advertising, and other two-dimensional forms of persuasion and propaganda, Kruger has long been concerned about the impacts of architecture. Her large-scale text works have been installed in public places across half the globe, from a train station in Strasbourg, France, to an outdoor amphitheatre at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.
“In many ways, I know more about architecture and its disciplines than I do any of the other arts,” she says, then adds: “It’s not just architecture I’m interested in, it’s the built environment. It’s the most telling determinator of how we wake up in the morning, how we go to sleep at night, how we labour, how we take pleasure, whether we’re sheltered or not.” The compelling theme for her is not how we shape our built environment, but how it shapes us.
Reviewing the quotes and emojis she has installed in the VAG rotunda, she says she’s interested in the promotion of doubt. “Doubt is a threat to the major belief structures of the world, whether they’re governmental, religious, corporate or whatever… To me, doubt is an important productive force that can keep us freer—and that allows for difference.”