I am a man
I enter space because it empties me
I chase people around the house
I sleep on my back for sights of sex that makes blood
I protect what multiplies but I am not certain that I love my boy
There is pleasure in stopping my flesh when it does wrong
Getting what I want makes me sick
Why I fight is not your business
I like dying
I am sure I can do it more than once
I need perfection but when I implement it half of everyone dies
I have a lot of accidents and I think they are funny
I employ people to make my hours like dreams
I like a circle of bodies whose hands do what they should
I will kill you for what you might do
A mesmerizing and poignant meditation on the power of words, Jenny Holzer’s Laments: I Am A Man is a quintessential example of the artist’s text-based investigation into the politics of discourse. An illuminated text is emblazoned across Holzer’s signature medium of electronic L.E.D. signage – beckoning the viewer to come closer and decipher the messages that are spelled vertically by single letters running one-by-one upwards: ‘I am a man. I enter space because it empties me….I need perfection but when I implement it half of everyone dies…’ Though elusive in its meaning, the phrase ‘I am a man’ recalls the eponymous civil rights slogan used by African American sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968 – which would later also inspire Glenn Ligon’s seminal language-based work Untitled (I am a Man), 1988. Accompanied by a laconic collection of confessions relating to life, death, sex, and identity, however, the present work alters the slogan’s political charge.
The hypnotic visual effect of alternating colour, rhythm and speed begins to take over the verbal content – luring the viewer into its mesmerizing depths, but also prompting us to critically consider the power relationship between the individual and the technological landscape of media and advertising. Produced in a limited edition of four, other examples of this work were exhibited in Holzer’s installation at the Documenta VIII in 1987 and are included in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Dallas Museum of Art.
Executed in 1987, Laments: I Am A Man was created during a pivotal period in Holzer’s career: only a few years later, she became the first female artist to represent the United States at the 1989-90 Venice Biennale, where she was also awarded the Golden Lion. In 1989 Holzer’s work was subject to major solo exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum and the DIA Foundation, New York. Within a little more than just a decade, Holzer had gained widespread critical acclaim for her radical text-based oeuvre that innovatively fused conceptual art’s emphasis on semantics with Pop Art’s fascination with mass media. Alongside contemporaries Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman, Holzer appropriated the techniques and technologies of mass communication, advertising and narration in order to address larger socio-cultural, economic and political conditions, particularly those of gender and identity. Whereas her earliest series, Truisms, 1977, had consisted of posters of aphorisms pasted on façades, signs and telephone booths across Manhattan, Holzer subsequently began to explore the rhetoric of modern advertising systems and in 1982 emblazoned her Truisms across an L.E.D. board at Times Square in New York. Within Holzer’s diverse practice – encompassing, amongst other media, plaques, television, sound and computer-programmed light projections – the appropriation of L.E.D. signage has since become a favored strategy. Subversively bringing her thought-provoking messages to a large public via a commercial medium used for advertisements and the neutral, authoritative language of mass media, Holzer’s Laments: I Am A Man subtly explores the condition of living in a burgeoning information age.