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Survival, Jenny Holzer style

marquisLately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how people cope with the (inevitable) difficulties of life. This train of thought has been fueled by the experience of watching a dear friend endure a life-altering trial and seek to find meaning in her suffering. Since this is a blog about visual culture, I’ll keep my proselytizing focused on the therapeutic powers of art–although I’m happy to chat privately with readers who are looking for other sources of healing:).

For some time, I’ve noted with interest that one of my former students kept a quote by artist Jenny Holzer as his status on Gmail chat. This is a quote from a series by contemporary artist Jenny Holzer: IT IS IN YOUR SELF-INTEREST TO FIND A WAY TO BE VERY TENDER. This, incidentally, just might be the best practical marital advice I’ve ever encountered and I’ve seriously thought about having cards made up with this statement–ones that I could slip into wedding cards, pockets of young lovers, and so on. None of that lame “don’t go to bed angry with each other” kind of advice for me. Anyway, this “truism” comes from a series Holzer did in 1983-85 called “SURVIVAL.” As I reread some of these statements, I was struck anew by the power of her language, which alternates between the poetic and touching to the ironic and disheartening.

In the last few days, I’ve been posting some of these truisms as my Gmail chat status as a sort of sociological experiment. I’ve had several friends ask me about what I’ve posted and why, spawning conversations that ranged in subject matter from rampant consumerism and forbidden desires to ecological sustainability (and several started these discussions by asking if I was OK. Which I am. More or less.). So I want to post all of the truisms from this series, in the hopes that this will encourage a broader conversation about the form and content of these statements and what they say about the human condition and how we find ways to survive.

And P.S. It’s kind of fun–and disturbing–to see how some of these statements have been appropriated and commodified over the years . . . Google a few of them.

Holzer, SURVIVAL, 1983-85

YOU ARE TRAPPED ON THE EARTH SO YOU WILL EXPLODE

WHAT URGE WILL SAVE US NOW THAT SEX WON’T?

PUT FOOD OUT IN THE SAME PLACE EVERY DAY AND TALK TO THE PEOPLE WHO COME TO EAT AND ORGANIZE THEM

SAVOR KINDNESS BECAUSE CRUELTY IS ALWAYS POSSIBLE LATER

DANCE ON DOWN TO THE GOVERNMENT AND TELL THEM YOU’RE EAGER TO RULE BECAUSE YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOOD FOR YOU

THE BREAKDOWN COMES WHEN YOU STOP CONTROLLING YOURSELF AND WANT THE RELEASE OF A BLOODBATH

SPIT ALL OVER SOMEONE WITH A MOUTHFUL OF MILK IF YOU WANT TO FIND OUT SOMETHING ABOUT HIS PERSONALITY FAST

MOTHERS WITH REASONS TO SOB SHOULD DO IT IN GROUPS IN PUBLIC AND WAIT FOR OFFERS

OUTER SPACE IS WHERE YOU DISCOVER WONDER AND WHERE YOU FIGHT AND NEVER HURT EARTH IF YOU STOP BELIEVING THIS YOUR MOOD TURNS UGLY

DIE FAST AND QUIET WHEN THEY INTERROGATE YOU OR LIVE SO LONG THAT THEY ARE ASHAMED TO HURT YOU ANYMORE

IF YOU HAD BEHAVED NICELY THE COMMUNISTS WOULDN’T EXIST

TRUST VISIONS THAT DON’T FEATURE BUCKETS OF BLOOD

IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO SURVIVE AND YOU WERE FULL OF JOY

IF YOU’RE CONSIDERED USELESS NO ONE WILL FEED YOU ANYMORE

WHEN YOU EXPECT FAIR PLAY YOU CREATE AN INFECTIOUS BUBBLE OF MADNESS AROUND YOU

YOU ARE SO COMPLEX THAT YOU DON’T ALWAYS RESPOND TO DANGER

MEN DON’T PROTECT YOU ANYMORE

WITH ALL THE HOLES IN YOU ALREADY THERE’S NO REASON TO DEFINE THE OUTSIDE ENVIRONMENT AS ALIEN

WHEN SOMEONE BEATS YOU WITH A FLASHLIGHT YOU MAKE LIGHT SHINE IN ALL DIRECTIONS

FINDING EXTREME PLEASURE WILL MAKE YOU A BETTER PERSON IF YOU’RE CAREFUL ABOUT WHAT THRILLS YOU

USE A STUN GUN WHEN THE PERSON COMING AT YOU HAS A GOOD EXCUSE

IT IS IN YOUR SELF-INTEREST TO FIND A WAY TO BE VERY TENDER

THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR WILL BE SECRET

THE CONVERSATION ALWAYS TURNS TO LIVING LONG ENOUGH TO HAVE FUN

WHAT COUNTRY SHOULD YOU ADOPT IF YOU HATE POOR PEOPLE?

USE WHAT IS DOMINANT IN A CULTURE TO CHANGE IT QUICKLY

PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT

YOU ARE CAUGHT THINKING ABOUT KILLING ANYONE YOU WANT

IT’S HARD TO KNOW IF YOU’RE CRAZY IF YOU FEEL YOU’RE IN DANGER ALL THE TIME NOW

YOU CAN’T REACH THE PEOPLE WHO CAN KILL YOU ANY TIME SO YOU HAVE TO GO HOME AND THINK ABOUT WHAT TO DO

THE FUTURE IS STUPID

HIDE UNDER WATER OR ANYWHERE SO UNDISTURBED YOU FEEL THE JERK OF PLEASURE WHEN AN IDEA COMES

SOMEONE ELSE’S BODY IS A PLACE FOR YOUR MIND TO GO

WHEN THERE’S NO SAFE PLACE TO SLEEP YOU’RE TIRED FROM WALKING ALL DAY AND EXHAUSTED FROM THE NIGHT BECAUSE IT’S TWICE AS DANGEROUS THEN

IT’S EASY TO GET MILLIONS OF PEOPLE ON EVERY CONTINENT TO PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO EATING AND EQUAL OPPORTUNITY

GO WHERE PEOPLE SLEEP AND SEE IF THEY’RE SAFE

HANDS ON YOUR BREAST CAN KEEP YOUR HEART BEATING

TURN SOFT AND LOVELY ANY TIME YOU HAVE A CHANCE

IT IS FUN TO WALK CARELESSLY IN A DEATH ZONE

YOU LIVE THE SURPRISE RESULTS OF OLD PLANS

LET YOUR HAND WANDER ON THE FLESH TO MAKE POSSIBILITY MULTIPLY

IT IS EMBARRASSING TO BE CAUGHT AND KILLED FOR STUPID REASONS

SHOOT INTO INFINITE SPACE TO HIT A TARGET IN TIME AND CALL IT INEVITABLE

YOU HOVER NEAR LOVELY UNCONSCIOUS LIFE-FORMS THAT OFFER NO IMMEDIATE RESISTANCE

PEOPLE LOOK LIKE THEY ARE DANCING BEFORE THEY LOVE

BODIES LIE IN THE BRIGHT GRASS AND SOME ARE MURDERED AND SOME ARE PICNICKING

SILLY HOLES IN PEOPLE ARE FOR BREEDING OR ARE FROM SHOOTING

YOUR MODERN FACE SCANS THE SURPRISE ENDING

Conversation topic: Which “SURVIVAL” truism speaks to you and w

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