As my son, daughter and I sit at sidewalk table in front of a cafe enjoying our gelato, a man stands two feet from our table with his back turned away. The blasts of his cigarette smoke puff around us, like an old idling car engine, and the breeze is an unhelpful carrier blowing it all in our direction. I call out to him ‘Hey! Can you please not smoke right next to us? You aren’t supposed to smoke this close to a restaurant, you know.’ He does leave, but not before calling me a ‘bitch’ under his breath, but enunciated clearly and loudly enough for both of my kids to hear.
Several years ago, I snagged Barbara Kruger’s monograph Money Talks at a garage sale for $9.99. As the title would suggest, much of the book is devoted to early 80’s and 90’s work focused on consumerism and money as power, but less obviously, Kruger’s work is increasingly heady and fantastic, the money concept isn’t necessarily literal dollars and cents, but a ruse for currency. It’s her use of the single black and white image, and small amounts of red that depict the synthetic substitutes people use as currency: money; but also power, nepotism, sex, race, religion, social status, age, gender, entitlement.
Kruger’s work in execution is like the visual representation of the folk riddle you heard as a kid, ‘what’s black and white and red all over?’ Not only is Kruger’s work often precisely that; black, white and red all over, but the the significance is similar to the riddle as well. A folk riddle is an oral tradition; its sole purpose is to deceive the listener, either by grammatical structure or by theme. The answer might be, ‘a newspaper’ (red/read, a subtle shift in linguistics. ‘A zebra with a sunburn’ or ‘a penguin with a rash’ (both variations on a theme.) The point of a folk riddle isn’t to guess correctly, rather it’s a form of language related to proverbs and storytelling. Saying something ambiguous whilst meaning something altogether different, offering an abundance of correct answers.
Your Body Is A Battleground, 1989, in the Broad museum’s permanent collection might be a folk riddle on the surface; black and white image of a lovely woman’s face spliced down the center with a positive/negative exposure, with centered text overlaid atop the image. One answer to the riddle is, as has been written about this piece, a protest of anti-abortion laws. Another answer, however, may be the sexist commodification of the female figure. Another still could be a summary of John Berger’s assertion of the role of advertising in his book Ways of Seeing; that the role of advertising is to forever make us feel as if our life will be perfect only if we buy or achieve the advertised thing, leaving us in a perpetual state of bereft. Just watching a smattering of commercials will easily attest to the steadfast truth of Berger’s remarks, and in turn, Kruger’s work.
In If You’re So Successful, Why Do You Feel Like A Fake?, 1987, also in Broad’s permanent collection, the single image viewed is the viewer. The long, horizontal piece, dominated by the titled text, is in part, a mirror. Kruger forces the question upon the viewer, asking again and again for as long as you need to answer, ‘if you’re so successful, why do you feel like a fake?’ The myriad possible replies from viewers are the folk riddle, but the focus is on the demanding. Kruger’s minimal colour palette, restrained use of text; almost like she’s being charged per letter and colour, and finally her lone imagery, ostensibly appearing to choose the most poorly planned, awkwardly cropped photograph with all of its flaws immutably on display. Together, the intensity of these elements are forceful and vehement, they demand something of humanity.
In 2016, Kruger created a piece for the election issue cover of New York Magazine. The single photographic image depicts Trump’s face, partially cropped, with the single word LOSER in large font framed within a red rectangle, which obscures only a portion of the copious pores on Trump’s ample nose. NYMag’s Editor-in-chief Adam Moss explained the folk riddle of the piece, that “he and the editors were drawn to it, in part, for the three ways in which it could be interpreted: as Trump speaking (single word epithets being his specialty); as a description of Trump; and as a call on the election result… But in the end we felt that the power of Kruger’s image transcended any one meaning you could read into it. The issue analyzes many aspects of Trump’s extraordinary candidacy, and an important point is spelled out in the headline we appended to the bottom corner: Trump has already changed America, not much for the better. Which adds a fourth meaning: in that sense we are all losers too.”
A few months ago while attending a music concert, a decidedly inebriated man belatedly joined his date who was already seated next to my husband and I. The concert was nearly over, the musician’s fingers were just beginning to piece together the opening notes of his encore song, my favorite song, the one I had waited for and anticipated all night, when the stewed guy began loudly complaining and arguing to and about his date. Already irritated by his tardiness and drunkenness, she sat still with lips firmly pressed together, ignoring him. I tried ignoring him too, but he was loud, he was crude, and he was ruining my favorite song. As I leaned over towards the pair, I hissed in an almost-not-whisper, ‘BE! QUIET!’ He pronounced me a ‘bitch’ then mostly quieted down, before his companion scuttled him out as soon as the song’s final chords died down.
Walking out of the concert hall, I think of how often I’ve worn the label of ‘bitch.’ While not accepting of the sexist derogatory label, and how those who have used it against me like currency. I am reminded of Kruger’s work which endeavors and achieves this point; that we should be forceful and vehement, that we should demand something of humanity.