This Artwork Changed My Life: Barbara Kruger’s “Untitled (Your body is a battleground)”

Isobel van Hagen
Nov 24, 2020 6:01PM

Elephant and Artsy have come together to present This Artwork Changed My Life, a creative collaboration that shares the stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy. Together, our publications want to celebrate the personal and transformative power of art.

Out today on Elephant is Nkgopoleng Moloi on Simone Leigh’s Brick House.

You might imagine the moment when artwork changes your life to be in the hall of a grandiose gallery. Standing in front of Michaelangelo’s David (1501–04), for example, stunned by its sheer magnitude; seeing Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1510), your feet aching from being firmly planted in front of the painting; or having an epiphany while contemplating in the Rothko room at Tate Modern.

But I have never actually seen the piece of art that has meant most to me in person. That’s because I’ve never been to Los Angeles, where the 9-foot square silkscreen print of Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Your body is a battleground) (1989) is displayed at The Broad. I have only ever seen reprints on postcards, T-shirts, the sides of buildings, and hanging in bedrooms. But that doesn’t seem to matter: Purposefully anti-hierarchical, Barbara Kruger’s work shows that a meaningful interaction with art doesn’t have to be cultivated in a traditional setting.

And that is exactly how I first encountered her work, or rather a tribute to her work, in a moment when I most needed to see it.

In September of 2018, I was on the second day of a new job when someone gestured for me to come into a small corner office. My coworkers were crowded around a TV, watching a prosecutor trying to dissect Christine Blasey Ford’s credible accusations against then–Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh on national television.

Later in the week, I walked to the subway still in a dazed fury from what had transpired at the testimony. On the ground near the East River, I read scuffed white graffiti in small letters: “Your body is a battleground.” At the time, I didn’t know who Barbara Kruger was. (Although in a sense, I suppose I did subconsciously, as few artists have been so widely imitated.)

What is it that makes a phrase, like a song lyric or a smart aside from a friend, stick in your mind for days at a time? Is it the alliteration? The wit? That it gets at some kind of inherent truth? Or maybe it is something less enigmatic: that it’s very simple.

Almost nothing is more complex than all the ways in which patriarchy is historically intertwined and embedded into our culture, politics, and thought processes. Why can we openly debate whether women have reproductive rights? How did Brett Kavanaugh comfortably end up on the United States Supreme Court? Why is the female form always over-surveilled and under-protected?

And yet the answer, Kruger almost cruelly reveals, is staring us in the face.

I Googled the sentence on my ride home, and staring directly back at me from my phone screen was a woman’s face—both beautiful and alarming—intersected in black and white. In her iconic white font encased in red, Kruger directly addresses the viewer.

Untitled (Your body is a battleground) was made for the Women’s March on Washington in 1989 to protest a new wave of anti-abortion laws chipping away at Roe v. Wade. Like much of Kruger’s work—I shop therefore I am (1987) and You are not yourself (1981)—Battleground deals with feminism, personal autonomy, and anti-consumerism by reappropriating mainstream images combined with striking phrases to reframe them.

Her artistic style mimics and simultaneously mocks propaganda by turning it into protest. And though the piece is tied to a specific political moment—because women’s rights and bodily autonomy are seemingly under constant threat—the power of the work is no less persuasive than it was in the 1980s. In the same corporate advertising style Kruger hijacks, the “simple” message is seared into the subconscious.

Nothing really prepared me for the metaphorical whack on the head of the Kavanaugh nomination; I was consumed with fear about living in a country that did not take women seriously. Using our short attention span against us, Kruger offers a quick counterpunch of vindication when grappling with what it means to have a body under perpetual scrutiny.

I have generally suffered from being too “in the weeds”—trying to get across too many convoluted ideas at once. And despite trying hard to read feminist texts or stay well-informed on maliceous forms of power and authority, I have found myself embarrassed that I don’t have a shrewd debating ability, or a way with words when it comes to complex discourse. Kruger legitimized what I think and how I feel in straightforward, forceful terms.

The point of art, I had thought before encountering Battleground, was that it didn’t spell things out (“show, don’t tell”). But plain profound language is both an art form and a dissent. This type of language, of course, does not represent an admonishment of complicated opinion or nuanced thought, but rather helps us acknowledge the value of confidently embracing our sometimes overlooked convictions. Kruger dares the viewer to grapple with the trials women face, but perhaps more crucially, she encourages us, too, to speak directly and boldly.

Isobel van Hagen