This Artwork Changed My Life: Jenny Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays”

Ally Faughnan
Apr 14, 2020 12:00PM

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 Hettie Judah on Jo Spence’s “Beyond the Family Album.”

When I first encountered Jenny Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays” (1979–82) pasted across the corridors of Tate Modern in London last year, I nearly mistook them for a poster display.

I was still studying at university and, while wandering around the museum to get inspiration for an art history essay, I almost walked straight past Holzer’s brightly colored texts. Filled with statements about disaster, fear, and other provocative subjects, they seemed to have little relevance to my life at the time.

As I began to spend more time with the work, one of Holzer’s texts stood out in particular for its closing line: “The apocalypse will blossom.” Little did I know that seeing this statement a year on during a global pandemic would feel so close to home.

Now, even if I wanted to go and wander around the Tate and gaze at Holzer’s essays in person, I can’t, because London is on lockdown due to the outbreak of COVID-19. I am currently in my fifth week of self-isolation and, like countless others around the world, I’ve had to rethink my day to day.

Jenny Holzer
From the series "Inflammatory Essays", 1979-1982
Benjamin Ogilvy Projects
Guerrilla Girls
Palladium, Guerrilla Girls, Jenny Holzer, Poster, 1985
James Fuentes

Especially in times of fear and uncertainty, I’ve often turned to art for joy, comfort, and connection to the world around me. But while trying to stay up to date with art world news, Holzer’s essays kept popping up on my social media feeds.

One of the same essays I read last year about living through “intolerable” times happened to appear on Instagram. Reading it during self-isolation, the words felt like I had written them myself. Soon, I was actively searching to read them all on the Tate website. Unlike a year ago, when I felt little connection to the essays, they now seem to communicate my fears and anxieties about living through a global pandemic, and have made me rethink my perspectives on everything that is happening.

Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays”were inspired by her assigned reading list—that included the likes of Emma Goldman, Adolf Hilter, and Leon Trotsky—while partaking in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s independent study program in the 1970s. Although the “Inflammatory Essays” do not necessarily reflect Holzer’s own opinions, they were meant to be provocative, and Holzer pasted them across public spaces in New York City in an attempt to incite debate. If these essays were pasted across cities today, I imagine they would still start discussions, just as they have made me question how I and others around me are dealing with the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Jenny Holzer, Inflammatory Essays, 1979-82. © Jenny Holzer. Courtesy of the artist and Benjamin Ogilvy Projects.

One of Holzer’s essays in particular made me think about how this pandemic is not only affecting the physical health of so many people, but also how it’s impacting mental health. The line from the essay “Disaster draws people like flies” brought me back to all the major news stories I saw a couple of months ago on the first COVID-19 case in the United Kingdom, and how it instantly sparked feelings of fear and speculation. Now, there is a seemingly endless amount of COVID-19 media coverage—it is a story with such widespread impact that it is impossible to avoid. While reading Holzer’s text, it suddenly dawned on me that I was one of those flies, drawn to the disaster by constantly checking news updates on my phone. I had to take a moment to step back and question whether consuming so much negative information every hour was doing me more harm than good. I made the decision to turn off news notifications on my phone.

Another hauntingly relatable line from the same essay stood out to me as I read it a few days after the first “Clap for Carers” tribute in London: “Spectators get chills by identifying with the victims, feeling immune all the while!” When I read this line, I got chills as I thought back to the Thursday night in late March when my three flatmates and I hung out of our living room windows and clapped for the healthcare service workers saving the lives of those in need. Along my street in south London, I could see people cheering from their doorways while fireworks were set off in the distance. As the cheering died down, it felt like a moment of solidarity. Now when I reread that line in Holzer’s text, it helps me put everything into perspective.

Holzer’s essays have also made me think about what I can be doing to help those around me. Holzer almost took the words out of my mouth as I read her essay on fear. The line “Panic drives human herds over cliffs” reminded me of the panic-buying in the supermarket that I witnessed firsthand, as I stood for an hour in a queue two weeks ago just to walk around an empty-shelved store and buy my fair share of groceries (and a single toilet paper roll).

Jenny Holzer, Inflammatory Essays I, 1982. © 1982 Jenny Holzer. Courtesy of the artist and Carolina Nitsch Contemporary Art.

Jenny Holzer
Inflammatory Essays SIGNED, 2010
Alternate Projects

This is an uncertain time, and rereading Holzer’s provocative essays have also surprisingly comforted me. As one essay states, “Change is the basis of all history,” and this made me consider how this current time during the COVID-19 pandemic will be looked back on. I have hope that we will come out of this with a richer perspective on our values and priorities. And as I see communities coming together to help one another get through this difficult period, it’s comforting to read Holzer’s words from another essay: “The worst is a harbinger of the best.”

Although I nearly overlooked Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays” the first time I encountered them, they now feel more relevant than ever and continue to change the way I look at life every time I read them. While these essays were written well before COVID-19, they still provoke salient questions that help me think about how to deal with the disaster, fear, and change in the world right now.

Most importantly, what Holzer’s essays have taught me is that I must be courageous, empathetic, and patient to get through this moment, because for now, “the apocalypse will blossom.”

Head to Elephant to read its latest story in the series, Hettie Judah on Jo Spence’s “Beyond the Family Album.”

Did an artwork change your life?

Artsy and Elephant are looking for new and experienced writers alike to share their own essays about one specific work of art that had a personal impact. If you’d like to contribute, send a 100-word synopsis of your story to [email protected] with the subject line “This Artwork Changed My Life.”

Ally Faughnan