Installation view of BARBARA KRUGER’s Untitled (Forever), 2017, digital print on vinyl wallpaper, 570 × 2,870 × 1,830 cm, at “Barbara Kruger: Forever,” Amorepacific Museum of Art, Seoul, 2019. All photos by Jeong Hee-seong; courtesy Amorepacific Museum of Art.


Barbara Kruger

Amorepacific Museum of Art
Korea, South USA

Since the early 1980s, Barbara Kruger has pursued a distinct paste-up aesthetic, appropriating photos from advertisements in old magazines and product catalogues, and overlaying them with pithy statements in bold typeface. The aphorisms that populate her works offer punchy provocations as proverbs for modern times, underscoring the artist’s critical stance toward consumer capitalism, mass media, and self-perpetuating mechanisms of power and control in society. “Barbara Kruger: Forever,” a polished survey of the artist’s oeuvre at the Amorepacific Museum of Art, cogently connected several bodies of work that were installed to subversively manipulate one’s visual experience. As the artist’s first solo presentation in Asia, this exhibition assumed particular urgency in Korea, where traditional values, at odds with Kruger’s overt skepticism of orthodoxy, still play an outsize role in contemporary culture. 

Installation view of “Barbara Kruger: Forever” at Amorepacific Museum of Art, Seoul, 2019. 

Kruger’s works engage the viewer’s gaze—the act of looking itself—and the subjectivity implied therein. Any encounter with one of her works necessitates the viewer’s identification, consciously or not, with one of two positions: the looker or the looked upon. The affiliation denoted by choosing a side speaks to the specific structures of subjection that imbue Kruger’s work with an unavoidable tension, most notably when personal pronouns like “you,” “them,” “me” and “us” are invoked. Thus, proclamations such as “Your gaze hits the side of my face,” juxtaposed with a grainy close-up of a white marble female bust photographed in profile, constitute an act of othering that implicates the audience in a process of subjective posturing. The texts that populate Kruger’s works are fraught with the polemics of the modern social order, foregrounding the conditions that lead to the formation of personal positions and public identities which define our relationships with others.

Installation view of BARBARA KRUGER’s Untitled (Forever), 2017, digital print on vinyl wallpaper, 570 × 2,870 × 1,830 cm, at “Barbara Kruger: Forever,” Amorepacific Museum of Art, Seoul, 2019. 

Notably impactful in this survey was the use of space and scale to focus the viewer’s gaze and force particular perspectives. The exhibition’s namesake vinyl wallpaper work, Untitled (Forever) (2017), covered all four walls as well as the floor of the museum’s largest gallery with gigantic black and white texts excerpted from literary works. On the floor was a sentence from George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 (1949): “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.” Meanwhile, sprawled across the walls and styled as if enlarged under a magnifying glass were quotes from Virginia Woolf’s feminist text A Room of One’s Own (1929), such as, “You know that women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” By enveloping her audience in a spectacular space of sensory overload, Kruger compels viewers to adopt an ambulatory approach in experiencing her work; it is impossible to take in the totality of text while standing in one place, obliging viewers to adjust their view as they move through the gallery. The physical intimidation effected by the imposing and all-encompassing text, combined with our inability to achieve a complete reading from a single vantage point, speaks to the nature of truth and objectivity in an age of media oversaturation. 

Partial installation view of BARBARA KRUGER’s The Globe Shrinks, 2010, four-channel digital video installation: 13 min loop, at “Barbara Kruger: Forever,” Amorepacific Museum of Art, Seoul, 2019. 

Kruger’s criticism of contemporary discourse emerges more pointedly in The Globe Shrinks (2010), a four-channel video installation that gives form and voice to Western cis-male groupthink. From blue-collar banalities spoken by the video’s male protagonists, to confessional voiceovers by its hidden male narrator, to flickering title cards exhorting viewers to “BLAME IT,” “LOVE IT,” FEAR IT,” and “BUY IT,” Kruger weaves a disjointed rebuke of gendered entitlement that forces viewers to reorient their gaze both literally and figuratively. The video’s clips constantly shift between channels, inducing a whiplash effect that conveys the assault of oppressive forces to which marginalized groups are subjected across societies. Culminating in critical theorist Homi. K. Bhaba’s axiom “The globe shrinks for those who own it” flashing across the walls of the darkened space, the work crafts a keen indictment of normalized violence, religious fundamentalism, institutionalized sexism, and casual intolerance of identity politics, compounding Kruger’s condemnation of the habituated passivity entrenched in contemporary culture.

Barbara Kruger: Forever” is on view at Amorepacific Museum, Seoul, until December 29, 2019.

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