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'For the Capitol': Illuminated Reflections on the Potomac

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2007

Artist Jenny Holzer has projected text onto the Spanish Steps in Rome, the Olympic ski jump in Lillehammer, Norway, and the beach in Rio de Janeiro. Starting tonight, you can add Roosevelt Island to the list.

Holzer will use high-powered projectors to cast text from the River Terrace of the Kennedy Center across the Potomac River and onto the island. Quotations from the two memorials' namesakes -- Presidents John F. Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt -- will scroll like movie credits from 7 to midnight each night through Sunday . The best viewing spot will be the terrace itself, which will be open to the public.

Holzer has compiled an hour's worth of quotes, which will run on a loop. Her design calls for the words to start on the river and then rise to the trees on the island. The white text will be so huge that only one line will fit on the trees at a time.

That's the plan, anyway. Holzer can't be sure what will happen until it's happening.

"Having the words carry the content is the center of the work still, but I rely on and love the visual aspects, the atmospherics," she says. "For example, in Washington, I imagine there will be all kinds of lovely things that can't be controlled, like the humidity. This is what I live for."

(There's a chance of showers tomorrow and Saturday, the National Weather Service said yesterday.)

The content for this project, called "For the Capitol," centers on themes of peace, diplomacy and environmental protection. Holzer, 57, gained renown in New York in the late '70s and early '80s with her "Truisms" series. She wrote 250-plus maxims and posted them all over the subway system and on electronic billboards. Her deadpan phrases left many a passerby amused and confused:

"Expiring for love is beautiful but stupid."

"Abuse of power comes as no surprise."

"A lot of professionals are crackpots."

The Ohio-born artist became the first woman to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1990, where she won the Leone d'Oro (Golden Lion) Prize. She has won virtually every kind of art-related honor and award.

"For three decades, her work has been a powerful voice in the contemporary art world and an incredible influence on all the text art that has come since," says curator Nora Halpern, who helped organize "For the Capitol."

Holzer's whole family is artistic. She is married to painter Mike Glier, and their 19-year-old daughter, Lili Holzer-Glier, is now a budding photographer at New York University.

"When I was a little kid, I had no interest in whatever international, groundbreaking project my mother was working on," Holzer-Glier says. "I just wanted her to come home."

By age 8, Holzer-Glier had already burned out on the art world and she started to boycott museums. ("She put her foot down in Berlin," her mother recalls.) She wanted to see the zoo, not Titian, Holzer-Glier says.

The rebellious streak might be inherited. Her mother's recent works challenge authority, especially her "Redaction" series. Holzer presented brightly colored, silk-screened paintings of declassified government documents, some detailing military torture. It's her daughter's favorite installation.

"I wish more art offered . . . crucially important information with such aesthetic elegance," Holzer-Glier says.

Some may remember the series from 2004, when Holzer projected the documents onto the Gelman Library at George Washington University.

"Redaction" is part of an artistic transition that began in 1996. Holzer now quotes other people in her art rather than supplying the text herself.

"I like being an editor better," she says. "And an artist better."

David Breslin, an art history graduate student at Harvard University, helped Holzer search for the Kennedy and Roosevelt quotes, scanning hundreds of pages. He was looking for passages that would resonate as much as they did when they were written, says Breslin, 28.

A sample from Kennedy: "The very word 'secrecy' is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings."

Holzer made the final cuts and sequenced the quotes. She wouldn't elaborate on a political agenda for her projections but did say that "it wouldn't be bad if some of the deciders see it."

She loves working near bodies of water. The text doubles and sometimes triples in size because the words scrolling on the trees reflect on the water. She's looking forward to seeing what the Potomac can do. Rivers and other environmental factors can enhance or kill a Holzer projection. Enhance: A dust storm in a canyon in Mexico created a swirl of words and letters. Kill: Fog in Liverpool, England, shut down an installation.

An ongoing project titled "Street Scenes: Projects for DC," organized by curators Halpern and Welmoed Laanstra, helped bring Holzer to the District. Holzer's "For the Capitol" will be the fifth installment in the series; past projects have included a Yoko Ono installation and bulldozers performing ballet as part of a piece called "Pas de Dirt." "Street Scenes" projects are designed to bring free (and often unexpected) art to the public.

Staging the light show required a fistful of permits from the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Park Service, the Harbor Patrol and others.

For those who miss this weekend's installation, there is more Holzer art in Washington's future. Last month, Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, announced that the museum had commissioned Holzer to create a cylindrical column of light and text in the museum's Lincoln Gallery. The text will draw from four previous projects, including "Truisms." Holzer plans to install "For SAAM" in October.

So is Holzer worried about the thunderstorm threat tomorrow? She answers with a Roosevelt quote about nature.

"Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it."

For the Capitol is on view 7-midnight, tonight through Sunday. 2700 F St. NW. Free. 202-467-4600.

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