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Barbara Kruger’s ‘Belief+Doubt’ is an immersive exhibit at Hirshhorn Museum

By Danielle O’Steen,

For an art museum, real estate is a precious commodity. It’s good when it’s beautiful, better when it’s functional, best when it’s malleable.

This year the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has begun to flex its walls by expanding, extending and exploiting the square footage it has. The initiative started with Doug Aitken’s “SONG 1,” projected on the museum’s facade this spring, and will continue with the Seasonal Inflatable Structure, or “The Bloomberg Balloon,” scheduled to open in 2013. The latest iteration of that push is an overhaul of the lower level, which was a spare passage between the bathrooms, auditorium and basement galleries. The new design brings the bookstore downstairs to accompany a new installation by artist Barbara Kruger that will cover the space until 2014.

Stretched across 6,700 square feet in vinyl panels, Kruger’s immersive environment, entitled “Belief+Doubt,” is a silent shouting match carried out using the printed word, with some letters up to 12 feet tall. “BELIEVE EVERYTHING” in larger-than-life lettering fills one side, while “FORGET EVERYTHING” bellows from the adjacent wall. Even the escalators are dressed with the phrases “WHOSE POWER,” “WHOSE BODY” and “WHOSE BELIEF,” which overlap in intersecting lines. This collection of language — at once provoking, imposing and somewhat vague — is made bolder by Kruger’s signature palette of red, white and black that imitates the most aggressive forms of advertising.

In fact, it was in the world of publishing that Kruger got her start, working as an art director, photo editor and graphic designer in the 1960s and 1970s for Conde Nast Publications and magazines such as Mademoiselle and House and Garden. When she left Conde Nast, the New Jersey-born artist found her voice co-opting the language of advertising and politics and twisting it, appropriating images, mostly from magazines, and overlaying stark, bold text. She made a place for herself in the gender and inequality politics that surrounded the feminist movement and joined the ranks of artists challenging the methods of mass media in the 1980s.

In one work from 1987, a hand clutches a sign “I shop therefore I am,” while another image, made for the pro-abortion rights Women’s March on Washington in 1989, shows a female face split in two with the text “Your body is a battleground.” Kruger has used T-shirts, billboards and magazines as vehicles for her sharp-tongued phrases and, since the 1990s, has designed site-specific environments for institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Kruger’s ability to turn space into a platform for discussion has made her adaptable to a multitude of contexts. Her commentary is almost timeless, perennially stuck in a moment when the rich are always in control and the poor always powerless, where patriotism is a loaded term and reasonable doubt is a precious thing. Hidden under the escalators at the Hirshhorn, for instance, a text reads, “THE GLOBE SHRINKS FOR THOSE THAT OWN IT”; it quotes Homi K. Bhabha, humanities scholar and Harvard University professor. On the other side, lettering shouts, “IT’S A SMALL WORLD BUT NOT IF YOU HAVE TO CLEAN IT.” In this sense, she’s an appropriate presence in Washington, a city where every word counts.

But at this moment, Kruger’s general appeal struggles to resonate with the specific issues of the present, especially amid the language war that runs today’s politics and campaigns. However, she made headlines recently for her resignation from the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, following the removal of chief curator Paul Schimmel.

Where her installation at the Hirshhorn shines is in its effect on its audience. Viewers are forced to crane their necks to find Kruger’s hidden phrases, step back to fully see a monumental question and dance in a sidestep around other visitors. It is this type of deliberate wandering and experiential viewing that the Hirshhorn seems to be after these days, as was seen in the crowds meandering the grounds at night during the run of Aitken’s “SONG 1.”

At its worst, the Kruger installation is simply a backdrop, wallpaper for snapshots, superficial fodder for social media or a jumble of bold color leading to the gift shop, where matching tote bags and wallets are available for purchase, and phrases (“DREAM IT,” “BUY IT,” “FORGET IT,” “HATE IT,” “CRAVE IT”) don the floor. But there’s humor in this scenario, as well, as Kruger preaches her gospel while trying to sell the message as commodity and puts herself at the mercy of her audience as they walk all over her words.

But that’s okay. After all, it’s a challenge, not a directive, to visitors moving through the museum’s basement to be critical readers and, hopefully, stop on their way to the bathroom.

O’Steen is a freelance writer.

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