Barbara Kruger’s exhibition tries to appeal to the 21st century and fails

4 Mins read

The Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You exhibition at Serpentine South was her first solo show in the UK in 20 years.

Detail of the collages in (Untitled) I Shop Therefore I am [Sadie Pitcher]

Entering the Serpentine, you are confronted with a floor-to-ceiling LED screen of a black and white hand holding a red placard with the phrase “I shop, therefore I am” in bold white font.

The work is a replay of one of artist Barbara Kruger’s older works, Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am). In this new animated version, Kruger plays with the philosopher Descartes’ words, and the phrase flashes from “I shop therefore I am,” to “I need therefore I shop” and, in a sly switch of tense, “I die therefore I was.”

On the surrounding walls, the same large hand is repeated eight times, but each is holding a different collage made from photographs and phrases found in newspapers, magazines, books, and social media.

Phrases like “just another pretty face,” “I’m not your bitch,” and the iconic “your body is a battleground” are stuck over images of lonely teenagers, weird menacing men, and sultry women.

In the exhibition Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You, which was on show at Serpentine South from February 1-March 17th, Kruger gathered an angry army of memes and cats that tried to challenge power and consumption.

The show got me reflecting on Kruger’s immense archive of work and how her attempts to modernise some of the pieces meant their powerful messages were lost.

Barbara Kruger is a feminist icon of the 1970s and 80s, battling against society with Futura Bold and wit. Her works feature striking black-and-white images that are plastered with red text boxes of fiery phrases which directly address the viewer. Her practice borrows from the language of advertising building on her experience as a graphic designer.

Installation view of (Untitled) Forever [Sadie Pitcher]

As soon as I entered the exhibition, I felt like I was looking at a grungy, angry Tumblr page. The images and words repeated throughout the exhibition felt cliched. They were too obvious and were trying too hard to appeal to a 21st century, social media audience.

Another work had been replayed on a large LED screen and featured a foreboding eye and the message “remember me” with all the dystopian doom of George Orwell’s Big Brother.

The screen adds very little to the messages of control and surveillance the piece highlights. Orwell appears again in the immersive installation Untitled (Forever). In the room, Kruger’s own words and quotes cover the walls, including “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever” from Orwell’s 1984 installed on the floor.

The biggest point of contention comes from Untitled (No Comment). The work is a three-channel immersive video installation that features found footage, this time from the depths of the internet, TikTok and Instagram.

With videos of cats in toilet bowls, acrobats, hairstyle tutorials and another talking cat abruptly cut with quotes from Voltaire and Virginia Woolf.

This video work was less a masterclass in the blurring of high and low culture and just plain cringe. The clips were too dated to successfully explore ideas of consumption that move so quickly.

It reminded me of the #corecore trend I had seen on my TikTok feed, which emerged in July 2022. #Corecore videos tend to feature collaged clips from memes, the news, films, and interviews that deal with issues of over-consumption and capitalism, brought together with melancholic music, much like in Untitled (No Comment). As one TikTok describes the trend, it’s like Barbara Kruger meets Dada.

Whether Untitled (No Comment) is a physical experience of a #corecore video, it was too out there, too disjointed. The images were too obscure to successfully question institutions of power. With social media and trends moving so quickly, Barbara Kruger is fighting a losing battle, with clips and images becoming irrelevant as quickly as they become trendy.

Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You [George Darrell]

Barbara Kruger’s social media efforts don’t end there. In a last-ditch effort to entice the younger, social media-savvy generation, the Serpentine created a Barbara Kruger TikTok filter.

You upload two images into a grainy black-and-white filter. When you swipe from one image to the other, the caption changes from “we are not” to “what we seem.”

The filter has 334 videos, some show people’s selfies, pictures from the exhibition and the Serpentine using it for their own PR.

After the confusion of the #corecore cats, more of Kruger’s old works are displayed on LED screens including Your Body is a Battle Ground. The piece has been turned into a large jigsaw puzzle, that shatters and re-assembles.

The work features a close-up of a woman’s face directly gazing at the viewer. Her face is sliced down the middle with one half in negative. Across the face in three red text boxes is the phrase, “Your body is a battleground.”

The original poster was produced for the March for Women’s Lives in Washington in 1989, in support of abortion rights after a series of anti-abortion laws began to undermine Roe vs. Wade.

Fast forward to the 24th of June 2022, and the US Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling which had guaranteed women the right to an abortion up until the point of foetal viability, or around 24 weeks.

Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You [George Darrell]

Within this horrifying reality, the work is a powerful commentary, revealing how little society has changed, and that we’ve gone backwards since 1989.

However, the work achieves this without the need for animation and the LED revamp is an unnecessary distraction. As Jacob Wilson writes on Kruger’s pivot to video, the screens “are no easier to shoot and share than a flat poster.”

Having toured the Serpentine South Pavilion, bombarded by words, disjointed sounds and memes. I felt exhausted.

Art should challenge and critique society but also encourage change. I didn’t feel empowered as a feminist, or as a human being. It felt like being shouted at for half an hour by an aunt stuck in the age of second-wave feminism.

The power of Kruger’s original works is lost through the attempt to revamp them for the social media age.

In an interview in 1991, visual art academic W. J. T. Mitchell asked Kruger if she had a sense of how long she wanted to catch the spectator’s eye, speaking on the battle for attention within advertising.

In response, Kruger says, “certain images are successful in one site and not in another” and “that my work is a series of attempts, and some make it for some people and not for others.”

In this instance, Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You didn’t quite make it for me.

Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You (Installation view, 1 February – 17 March 2024, Serpentine South)

Featured image courtesy of George Darrell via the Serpentine Website.

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