Challenging Normality

A solo exhibition of new and recent work by acclaimed artist, Barbara Kruger opens at Modern Art Oxford this summer, investigating power in popular culture today.

Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) requires no introduction. She was one of the most high-profile artists of the 1980s, savaging its prevailing consumer culture with her distinctive red and white slogans. Even non-art-lovers will be familiar with the snappy phraseology of some of her best-known works: “I shop therefore I am” and “Buy me. I’ll change your life” were just two pieces that were plastered across Selfridges, a temple of consumerism, during the London department store’s three-year long collaboration with the artist.

After studying at Parsons The New School for Design in 1965, Kruger embarked on a career in graphic design. She later spent several years at Condé Nast, and began examining their magazines to challenge and critique the materialistic objectification of women and the emptiness of the consumerist idyll that the publications extolled. Her source photography from mid-century magazines and advertisements was overlaid with oblique type proclaiming “Money can buy you love”, “We don’t need another hero”, “You are not yourself” and, most famously, “Your body is a battleground”. Now her work is in major collections across the world and she is showing a solo exhibition at Modern Art Oxford occupying a large proportion of the gallery space with a series of collages, films and installations.

Head of Programme at Modern Art Oxford Sally Shaw says that, at this point in her 30-year career, Kruger’s work has become more pertinent than ever: “We are experiencing an important cultural moment: the next generation will not be able to recall a time without smartphones, the internet or other enhanced means of communication. An artist of Kruger’s calibre and longevity is perfectly placed to examine this phenomenon from the inside, employing the language and mechanics of the industry she critiques.”

The crux of Kruger’s work lies in its keen criticism of our capitalist, consumerist society and the compromises we make by our own complicity in these worlds. As globalised mass media is continually evolving and our cynicism about materialism has grown since the financial crash of 2007, Kruger’s work is absolutely more relevant now than ever before. Shaw describes her as, “a propagandist in reverse” and frames her as a predictor of our current predicament: “Her works have served over the years to forecast the symptoms we now experience as a result of globalised consumerism.”

For Shaw this combination of technological advances in communications, future generations’ normalising of the constant barrage of information, and the identification of how disastrous the consequences (for the economy, for society and for the environment) that the endless pursuit of “stuff” can cause, means that Kruger’s work is experiencing a new importance and cultural relevance: “Now her works will have even more weight and presence as we decide how to rectify the present situation over the course of the next few generations.” Although Kruger’s paste-ups are familiar to many, the new exhibition will utilise the potential of Modern Art Oxford’s unique space to create a new slant on her text-based art, with an immersive space in which the words and text become somewhat abstract by virtue of their sheer size.

Shaw explains: “The upper gallery at Modern Art Oxford is a beautiful, almost church-like space with high vaulted ceilings. This room will be completely transformed with a new site-specific architectural text wrap unique to the show. Covering floor, walls and part of the ceiling, the installation will create an all-encompassing text enveloping the viewer.” By showcasing Kruger’s soundbites and slogans on such a large-scale, Modern Art Oxford has succeeded in cultivating a new and fresh perspective on Kruger’s three-decade practice – previous site-specific exhibitions have included commissions in parks, train stations and museums. Such monumental installations make the viewer work harder in order to realise this is not “easy” art. Shaw contrasts the presentation with the rapidity and convenience of communications today: “My experience of these works is that they are almost the antithesis of the text message or tweet. Their content does not slip down easily and they can only be read by physically moving about the space.” They actively engage the viewer. “To stand up close is to only see a small fragment of a message that becomes highly stylised and graphic. It is impossible to see the whole message without blocking at least part of it from view even when standing at the furthest point away, forcing you to continually change your perspective and viewpoint. A metaphor played out in physical space.”

Modern Art Oxford has also succeeded in manipulating its spaces to highlight the versatility of Kruger’s work and the next part of the exhibition, showing Kruger’s famous paste-ups, varies the scale and the tone to a much more personal, immediate level, bringing together a collection of collages from the 1980s. “These works are just as vociferous as the wrap next door but their political economics are played out in magazine dimensions and in hand-cropped, pre-photoshop roughness.” Furthermore, the paste-ups reveal the essence of Kruger’s working method, which is the juxtaposition of media imagery and the subversive message it conveys: “These tightly orchestrated visual protests are each a perfect balance between form and content.”

The exhibition also includes Kruger’s lesser-known video pieces, including Plenty (2008), and a four-channel installation, Twelve (2004), both representing UK debuts for the works. While Kruger is most recognised for her photographic and typographical pieces, Shaw was keen to showcase this variety in the artist’s practice. She highlights how “Kruger has built up a powerful and diverse body of work over decades and this exhibition is a great opportunity to highlight the depth of her art,” but also acknowledges that “her larger-scale site-specific installations on buses, billboards and buildings in cities around the world have attracted both critical and popular attention internationally,” and so, although the magazine format has both inspired Kruger and lends itself well to her work as a medium of representation, it is far from being the sole viewfinder through which we should explore her output.

For Kruger, the opportunity to work at Modern Art Oxford, and in Oxford as a location, inspired her not only because it was an opportunity to explore a new space but she could also make use of the city’s identity as a place of academia and achievement with a worldwide reputation. Shaw says: “Kruger has been interested in the idea of Oxford as a seat of intellectual influence globally. I think she sees her exhibition at Modern Art Oxford as an opportunity to plant ideas or place questions in a specific context and before a particular audience, with the potential to influence the future.”

Site specificity is therefore central to Kruger’s works: “That site could be a magazine, a billboard, a television, a museum; she works within the dynamic proposed by a particular place.” The upper gallery uniquely lends itself to her thinking. Shaw furthers that Kruger has been “a really brilliant collaborator. She’s been very generous in encouraging us to select the paste-ups.”

Kruger’s works are witty, clever and complex, and have cemented her reputation as one of the most successful female artists of her generation. Through works such as Your Body is a Battleground  (1990), Not ugly enough (1997) and You are not yourself  (1984), she inevitably engages with a feminist agenda, but Shaw contests that her success is not gender specific. She argues: “I think Barbara Kruger is successful because she makes great work that is engaging for all sorts of people. She is a supreme strategist who employs her direct experience of the world to influence others to powerful effect.” She also argues for the wide-ranging appeal of Kruger’s critique and against the temptation of pigeon-holing her simply as a female artist: “The consumerist impact of advertising is diverse and complex, marginalising of a wide cross-section of society. We need to consider the implications of the work itself, rather than worrying first and foremost about the gender of the maker.”

This dominant and immediate art assumes the tropes of advertising and critiques them, and is echoed across the art and fashion world by the likes of Katharine Hamnett and Bob & Roberta Smith as well as in recent collections from Alexander Wang, Henry Holland and Isabel Marant. While Kruger’s direct mode of address is often confrontational, Shaw emphasises that, rather than identifying with the subjects of her work, Kruger exposes “the multiple underlying devices, and how and to what end they are employed.” Furthermore, “we are also made aware of our complicity in the act of seduction by consumerism. I think this is what we are confronted by and what feels so uncomfortable. Discomfort is a real motivator.”

This feeling, along with irony, runs through the work of many artists and Kruger has occasionally practised extremely close to the very values and institutions that she holds up for interrogation. Throughout the Selfridges campaign, which saw Kruger’s ironic, self-depreciating deification of commodities and their consumption plastered through stores which were selling the very over-priced lifestyle promises that she was meant to be rejecting, the artist was criticised for selling out and becoming part of the consumerist institution herself. Licensing her work to Selfridges created uncomfortable bedfellows of art and commerce, but Kruger is certainly not the first, nor will she be the last, artist to enter this uncomfortable territory.

In these collaborations Kruger is critical of a world that she is partaking in herself. It’s a conflict that must have pervaded her early years in graphic design and Shaw cites an example of conflict with established commercial norms during Kruger’s collaboration with London Underground for their Artists’ Tube Map covers series. While Kruger’s design supplemented station names with more ambiguous offerings such as “belief” and “laughter” there was, “a heated discussion with the then managing director of London Underground about her use of the word ‘doubt’. The MD was adamant that the Underground was no place for doubt, and that the word must be removed.”

Shaw gives this example to highlight how relevant the artist is to today’s society in the way that she engages with, and challenges, established institutions: “Kruger suggested very succinctly that without doubt, curiosity and inquisition, we can’t navigate the world – doubt is a human instinct which enables us to untangle a world of increasingly complex messages. This struck me as evidence of a need to create a balanced political position within a very broad public arena. She is very much an artist of our times.”

<p”>The Modern Art Oxford exhibition shows Kruger and her artistic approach to be more relevant than ever: “Kruger seems innately in tune with current times.” While her teaching work connects her “with an emerging generation of artists and practitioners”, Shaw also argues that she reacts very much to the places around her and that while “her devices and creative algorithms were formulated at a fairly early stage, their importance is in the application of these ideas to a given time or place. She seems deft at lifting out the heart of the matter or putting her finger on the pulse of an era.”

As our awareness of advertising and its manipulations grows, Kruger’s work is ever-more refreshing because she is “visually economic – the more visually saturated and communications savvy the planet becomes, the more succinct her approach appears. In the context of each work she establishes the quickest way to have the most impact with the least material. I think she is trying to help us become more visually self-sufficient and more able to decode what is often highly coded material.”

Shaw believes that Barbara Kruger will “continue to be iconic, prolific and influential. She is arguably one of the few artists whose impact and legacy has directly affected a whole generation.” Her closing comment: “I would love to see more of her films. I would love to see her on Instagram” highlights how this is the perfect time for Kruger and promises more to come from this culturally significant artist. Barbara Kruger  runs at Modern Art Oxford 28 June – 31 August. For more information, visit

Ruby Beesley