Jenny Holzer on the creation of the New York City AIDS Memorial

'Love, and lovely words overflowing, ardent unashamed people abounding.' The artist is 70 today - here she remembers one of her most important works
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A close up of Walt Whitman's Song Of Myself as used in Jenny Holzer's AIDS Memorial - photo by John Moore, Circular Space Photography
A close up of Walt Whitman's Song Of Myself as used in Jenny Holzer's AIDS Memorial - photo by John Moore, Circular Space Photography

Jenny Holzer came of age during the early years of the HIV crisis. The artist, who turns 70 today, (29 July), first made her name with her text works, Inflammatory Essays and Truism, which appeared on posters, t-shirts and even condom packets, throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. She entered the public consciousness in 1982, when her Truisms appeared on a Times Square billboard, the same year as a chilling arrangement of letters, AIDS, first appeared in the New York Times.

Today, the artist has a permanent, textual reminder of that period in NYC’s history in the form of the New York City AIDS Memorial, which was opened in 2016 in the park next to to the the site of St Vincent’s hospital, which established America’s second ever AIDS ward in 1984.

 

AIDS Memorial New York - Studio AI - photo by John Moore, Circular Space Photography
AIDS Memorial New York - Studio AI - photo by John Moore, Circular Space Photography

As our forthcoming book, In Memory Of: Designing Contemporary Memorials, explains, “the memorial comprises an 18-feet (5.5-meter), tent-like white steel and aluminum pavilion that hovers over a central fountain, benches, and an installation by Holzer, who inscribed Walt Whitman’s 'Song of Myself' into Minnesota granite pavers. Built on the site of St. Vincent’s Materials Handling Center, an ugly loading-dock building that resembled a utilities plant, where both medical supplies and corpses were sent in and out through tunnels, the memorial carries significant historical weight.”

Holzer feels that historical weight herself; as she told Phaidon.com in 2017, she feared at one point she might have the disease. “Various friends, associates and I waited to learn if we would die,” she explained. “Some died, and the rest of us were changed and do not forget.” 

 

Portrait of Jenny Holzer by Nanda Lanfranco
Portrait of Jenny Holzer by Nanda Lanfranco

It might come as a surprise to learn that Holzer chose not to use her own words, but those of another writer, for this particular work. However, Holzer has, over recent years, chosen to appropriate a diverse selection of texts for her pieces, and one of Whitman’s most famous works seemed especially apt for this project.

“'Song' has love, and lovely words overflowing, and represents ardent unashamed people abounding, people of all sorts, and that is how and what the memorial must be,” she told Phaidon.com. “My friend, the poet Henri Cole, made the welcome suggestion of 'Song of Myself'. Another friend, Nick Morgan, and I cut the poem slightly to fit the site, the times and the purpose.”

 

In Memory Of: Designing Contemporary Memorials

For more on the site and the purpose pre-order a copy of In Memory Of here.  And remember, while there is joy in that much shame is gone and openness is relatively possible, the disease persists as a threat to many - especially the most vulnerable. New York City AIDS Memorial.


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