Throw too much of anything in someone’s face and eventually they stop absorbing it. Take “compassion fatigue”, a phenomenon unique to our current state of living in which one’s attention is overworked and overwrought by reports of violent, emotionally demanding world affairs. In the face of such excess information, and no doubt compounded by the media’s negativity bias, our reaction is to switch off and shut down. We become desensitised to images of war, trauma and natural disaster, or simply oversaturated with them until they occupy as much mental real estate as an advertising jingle or train announcement. Enter Jenny Holzer, an artist zooming in on the lag between seen, and observed; heard, and absorbed.
In Holzer’s Artist Rooms installation at Tate Modern, words buzz at me in all dimensions and leapfrog over each other; off the wall, and into my line of vision. It’s as if every app on my phone is pinging simultaneously or a hundred toddlers are simultaneously demanding my attention – but this chaos is no thoughtless miscalculation. Nothing with Holzer is accidental; rather, her work is calibrated to induce overload. It’s inflammatory, the messages frequently in conflict with one another and – most crucially of all – impossible to ignore or compute.