Barbara Kruger’s exhibition at The Serpentine brings the artist’s legacy right up to date
Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. gathers together the artist’s work across multiple mediums and moments from her career, but the message remains just as powerful.
All that’s old is new and all that’s new is old – especially in the world of Barbara Kruger. In her exhibition Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. at the Serpentine in London, she adorns the walls with her collages of Futura Bold Oblique font atop found imagery. But this time it feels different. While she welcomes us into her ever-growing capsule that often demonstrates our advancement, it also reveals how little we’ve actually changed.
Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. is the first institutional show for the artist and graphic designer in London in over 20 years, and her second time exhibiting at the gallery since participating in the group show Wall to Wall in 1994. Adapting many of the works (she refers to them as “replays”) for the Serpentine South, after previously showcasing them at galleries throughout the US, the show is as much a survey of her obsession with visual culture as it is a melding of her oeuvre with the architecture.
In an interview with the Serpentine artistic director Hans Ulrich Olbrist ahead of the show, Kruger describes her upbringing in Newark, New Jersey, and the fact that her parents never owned a home, but “spent the weekends going to open houses” conjuring up dream lives in these properties. The experience led the young Kruger to dreams of being an architect in her adolescence, when she’d draw up plans for housing developments. Later on, her relationship to space strengthened, leading her to incorporate installation into her practice some 20 years ago. “When I walk into a space, I pretty much know how I want to engage it and how I choose to spatialise the meanings of my work,” she says. Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. is no different.
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Barbara Kruger, Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You., Installation view, Los Angeles County Museum of Art – LACMA, Los Angeles, March 20-July 17, 2022, Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers, Photo: Museum Associates/LACMA
“She’s often been our words, a way for us to now define a past generation of wrongdoers or sentiments, and politics we’d like to think we’ve outgrown.”Yaya Azariah Clarke
As you enter the show, there’s a sense of familiarity. We’re immediately faced with Kruger’s critique of material consumption – I love therefore I need. But there are also overwhelming elements, with no apology to the senses. Sounds – beeping, ticking, erasing and crashing – usher you to the right and the welcoming voice of the artist uttering truncated sentences like “hello, I love you” coerces you to the left.
When looking at Kruger’s back catalogue, it’s safe to describe her as a woman of many words. Her work has often provided a way for us to define a past generation of wrongdoers or sentiments, and politics we’d like to think we’ve outgrown. Her slogans have always had this way of pushing fence-sitters right over the edge (even if momentarily). Throughout Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You., it becomes clear that this quality in her work isn’t something reserved for her artistic past or our own nostalgia. One of the most salient examples is in her repeated use of “your body is a battleground” throughout her newer collage works. Originally made by the artist in 1989, at the time, it was about women’s choice and the fight for reproductive freedom, a fight still being waged today. But through repetition – paired with contemporary images – she has a daring way of emphasising it as a statement and feminist priority throughout the ages.
Kruger started out in graphic design, most notably in page design for Condé Nast and as a picture editor for the conglomerate’s now-defunct women’s magazine Mademoiselle. This early career journey developed her “fluency in working with pictures and words,” she says. The show has a great way of assembling the breadth of her messages together, while also emphasising the power of both her artistic flair and the influences of advertising, and the richness of them combined. Adopting Futura in the 1980s to carry the slogans in her works, Kruger was a part of a movement of feminist artists including Jenny Holzer and Guerilla Girls reclaiming the font from the 1950s ‘Mad Men’ in New York advertising. But Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. clearly shows the fact that Kruger is forever evolving and adapting. Futura has gone beyond a reaction or reclamation for the artist; it has grown and become a tool to send the pervasive sexist, racist and consumerist messaging back to its sender.
In her video works, particularly Untitled (No Comment), present-day advertising also gets the heat. Kruger assembles memes, hairstyle tutorials, blurred-out selfies and, of course, a fast-flickering collection of Instagram screenshots of users, referencing her 1990 piece I Shop Therefore I Am and showcasing our interaction with these themes today. It makes you think about how we perpetuate unrealistic standards of beauty and market ourselves more than we’d like to think.
If you’re walking around Hyde Park this month, you’ll be sure to see one of London’s traditional taxi cabs covered in Kruger’s words. Or if you’re on TikTok, you’ll see users stepping into her Your Body is a Battleground artwork with a new effect made especially for the show. The strength of her work is not just in her messaging, but the way it feeds off the architecture of a space, as well as how we use our devices and engage with art in general. That’s the power of the so-called “replays” in Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. – they show us the beauty and the pitfalls of progress and adaptation.
Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. is open at The Serpentine South Gallery until 17 March.
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Remember me), 1988/2020 (stills), Single-channel video on LED panel, sound, 23 sec. 350.1 × 250.1 cm 137 7/8 × 98 1/2 inches, Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers
About the Author
Yaya (they/them) joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in June 2023 and became a staff writer in November of the same year. With a particular interest in Black visual culture, they have previously written for publications such as WePresent, alongside work as a researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.