In the Dead Letter Office


Fig. 1. in (JIHAD) time, 2014, oil on linen, 57 x 44 in. / 147.3 x 111.8 cm. Text: U.S. government document. © 2015 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Used with permission.

I have a new piece out in Media-N, on Jenny Holzer's redaction paintings. A version of this essay is also forthcoming in the catalogue of Jenny Holzer's 'War Paintings' exhibition, currently on display in the Museo Correr in Venice. The catalogue is edited by Thomas Kellein, and is being produced in collaboration with Frankfurt's Written Art Foundation. You can read the piece at it appeared in Media-N here.

This is the beginning of the piece:

Behind the canvas, the water looks cold and unforgiving. It is as if the words were written onto ice crystals, black on blue, and where the canvas is still dark and liquid, I have to step closer in order to read them. Only when I lean in can I see the file number at the top of the page, (0062-04-C | D 369-69278), which indicates that the painting is based on a government document. It is difficult to read the words.

Slowly, I make out the handwritten lines that begin page 99 of the U.S. military’s report on the actions of the Special Forces personnel that beat and burnt eight prisoners in Gardez, Afghanistan, before dousing them with cold water and sending them out into the snow and ice. It begins: “I that my Renown is mentioned in (JIHAD) time I was a childe.”


You cannot see them. Small figures entwined in the metal that stretches to the sun come morning. They are concealed in a minature which is itself a concealment: the dreams of giants concealed in the reverie of infants.

To minaturise. To make useless. To remove from any claim or cause until the object stands in grotesque rememberance of its power. To minaturise is to liberate. Liberated from meaning into the fragility of existence. As breakable and fleeting as steel and stone.

Its to make whole what was once myriad – it is to make fragments out of meanings and render them mobile.


A traveller’s portable God.