UG Art History student pens essay connecting Hirshhorn exhibit to current Ukraine conflict

Art, War, and Ukraine: How the Power of Art At Last Gave My War Trauma a Voice

UG Art History student pens essay connecting Hirshhorn exhibit to current Ukraine conflict
Irena Dragaš Jansen in front of Barbara Kruger’s Belief+Doubt exhibit

By Irena Dragaš Jansen

Preface by Associate Professor Jacquelyn Williamson

It was a Sunday afternoon when I read Irena Jansen’s essay. Ten feet from me, in a squashy chair, sat my beloved sister, who is mentally and physically other-abled. I had just given her a cookie. She accepted it with a happy cry of ‘BLANKET!’ It’s one of the few words she can say. The accounts of disabled Ukrainian refugees had been in that morning’s news, and I found my throat full as I watched my sister devour her cookie, safe.

Cookie gone, I closed The Washington Post and returned to my grading: Irena Jansen’s essay. Every Spring Semester at George Mason, the Art History faculty teach an advanced seminar called “The Museum.” Designed as an introduction to the history and practice of museums, this course encounters ethics, careers, and so much more. Over the semester, students write a series of short, critical essays on museums and exhibits in the DC area. After I read Irena Jansen’s essay, I wanted everyone to hear her voice and understand her perspective.

Not only does Irena Jansen’s essay demonstrate the power and importance of art, it demonstrates that we must remember the human cost of war.

“Life is art. Art is life. I never separate the two.” This is a statement by the Beijing-born contemporary artist Ai Weiwei.[1] I found this quote printed on several products in the museum store when I went to see Barbara Kruger’s Belief+Doubt exhibit at the Hirshhorn museum in Washington, DC. It might seem strange to title a review of one artist’s exhibit with a quote of another artist, but Weiwei’s words struck a chord and seem particularly relevant to Kruger’s exhibit. The placement of Barbara Kruger’s exhibit at the Hirshhorn museum powerfully points to its integration with life, and the installation’s themes ring poignantly true for life today – especially in the wake of the war in Ukraine which had started only a few days before my visit to the museum.

Barbara Kruger is a contemporary American artist who was born in 1945. She is considered one of the most influential artists of her generation and has been called the “poet laureate of the age of spectacle.” [2] In the late 1970s she created photomontages that combined found images with text, thus complicating and even changing the intended meaning of the original photos. Later, in the 1980s, Kruger was a part of the postmodernist movement in art: breaking away from tradition, emphasizing the cacophony and chaos, and rejecting order through patterns, myths, and symbols. She especially embraced post-structural postmodernism which was also known as textuality; she used fragmented text as a counter argument to the modern idea of a unified meaning. Her works are often a tissue of citations - using multiple unoriginal writings to question, critique, and provoke the society and the viewers. Kruger’s art embodies the postmodernist maxim penned by Roland Barthes, “The death of the author is the birth of the reader.”[3] Barbara Kruger makes herself scarce in her artwork, thus opening the space for the reader/viewer to emerge as the main component. Kruger’s use of textuality, her emphasis on cacophony and chaos, her use of fragmented text and citations, and her intent to provoke the viewers, are all evident in her installation at the Hirshhorn.

After navigating a somewhat confusing entrance into the museum and inquiring about Kruger’s exhibit, I was directed to the basement. I stepped onto the escalator unprepared to immediately be thrust into the installation. Large words in all capital letters, white on a black background, unrolled before my eyes as the escalator carried me downward. The words read: WHOSE POWER? WHOSE VALUES? At the end of my descent, I stepped into an open area surrounded by what seemed like a screaming chaos. Before me was a large red wall, it took me a few seconds to make out the words written in white letters which towered before me: BELIEF + DOUBT = SANITY. This stopped me in my tracks. I eventually moved aside because people kept bumping into me. I was in their way as they walked from the bathroom to the museum store.

This space at the bottom of the escalators is a brightly lit, open area which serves as a kind of a pass-through between various spaces in the basement: the escalators, the elevator, the bathrooms, the offices, the auditorium, and the museum store. These well-labeled spaces are a destination, while the open space between them seems to be there just to facilitate and connect them. Kruger’s exhibit is placed in this transition space, in this non-destination place. And yet, it stopped me in my tracks.

Kruger’s Belief+Doubt was commissioned by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden as a long-term installation in 2012. It covers approximately 6,700 square feet of surface – including walls, floor, and escalator sides – in lettering up to 12 feet high, presented in a high-contrast color scheme of red, white, and black.[4] I could not locate the wall text, but I found this information on a small card next to the merchandise in the shop. Even before reading this text, the art clearly spoke for itself. Large letters were everywhere around me – on the walls, on the floor, on the escalator sides, under the escalators, in the museum store, and above the bathroom and office doors. They screamed at me in all caps. They invited me, the viewer, to decipher them. I had to step back from the gigantic letters on the walls in order to make out the words and sentences they spelled out. White words on a black background said: BELIEVE ANYTHING. FORGET EVERYTHING. The bathroom and office doors nestled between these words. The space above the doors read: WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU LAUGHED? GIVE YOUR BRAIN AS MUCH ATTENTION AS YOU DO YOUR HAIR AND YOU’LL BE A THOUSAND TIMES BETTER OFF. MALCOLM X.

As I eagerly stepped back and forth, and then repeatedly walked from left to right, more sentences were revealed. The largest sections of the floor, the ones directly under the colossal words on the walls, read: WHO DOES THE CRIME? WHO DOES THE TIME? WHO SALUTES LONGEST? WHO PRAYS LOUDEST? WHO DIES FIRST? WHO LAUGHS LAST? WHO IS BEYOND THE LAW? WHO IS FREE TO CHOOSE? WHO SPEAKS? WHO IS SILENT? WHO IS HEALED? WHO IS HOUSED? WHO WINS? WHO LOSES? This is where I broke down and cried. I had spent the week prior reliving my own war trauma evoked by the recent war in Ukraine. I had also been spending days and nights coordinating help for my friend and her family who were fleeing Kyiv. My mind and heart were overwhelmed by memories and current realities of war. I was even feeling out of place in this museum, surrounded by people who were unaware of my inner pain and turmoil. But here, in this hallway, amid the chaos of giant words screaming at me, I felt understood. I felt seen. Somebody else was asking the same questions.

This is where the power of Barbara Kruger’s art and the clever placement of the installation collided with its intended viewer – me. Kruger’s art is not here to be observed, it is here to be engaged with. There are no chairs for the visitors to sit, rest, and comfortably observe. The installation placement invites the viewers to walk on it and around it, to step back and forth, to walk left to right, and to decipher the words and sentences. Kruger invites the viewers to engage. As the viewers engage their bodies, they engage their minds as well. By placing the installation between the bathrooms, the offices, and the museum store, Kruger and the museum curator emphasized the relevance of these printed words for everyday life. These are not provoking statements and questions that one is invited to observe from a safe distance, as one might do in a secluded gallery. These printed statements are meant to engage the viewers as they live their lives – as they work, shop, or go to the bathroom. The words are gigantic, spread across large surfaces, and they are hard to read. By doing this, Kruger makes the viewers understand that asking these questions requires their conscious engagement, their effort, and the intentional pausing amid the buzz of life.

The thoughtful and carefully chosen placement of the installation does not shy away from directly confronting the viewer, but it also confronts the art itself. A table with the shop’s merchandise is placed on top of the installation which reads in white letters on a red floor: PLENTY SHOULD BE ENOUGH. Above the carefully arranged display of colorful products, the words spell out: YOU WANT IT. YOU BUY IT. YOU FORGET IT. The alternating squares of the shop’s checkered floor are covered by short poignant sentences: BUY IT. DREAM IT. FORGET IT. HATE IT. CRAVE IT. BREAK IT. WANT IT. OWN IT. HOARD IT. RETURN IT. SELL IT. RECYCLE IT. LOVE IT. The fourteenth square in front of the cash register simply says: HOW MUCH? There is no way for the viewers to escape the confrontation of their own consumerism and materialism. The irony of the art’s placement cannot escape the viewers either. The art here presents itself as not only powerless against consumerism, but as in fact complicit in its propagation.

After visiting the other floors of the museum, I felt drawn to return down into the basement – into the chaotic scramble of shouting words. I finally located the wall text next to the elevators. Barbara Kruger’s name and the wall text seemed almost hidden, especially compared to how the names of the other artists, featured on the floors above, were prominently displayed. For example, Marcel Duchamp and Mark Bradford’s names were written on the walls of their exhibits in letters almost as colossal as the ones in Kruger’s installation. I would like to believe that both Barbara Kruger and the curator purposefully did not emphasize the artist’s name and the wall text as they wanted the immersive experience to have priority. However, I also wonder how much choice Kruger had in this matter. I invite the visitors to brave the confusing architecture of the Hirshhorn and take the escalator down to the basement. Kruger’s installation and the museum’s placement of it will provoke you. The overwhelming chaos of color and words is imbued with meaning. The installation is both disturbing and comforting. It soothes and also unsettles. It is a paradox, much like life. After all, art is life. Life is art. The two can truly never be separated.  


[1] Product description text on a keychain at the Hirshhorn store, Hirshhorn Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, 2022.

[2] Wall Text, Barbara Kruger: Belief+Doubt, Hirshhorn Musem, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

[3] Dr. Heather McGuire, “Art Now” art history class, my class notes, Fall 2021, George Mason University.

[4] “Barbara Kruger” flyer available at the Hirshhorn store, Hirshorn Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2022.