Descending the stairs into the basement of the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, DC, visitors are greeted with a towering series of sharp, incisive phrases: “Belief + Doubt = Sanity,” “Forget Every Thing,” “Plenty Should Be Enough,” all spelled out on the walls and floors in red, black, and white. These are the words of media artist and provocateur Barbara Kruger, who rose to prominence with her sharp critiques of consumer culture.
Practically screaming with their massive scale and color scheme, “Belief + Doubt” is a classic example of Kruger’s concise delivery and its ability to speak volumes with a minimum of ornamentation. Direct and abrupt, her work often cuts to the core of consumer behavior, advertising strategy, and the cultural coding implicit in sculpting both. Known for adopting appropriated photographs and combining them with her signatory red and white text, Kruger explores the relation of image to value, severing subcutaneous ties with a well-placed aphorism or harsh truth.
Covering the entire space of the basement lobby, Kruger’s installation commands constant attention, turning the space from a transient lobby into a commanding public work that invites more lingering consideration. Covering every possible space with her words, including the escalators and floor, the piece has the feeling of public advertising run amok, each letter, word and wall competing for your attention.
The installation is another bold move for the museum, part of a number of new experiments and installations designed to utilize previously untapped structures, surfaces and spaces in the Smithsonian Institute’s prominent art museum. Other works have included a massive balloon extending from the roof of the building, and a projection project on its exterior, supervised by Doug Aitken. The projects have drawn both praise and criticism, particularly in a recent Washington City Paper article that labeled such works “spectacle strategy,” valuing big names and massive projects over careful curatorial work.
Either way, Kruger’s installation is still something to behold, and will remain on view in the museum basement for 3 years, standing as a stark reminder of the disorienting side of commercial culture in the heart of the American capital.