Barbara Kruger’s ‘anti retrospective’ muses on mass comms

The artist’s new show at the Serpentine in London brings together recent video installations and reimagined takes on past works to dizzying effect

Barbara Kruger’s first UK solo institutional show in over 20 years has been awaited with anticipation, yet the speeches at the Serpentine opening were rudely interrupted. The perpetrator? Kruger herself, or rather, her work. Snippets of vocals and clattering sound effects accompanying her installations rang around the space, vying to be heard over everything, and everyone, else.

It’s befitting of the entire exhibition, which reflects the dizzying effects of mass communications by pummelling viewers with words and images in the way that Kruger does best. Though many of the pieces on display were first produced pre-millennium, they remain appropriate for today, with recent additions and tweaks to the works thrown in for good measure.

Top and above: Installation view of Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. at Serpentine South, 2024

“It was conceived as an anti-retrospective,” says Serpentine CEO Bettina Korek. “The show gives an illuminating view of Kruger’s past work but rather than only looking back it looks forward with newly reconfigured works that she calls ‘replays’. These are especially present throughout Serpentine and we’re so proud to highlight how deftly Kruger updates with the times. Just as her visual language has been reappropriated in advertising and mass media, here she reappropriates herself.”

Untitled (I shop therefore I am), 1987/2019 sees Kruger add to her initial rework of the famous René Descartes line, creating further spins such as ‘I shop therefore I hoard’ and ‘I am therefore I hate’. It also features Kruger’s remixed piece Untitled (Your body is a battleground) from 1989/2019, a rare example of a work initially created in relation to a specific cause: the 1989 Women’s March in support of reproductive rights.

Untitled (Our Leader), 1987/2020, courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers

But if your body was, and is, a battleground, so too is your mouth, and Kruger’s appetite for interrogating language is on full display here. A 2020 three-channel installation is an impossible-to-digest procession of words – some quoted from the likes of Voltaire and Kendrick Lamar – and meme-like edits, cat pictures, and videos of viral trends. If you could package social media into a room, this would be it.

The installation is the newest work in the show, and the first that’s primarily informed by the time she has spent online. A special TikTok filter has also been created to allow people everywere to adopt Kruger’s ‘style’,  as so many brands already have done.

Untitled (No Comment), 2020, installed at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2021-2022, courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers; Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago
Untitled (No Comment), 2020, installed at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2021-2022, courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers; Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago

Some monologues (or dialogues) in the show seem purposefully nonsensical, like the constant churn of disjointed information that seeps into our lives from all angles. But many other phrases seem to resonate with visitors, who take pictures of Kruger’s pithy slogans and mantras as though they contain slivers of personal truth.

Other pieces appear to show texts being edited and marked-up in real time, for instance, Untitled (Artforum), 2016/2020 – a mesmerising exercise in analysing language and semiotics, the pace offering a rare moment of respite from the onslaught in surrounding rooms.

Untitled (Artforum), 2016/2020, installed at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2021-2022, courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers; Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago

Next comes her three-part video installation, a rework of a 1988 piece that was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2022, which recites three texts that many people will encounter in their lifetimes: wedding vows, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the last will and testament. As the texts appear on the screens, key words are switched out for loaded synonyms, before returning to the original word. “I, being of sound mind and body,” one begins. Or maybe “body” is better described as “chassis”? How about “container”?

It’s hard to look at this commentary on the relationship between institutions and bodies without considering the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US, also in 2022.

In the years since Kruger presented the first iteration of many of these pieces, the production and consumption of communications – and their context in society – has changed radically. But her works only seem to grow more pertinent with time. As Korek says, “in the age of social media, personal branding, and frayed attention spans, we see how presciently Barbara’s practice anticipated our communications landscape”.

Stills from Untitled (Remember Me), 1988/2020, courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers

Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. runs at Serpentine, London until March 17;