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Your body is a battleground: How the art of Barbara Kruger became a feminist rallying cry

American artist Barbara Kruger combines the arresting techniques of advertising with words of protest. As her first London solo show for 20 years opens at the Serpentine Gallery, Chloe Ashby explores how the brash brilliance of her work has inspired endless contemporary imitations

Saturday 03 February 2024 06:00 GMT
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Barbara Kruger’s ‘Your Body is a Battleground’ at the Serpentine
Barbara Kruger’s ‘Your Body is a Battleground’ at the Serpentine (Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers)

It’s likely you’re familiar with Barbara Kruger’s art even if you’ve never set foot in one of her exhibitions. Maybe you’ve stumbled upon it in a newspaper or come face to face with it on a billboard, bus or building. Her best-known work embeds monochrome photographs in coloured boxes, emblazoned with slogans in a swishy font. The palette is restricted: black, white and red. The phrases pithy and terse: “We don’t need another hero”; “You are not yourself”; “I shop therefore I am.” It’s brash, it’s brilliant. It’s art designed to spur us into action.

And until 17 March it will be on show at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You, which debuted in Chicago and has had stints in Los Angeles and New York, is a career-spanning exhibition that brings together banners, installations, moving image works and soundscapes that deal in words and pictures. It’s Kruger’s first solo institutional show in London in more than 20 years, and a homecoming of sorts – in 1994 she wrapped a room at Serpentine South as part of Wall to Wall, a show of wall drawings by international artists curated by the gallerist Maureen Paley. It’s also the first of a trio of exhibitions at the gallery devoted to contemporary female American artists including Judy Chicago and Lauren Halsey.

“There’s something incredibly real and powerful about Barbara, the way she has the confidence – confidence in herself, but also in her viewers – to approach big, complicated themes with such openness,” Bettina Korek, CEO of the Serpentine, tells me. Themes to do with class inequalities, capitalism, gender, beauty and vanity, power and how it plays out in our bodies. While her work is punchy and direct, it’s in no way prescriptive, instead leaving it up to us to interpret it as we will. “It isn’t about making judgements,” continues Korek. “It’s about asking questions.”

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