Hirshhorn's latest installment has exhibit-goers believing in doubt

Perceptions of democracy, power, and belief are often skewed, especially in arguably one of the most powerful places in the world, Washington DC. In artist Barbara Kruger’s latest installment “Belief + Doubt” at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, these contradictory perceptions and more are addressed. “Belief + Doubt” seeks to address the relations between one another in a society that is fragmented based on a wealth-determining class system. In an era where most value absolute certainty in their ideologies, Kruger strives to “introduce doubt” in this exhibit as a way to create variance among individuals.

Designed by Barbara Kruger, “Belief + Doubt” covers more than 6,000 square feet of the lobby of the Hirshhorn Museum in the American capital of Washington DC. The san-serif text-printed black, white, and red vinyl wraps around the walls, the floors, and even the museum’s crisscrossing escalators. The larger than life words seek to question museum goers about faith, money, desire, and consumption. The phrases splashed on the museum walls, floors, and escalators include: “YOU WANT IT. YOU BUY IT. YOU FORGET IT.”; “MONEY MAKES MONEY”; “BELIEF + DOUBT = SANITY”; “WHOSE BODY?”

Located by the National Mall, the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum focuses on displaying art from the last 50 years. Its emphasis on modern and contemporary art makes it the perfect location for Kruger’s “Belief + Doubt” which questions the role of morality in a modern era.

In the context of this installation, Kruger has been noted to be a “mass media artist,” taking ideals in the mass media and making thought provoking art out of them. Her love for architecture made this installation even more special as she utilized the space of the Hirshhorn lobby as her canvass. The obvious location of Washington DC as the setting for the installation connotes Kruger’s message that wealth, desire, and control fuel this city. The location also engages the issues surrounding this project. As a previous editor with Condé Nast Publications, which publishes several fashion magazines including Vogue, Kruger “examined consumerism.”

Her extensive work with various fashion magazines, that prosper on the idea of business, wealth, and merchandising have obviously inspired her previous art works. She is well known for her photo montages and billboards where she lays controversial or bold text over images in pop culture. I may also argue that her widespread work with consumerist magazines inspired this exhibit as its message argues against giving in to consumer culture.

What’s most striking about the exhibit is its ability to incase the individual. Visiting the installation involves a whole body experience as you walk around, tilt your head and read the various wall, floor, and escalator-covered text. The text’s colossal size makes the message loud and clear. It allows museum goers to react and question their own life’s values without having the intention to evaluate their lives upon visiting the museum.

There’s a sort of guilt in reading the text because it makes the individual feel as though they too are giving in to the ideals of consumerism and the concept of “wealth = power.” Along with guilt comes the overwhelming feeling of discomfort at being surrounded by or “talked at” by enormous messages that seek to question your morality (“FORGET EVERYTHING”). The exhibit had me thinking “Am I too being controlled by ‘the man?’” The unsettling exhibit is “literally unavoidable” as you have to pass through the lobby to get to other parts of the museum. Because the text wraps around, above, and beneath the space, museum goers are coerced into being “in” Kruger’s message. Kruger’s work is arguably aggressive in getting the message across.

“Belief + Doubt” can also be examined in terms of the agenda-setting theory which “says that the media don’t tell the public what to think but rather what to think about—thus the terms of public discourse are set by what is covered in the media.” This theory states that the issues covered in the media as important become important to the public. In terms of this installation,

Kruger decided that doubt was an important concept, therefore the museum goers that experience the exhibit will also begin to refer to doubt as an important concept. So, because the ideals in Kruger’s exhibit are a form of mass media messages, they automatically become deemed as important.

I might argue that Kruger’s “Belief + Doubt” influences us all to evaluate our moral values and to become familiar with the concept of doubt. Are we just products of a society that betrays its people into thinking they are living freely, and without doubt? We might be. Although introducing doubt may lead to a cynical view of reality, it could also allow us to think more freely and openly. Barbara Kruger’s “Belief + Doubt” successfully provokes controversial ideas on wealth, power, and democracy in a city that encourages consumerism and status.

This is one of my final papers for my Media Criticism class at GMU while an undergrad student.

Rawan Elbaba