Barbara Kruger

Who owns what?


Sorry, copyright restrictions prevent us from showing this object here

Barbara Kruger born 1945
Digital print on vinyl
Object: 2925 × 2796 × 60 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Karpidas Family (Tate Americas Foundation) 2013


Who Owns What? is a large photographic screenprint on vinyl measuring nearly three metres square. It depicts a hand holding a small box between thumb and forefinger against a plain black background. The provocative question ‘WHO OWNS WHAT?’ is superimposed in white capital letters on a red ground along the box’s side. This object resembles the shape and size of a cigarette packet, with the text covering the space where the brand name would be. As in many of Kruger’s works the large size of the vinyl and the graphic treatment of the text deliberately mimic the language of advertising. To create this work the artist appropriated a found photograph from an existing source and overlaid it with text, addressing a system of visual, linguistic and ideological references associated with the production and selling of commodities. The text speaks directly to the viewer, implying a reconsideration of questions of property and class and commenting on the distribution of economic power in society. The focus on the hand – as a symbolic body part, which conveys specific gestures and behavioural codes – is a recurring motif in many of Kruger’s works, for example Untitled (We Will No Longer Be Seen and Not Heard) 1985 (Tate P77166).

Kruger studied art and design with the photographer Diane Arbus at Parson’s School of Design in New York, after which she took a design job at Condé Nast Publications. She worked as a graphic designer, art director and picture editor in the art departments of House and Garden, Aperture and other publications. This professional context, in addition to her background in painting and design, informed the development of her artistic practice. Kruger is concerned with the ways in which advertising and mass media industries contribute to both the construction of social stereotypes as well as the perpetuation of systems of inclusion and exclusion in society. To reflect this, some of Kruger’s images have appeared on billboards, posters and in public spaces in Europe and in the United States, as well as in museums and galleries.

Much of Kruger’s work addresses the specific ways in which consumer advertising depicts or is directed at women. Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) 1989, for instance, depicts the image of a woman’s face divided in two, with one side in negative exposure. The text ‘your body is a battleground’ overlays the image in the centre of the frame. This juxtaposition implies that it is a woman’s body that is the ‘battleground’, or more particularly the image of the female body – highlighted by the altered photograph of an anonymous but conventionally beautiful woman in the background. In contrast to this piece, other works, such as Untitled (I shop therefore I am) 1987 (Mary Boone Gallery, New York), are more ironic. The transformation of the phrase ‘I think therefore I am’ associated with the Enlightenment philosopher Rene Descartes points out the central role that consumption has come to play in Western society. Crucially, however, Kruger uses words printed in bold text to engage the viewer more directly and encourage a more active way of looking in a world increasingly saturated by images. Kruger has described this as ‘the mobilization of the spectator’ (quoted in Owens 1983, p.11).

Further reading
Craig Owens, ‘The Spectacular Ruse’, in Barbara Kruger: We Won’t Play Nature to your Culture, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Art, London 1983.
Thinking of You – Barbara Kruger, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 1999.
Angela Vettese (ed.), Barbara Kruger, exhibition catalogue, Palazzo delle Papesse Centro Arte Contemporanea, Siena 2002.

Gaia Tedone
December 2012

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