Untitled (Rejoice!), from 'Inflammatory Essays' by Jenny Holzer

Jenny Holzer

Untitled (Rejoice!), from 'Inflammatory Essays', 1979–82, Offset lithograph in black on pink wove paper, 542 x 542 mm, The Art Institute of Chicago; Gift of David C. and Sarajean Ruttenberg, 1998.914.8, © Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY

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The Rod of His Mouth

Commentary by
Read by Lydia Ayoade

The descendant of Jesse foretold by Isaiah will be known, along with his other attributes, for the sheer force of his speech: in dealing justice, ‘he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth’ (Isaiah 11:4). This phrase also embeds itself in the book of Revelation, whose rebirth and interweaving of Hebrew Bible imagery brings messianic prophecies into New Testament fulfilment. In Revelation, the rod sprouts with a vengeance. Now it is the messianic warlord Christ who wields a rod of iron (Revelation 2:27; 12:5; 19:15); and a ‘sharp two-edged sword’ (Revelation 1:16), ‘with which to smite the nations’ (19:15; c.f. Isaiah 63 and Wisdom 18). The rod that grows up from Jesse’s stump, and that flowers initially in David, becomes manifest at the end of time in Jesus, the ‘root of David’ (Revelation 5:5; 22:16). With destruction issuing from his mouth, ‘the name by which he is called is The Word of God’ (19:13).

Medieval renderings of the ‘rod of his mouth’ are frequently quite literal—a sharpened blade issues from Christ’s mouth, as speech takes the form of his ‘terrible swift sword’ (to recall the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’). A very different way to imagine speech of such force can be found in Jenny Holzer’s ‘Inflammatory Essays’ of 1977–82, a series of over 100 mini-treatises printed on throw-away vari-coloured neon paper.

Her project began as posters put up, randomly and anonymously, around New York. Consisting only of text (100 words divided into 20 lines), Holzer’s italicized, upper case words give voice variously to Emma Goldman, Mao Zedong, Valerie Solanis, Karl Marx, and others—all without attribution. The effect is a visual rant that conjures up something ‘between a batty dictator, a leftist activist and a sage prophet’ (Frank 2017). The messages in this example range from ‘REJOICE! OUR TIMES ARE INTOLERABLE’ to ‘THE APOCALYPSE WILL BLOSSOM’. It is impossible in Holzer’s ‘Essays’ to identify a single speaker or a consistent point of view. Nonetheless, the rod of someone’s mouth forces us to pay attention, whether to affirm or reject the proclamations. Interpretation rather than obedience is all.



Frank, Priscilla. 2017. ‘Jenny Holzer’s ‘Nasty’ Essays Will Get You Ready For A Revolution, 24 January 2017’, www.huffingtonpost.com, [accessed 11 July 2018]

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