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Subtext for students just passing the time

June 23, 2008|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

LA JOLLA -- As your eyes plot the final few steps down the central staircase in UC San Diego's new student center, they land on a red terrazzo text panel that reads: "Perfect order is the forerunner of perfect horror." Not exactly a soft landing but certainly an interesting one. Not far from that Carlos Fuentes quote is one in charcoal tones from Franz Kafka: "The meaning of life is that it stops."

Elsewhere beneath the chairs and tables of the Price Center East's airy food court, pithy comments from Virginia Woolf, Malcolm X, Hannah Arendt, Robert Frost, Confucius and others are strewn across the floor like so many scattered tickets to greater awareness.

The quotes are part of a recently completed installation by Barbara Kruger, the 17th addition to the campus' distinguished Stuart Collection. Across a 40-by-80-foot wall in the atrium, Kruger has stretched a giant photomural of two stilled clock faces. Colored rectangular panels resembling those on the floor overlay the timepieces and read like a rhythmic chant: "Another day," "Another dream," "Another place," "Another loss," "Another job," "Another love," "Another dollar," "Another game," and so on. Through each clock face runs an LED news ticker with a continuous feed of the day's headlines.

An estimated 20,000 people will pass through the building (which is open 24/7) daily to eat, meet, study, attend performances and other events.

"At a museum or gallery, people are not going to come back every day, but here they do," said Kruger, in town from L.A. to inaugurate the piece, titled "Another." "That's what I love about this site -- the accretion of meaning in pieces, which is the way so many people, especially young people, come to the world today, or how the world comes to them, through meaning in pieces."

Finding her niche

Kruger, 63, started combining text and found photographic images in her own art after years working as an art director and picture editor for several major magazines in New York. Like the Dadaists of the early 20th century, whose collage and montage aesthetic resonated with the new fragmentation of modern life, her work complicates today's fast-moving visual stream, interjecting challenges and questions to do with gender, power, consumerism and more.

"I shop therefore I am" reads one of her more famous prints. The words are hers; the images she incorporates them into come from old photo annuals, technical manuals and to her outdated sources. "Your body is a battleground" declares another. Since the late '70s, her work has appeared on billboards, bus posters, magazine and book covers, op-ed pages and internationally in museum and gallery exhibitions. Increasingly, it involves movement, in the form of text or video. She was the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1999-2000 and was awarded the prestigious Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2005 Venice Biennale. Her elevator installation is a permanent feature of the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA.

Kruger's credentials meant little to a UCSD bookstore employee, having lunch recently with a few co-workers in the new campus center. Glancing up at the mural, he scoffed, "It's what -- five minutes on Photoshop? It's not that impressive."

Others at the table nodded in agreement, though all felt the texts underfoot were "pretty cool." Kruger selected the 33 quotes for their ability to speak to the present, though they date from vastly different places and times. Charlotte Bronte opines on the necessity of education to eradicate prejudices, Thomas Mann likens speech to civilization itself and Voltaire warns that "Those who make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

A microbiology student eating over his class notes took offense at one of the quotes and dismissed most of them as "trite." A recent graduate, joining a current structural engineering major in some lunchtime Bible study, pronounced the installation "depressing," noting in particular the Kafka quote. "The point of the art seems to be that life is meaningless," he said. "I don't appreciate that it's thrown in my face all the time."

With 27,000 students and thousands more employees calling the university home, reactions are bound to be diverse. One young woman, a psychology major, enthused about the installation. "It's really exciting. You don't know right away what the message is. The quotes give you a lot to think about. It's stimulating."

Some of the quotes are funny, Kruger pointed out, and "some are brutal. They're really important, especially for students, especially at this formative time, where it's supposed to be about an accumulation of meaning and not necessarily based on belief but to foster doubt and inquisitiveness and intellectual curiosity. That's probably incredibly idealistic, but as a teacher I think it's my job to suggest that."

Kruger a good fit

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