Why a 1989 poster is still integral to the fight for abortion rights

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In “Untitled (Your body is a battlefield)“, Kruger has slightly modified the photo of the original model. By dividing this subject’s face into positive and negative halves, Kruger shows how anti-abortion activists are cutting the battle lines in women’s bodies.

Kruger’s original poster has transitioned seamlessly to social media, inspiring a new generation of media-savvy artists and reproductive justice activists.

A protester holds a sign that reads ‘Your body is a battlefield’ during the protest. International Women’s Day was celebrated in Duomo Square, Milan, in 2021. [Photo: Valeria Ferraro/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images]

Diffusion and evolution

In 1989, the Supreme Court reviewed a 1986 case related to a Missouri law that barred access to abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy. The law also restricted the use of public funds and buildings for abortion counseling and procedures. Abortion rights activists reacted with a plan March for women’s lives in Washington.

In the early morning hours before the march, Kruger and some of his students illegally blanketed New York City with flyers reading “Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground).” The original flyer provided logistical information about the march and details about the upcoming Supreme Court case.

Kruger also used the same image in another poster from 1989. This version, commissioned by the French government on the occasion of the bicentenary of the French Revolution, appeared with the French text “Savoir C’est Pouvoir”, which translates to “Knowing is Power and recalls the awareness strategies of 1970s feminism.

Since then, variations of “Untitled (Your Body is a Battlefield)” have been exhibited in various forms and languages ​​in museums and galleries. They’ve also popped up on mugs, t-shirts, and other merchandise.

Kruger was involved in some of this spread, including the 1990 billboard variation commissioned by Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts, which installed it next to an anti-abortion sign to Columbus.

In 2019, in response to ongoing legislative attacks on abortion rightsKruger made a video release of the “Battleground” image, updating the original artwork to reflect the proliferation of digital media. After the majority opinion was leaked in Dobbs v. Jackson, she changed it again for the cover of the May 9, 2022 issue of New York Magazine.

Regarding New York Magazine’s Revised Cover Text – “Who’s Becoming a ‘MURDERER’ in Post-Roe America?” –Kruger predicted that the decision will create a dilemma:

“The question of who is charged with ‘murder’ will be a challenge to the right to finesse… Is the ‘little lady’ capable of making that decision, or does the doctor or the medical establishment make the time or worse because the woman can’t be able to make the decision on her own?”

Activists take over

For decades, activists have relied on Kruger’s aesthetic. In some cases, they reused his actual artwork. In others, they simply borrowed stylistic elements.

In 1991 and 1992 the Center for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw produced a version in Polish. When Polish courts prohibited almost all abortions in 2020, the TRAFO Contemporary Art Center in Szczecin launched another poster campaign. In 2021, Sanitation First India organization released a “Krugerizing” selfie filter for Instagram to promote menstrual hygiene day.

Like Kruger, artist Alicia Eggert has also chosen a medium associated with advertising for her activist work. In his installation room”OURSshe uses pink neon signs that flash three phrases: “OUR BODIES,” “OUR FUTURES,” and “OUR ABORTIONS.”

She installed it on the steps of the Supreme Court building in January 2022 to mark the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and the work continues to travel across the country.

A protester holds a sign featuring ‘Star Wars’ character Princess Leia, done in the style of Kruger’s iconic ‘Battleground’ poster. [Photo: Erin Clark/The Boston Globe/Getty Images]

The importance of public art

Kruger’s images inspire viewers around the world because they exist outside the elite spaces of museums and galleries.

Writer and poet Adam Heardman cites the importance of situating political art in the public sphere.

Heardman writes that Kruger viewed the concentration of corporate power as a direct threat to individuals, especially women and minorities. To resist corporate America’s efforts to create a single, homogenous consumer, she has wrested advertising tactics from them to quickly and effectively communicate the hopes and fears of marginalized people, allowing the voices of those demanding justice to go viral.

Given the upcoming battle to regain abortion rights, we expect many more artists and activists to draw inspiration from Kruger’s work for inspiration, strategy and strength.

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