|Principally about Bruce Nauman |
Jana Kukaine, art critic
For where should a rose's teeth have been?
(Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Philosophical Investigations')
|Recognised and admired, Bruce Nauman has been called one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, working in areas such as body art, performance and conceptualism. At the 53rd International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, Nauman's work Topological gardens, representing the USA, was awarded the Golden Lion for the best national pavilion.|
Nauman has received a Golden Lion once before - at the 48th Biennale in 1999, which he shared with Louise Bourgeois. A decade has gone by, yet the USA continues to play with tried and tested artistic values which are of more interest from the aspect of art history (the possibility of viewing artworks seen in books in real life), rather than contemporary art and its internal processes. This is not to deny the importance of Nauman's creative work; the criticism is instead directed at the Biennale's conservative jury.
It is difficult to imagine what impact the news from Venice could have on the artist in the desert plains of New Mexico, where Nauman has had his home since 1979. Art dealer and old Nauman friend Leo Castelli recalled in an interview(1) that he was once given some horses as a gift, and not knowing what to do with them decided to pass them on to Nauman, who at least had the space to ride them. The horses later appeared in a Nauman video portraying the artist as a lonesome cowboy. Reserved and tight lipped, isolated from an intellectual and artistic environment, Nauman continues to work in accordance with the same principles that have been present, or at least discernible, throughout a multifaceted, long and productive artistic career.
Bruce Nauman. Vices and Virtues. Exterior of the USA's pavilion at the Venice Biennale. 1983-1988. Publicity photo
Bruce Nauman. The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths. 1967. Publicity photo
Bruce Nauman. Ten Heads Circle. In and Out. 1990. Publicity photo
Bruce Nauman. A Rose Has No Teeth. 1966. Publicity photo
|Principle: Being in the studio|
Since graduating from college Nauman has tended to stay in his studio, where many of his works have been produced in solitude. This choice imposes certain limitations in terms of materials, space and lighting, and requires a conceptual justification from the artist. He presented such a justification as early as 1966: "If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever it was I was doing in the studio must be art. And what I was in fact doing was drinking coffee and pacing the floor." The resulting studio-produced works are deeply personal, because they offer a glimpse into the artist's private, creative space.
Since Nauman began actively working in the late 1960's, especially using film and photography, his studio has served a number of functions: as a theatrical stage, prison cell, experimental laboratory, refuge from the world outside, as well as an observation post (a constant theme of Nauman's). The artworks produced in the studio include the performances Square Dance, Bouncing Two Balls between the Floor and the Ceiling with Changing Rhythms and Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) (all made in 1967 and 1968), as well as a number of photographic series such as Flour Arrangements, which documented several piles of flour which Nauman poured onto the studio floor over the course of one month. In these and other works, Nauman depicts everyday, never ending and aimless movement. References to Samuel Beckett are valid - the meaninglessness reflected in these works recalls the literary absurdist tradition. This thematic line is repeated in the 1996 film Washing Hands Normal, where the artist endlessly washes his hands with one piece of soap (the film was included in this year's Biennale exhibition).
The significance of the studio for Nauman is a constant factor. For example, in the almost six hours long film Mapping the Studio (2000) it is shown as the place where art is created, on this occasion without the artist's involvement. Nauman made the film by leaving seven cameras switched on in the empty studio for seven consecutive nights, with the sound track consisting of various nocturnal noises, such as dogs barking, mice scrabbling around, coyotes howling and trains whistling. The artist's cat and numerous moths scuttle about the rundown studio amongst electrical devices and cables. The temple of the creative spirit occasionally visited by the muses turns out to be just a simple, untidy room.
Principle: "The fountain" and other word games
Language and word games are some of Nauman's favourite tools. In 1969 he placed one of his most famous works, a neon sign bearing the inscription The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, in the display window of his San Francisco studio, housed in a former grocery store. By mixing the myth of the artist-genius with a consumer culture aesthetic, this work baffled passers by who tried to work out what product was being advertised. Commenting on this statement in neon, Nauman confessed: "On the one hand a totally silly idea and yet, on the other hand, I believed it. It is true and it is not true at the same time."
Colourful neon, lighting tricks and associations with the attributes of consumer culture are frequently used in Nauman's work to get a laugh, to ironise or shock. Nauman's linguistic works usually feature witticisms and occasionally absurd or tautological thoughts, and are often included in art books and anthologies, probably because they are memorable and visually precise. His best-known neon works include My Name As Though It Were Written on the Surface of the Moon (1968), One Hundred Live and Die (1984) and Vices and Virtues (1983-1988), in which the words vice and virtue flash separately or simultaneously (this work was placed on the outside walls of the Biennale pavilion). In other works, in place of letters Nauman depicts people or their body parts (heads, hands, male genitalia), which, by flashing on and switching off at intervals form various forms of "communication" (for example in the work Human Sexual Experience (1985).) Nauman has often drawn figures similar to cartoon heroes using the contours of his own shadow.
Sensitivity toward language can also be discerned in the titles of works, whose linguistic precision offers a glimpse into Nauman's intentions, interests and epiphanies at the time. For example, the lead plaque A Rose Has No Teeth (1966) is a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein's ‘Philosophical Investigations', in which similar phrases used in different ways ("A new-born child has no teeth", "A goose has no teeth" and "A rose has no teeth") are compared. A year later Nauman made a cast of his first wife's right hand, shoulder and lower face, and its literal yet metaphorical title From Hand to Mouth was a precise reflection of the living conditions of the artist and his wife at the time.
The famous photograph Self-Portrait as a Fountain in which the artist mimics a fountain in his studio was also created during this period(2). This was followed by another photograph, The Artist as a Fountain, where Nauman can be seen in the garden. Both works not only make reference to Duchamp's urinal, but also to the broader conception of the artist as a boundless source of creative energy. Interestingly, this photograph was depicted on the postcards used as invitations to his first personal exhibition in Leo Castelli's gallery in 1968. This exhibition also featured a work that sums up the "fountain" theme in a typical Nauman declaration: a wall or window covering with the inscription The True Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain. This statement too sounds like a pathetic parody and at the same time an epiphany worthy of quotation.
The consideration of his own body as artistic material may have arisen from the time spent in an ascetic studio, when there was nothing except the artist's physical presence to hand. At the time, Nauman had taken on absurd roles as a duty (he later admitted that these performances were "a tiring and complex process"). Later he began to use his body as an impersonal canvas, and many of Nauman's created figures are truly anonymous, lacking identity and personality.
To calculate proportions in his spatial installations (the famous "corridors" in which he placed mirrors, monitors and cameras to film visitors), Nauman often used the dimensions of his lanky, slim body, thus preventing heftier viewers of his exhibitions from entering the artwork. For example, this restriction was applicable to Double Steel Cage Piece (1974), which consisted of two cages separated by a narrow pathway. Nauman's claustrophobic and unwelcoming "corridors" create the same sense of panic as the room-type installations, surprising the viewer with harsh lighting and loud colours, or screeching, aggressive sounds (for example the male voice repeating Get out of my mind, get out of this room! in the work of the same name (1968).)
Another creative direction for Nauman is the casting of various body parts in wax and bronze. Hands and heads are the most commonly used in the "anatomical" sculpture prototypes, and are shown in various ways. The seams of the head casts are usually visible and the eyes are always open, generating associations with death masks (this was why critics panned Nauman's works as "morbid" after a 1990 exhibition in the Castelli gallery). These sculptures are usually hung from the ceiling, or as Nauman began doing in the 1980's and 90's, piled one on top of the other, all facing the corner of the room, recalling the practice of putting naughty school children in the corner and leaving an oppressive feeling. In his 2005 installation Three Heads Fountain, which was shown at the Biennale, Nauman once again uses the fountain metaphor, creating a large installation with head casts from which jets of water shoot out.
Looking back at the development of Nauman's extensive creative output (even giving just a brief outline of it as in this article), justification can undoubtedly be found for the many critical epithets made against Nauman: "provocative," "hard hearted," "humiliating," "neo-dada," "absurd," "existential" and even provoking "the modern experience of shock in viewers".(3) Considering Nauman's dislike of lengthy theoretical discussions or publicly expressing his views on artistic matters, one has no choice but to select from the epithets mentioned, or to invent a new one.
(1) The interview is recorded in H. P. Schwertel's film about Bruce Nauman Make Me Think (1997).
(2) This work is from his photographic series Eleven Colour Photographs.
(3) See John Miller. Dada by the Numbers//October, No. 74, 1995.
Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009
Three Statements on the Recent Reception of Bruce Nauman//October, Nr. 74, 1995.
/Translator into English: Filips Birzulis/