Category Archives: Bruce Nauman

‘Play What’s Not Really There’ at Raven Row

One of the most challenging exhibitions that I’ve recently seen in London was mounted at Raven Row over the summer, an independent foundation based in one of London’s oldest, surviving shops in Spitalfields. The starting point for the show can be summed up by the phrase coined by Miles Davis to ‘play what’s not there’. This impossible act became a metaphor for a larger enquiry around existential expression in art. Curator, Michael Bracewell, chose to explore artists working beyond Soren Kierkegaard’s description of ‘the despair of the aesthetic’, those infinite and potentially paralysing creative decisions, in order to achieve something more profound and ‘spiritual’. It is a highly romantic notion of artists as visionary and medium, compelled to reach for ‘truth’ despite the cost and then to share knowledge with those who choose a safer, more prosaic route.
In a succinct essay, Bracewell examines Kierkegaard’s philosophical quest for meaning in life. To illustrate the theme, he chose an eclectic number of works dating from the 1960s. You needn’t have shared Kierkegaard’s religious or intellectual interests to enjoy the show. The works ranged from Linder’s ‘The Working Class Goes to Paradise’, a trance-like performance in a Manchester nightclub to Edward Krasinki’s consciously awkward constructions in wood and wire. Cerith Wyn Evans’ Leaning Horizons, two upright rods leaning against the wall were neon illuminations embodying geometry, weight and gravity while standing as cocky intrusions in the room.

Most of the pieces in the show were isolated within dedicated rooms. This was appropriate for Robert Whitman’s Wavy Red Line, a laser powered projection of flickering, red lines that traced the proportions of an 18th century panelled room. The future incongruously met the past here. Perhaps the work that most addressed the notion of boundaries and transitions in comprehension was Bruce Nauman’s infamous ‘Clown Torture’ a pair of video works illustrating psychic confusion whereby a two characters dressed as clowns neurotically speak plaintive chants, which are later contradicted. He stages two fictional characters performing statements that might be factual or imagined, demonstrating the fine line between certainty and doubt and what lies between them. It’s those ambiguous, narrow spaces in language or materials that open up new meaning and knowledge.

Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman at Hauser and Wirth

‘Oomamaboomba’ is a suitably unpronounceable title for an enigmatic work, displayed amongst other reliefs made by Eva Hesse on a 1965 German residency. Sung aloud, it might sound like a musical riff. These works at Hauser and Wirth on Savile Row anticipate her mature and final sculptural pieces, famously described in a 1966 exhibition as a manifestation of a particular feminine ‘eccentric abstraction’ by contrast with the muscular materiality of sculptors like Judd and Andre. But this particular title has a suitably musical quality for a work that employs hot pink and lime shapes arranging themselves into snug fitting forms within the rectangular frame. ‘Oomamaboomba’ has a jazzy quality made from textured papier mache from which a curving handle of twisting twine rises into real space, from rose-pink at the foot to a wider indigo at the top edge of the picture. Another relief, ‘H + H’ juxtaposes acidic-lemon against fleshy-pink thereby evoking  a sixties’ trippy, hedonism. Across it flows a meandering wire, establishing tensions between shape, texture and colour.
Lent a room within a texile factory for her residency, Hesse plunders the found scraps of metal and cord to create fantastical reveries that possess a satisfying self-sufficiency. Alongside the reliefs are a series of drawings that combine the organic and artificial. Random parts seem to cohere into logical and complex interdependence. These line drawings of ink  on paper then evolve into more elaborate coloured paintings that resemble nesting boxes or compartments of imaginary objects which settle into co-existence. Description verges on the edge of elusive abstraction. All we see with certainty are linear forms of unidentifiable objects that appear to serve some functional purpose akin to the guts of a machine. But it’s the reliefs that seduce the visitor with their dichotomies of sharp and soft, line and form, flat colour and stripe, surface and relief. While demonstrating a self-possession that is difficult to penetrate, these hybrid painting/ sculptures suggest a pleasing reverie in which Hesse takes these materials on an adventure away from specific narrative, time or place.
Bruce Nauman exhibits his restless teasing in a companion show called ‘Mindfuck’ using neon, architectural installation, and a revolving carousel all dating back to the seventies and eighties. There are distinctive contrasts of subject and style with Hesse’s practice and it is inspired programming to place their two shows side by side. Nauman’s provocations test one’s mental boundaries. Apparent certainties of physical space and language are cunningly subverted. A giant box within the gallery operates as the facsimile of a room but in order to enter the visitor must walk down a tapering corridor until the body touches the walls and then is forced to twist ninety degrees to squeeze into a large space. Here you are steeped in green light resembling vomited bile or pickling acid. Skin becomes the colour of morbid ill health and hints at gangrenous decay. And so Nauman introduces a phenomenological encounter of the body with extremity. Instead of detached contemplation, you are immersed in an oppressive environment.
But there is little relief outside. A giant illuminated board neurotically states over fifty simple phrases that resemble ‘affirmations’: ‘I was a good boy, you were a good boy, we were good boys’. These statements momentarily light up and then disappear. On this giant neon, circuit board, we chart the randomness of life accompanied by an search for structure. The result is to feel anxiously out of step, persistently behind the flow of lit words that jump around. Cast as passive readers, we are trying to keep up with a language that begins to collapse under the weight of repetition. To watch this fluorescent messaging is to experience a symbolic nervous breakdown. Our grip on language as a thread of civilized communication is broken.
Finally, as if our bearings haven’t been disrupted enough, Nauman presents the visitor with a carnival of cruelty. A carousel of animal bodies and severed heads is held up by wire in a never-ending circular procession. It is almost unbearable to watch as their feet drag on the floor to make deep, scratched incisions, evoking hellish torture. With relief we read a darkly comic word piece above, ‘run from fear, fun from rear’, alluding to instincts of escape and sexuality. In Nauman’s world, letters merely need to slip out of place and we tumble into rhyming incoherence. 

Bruce Nauman’s Days at the ICA

Bruce Nauman’s ‘Days’ invites you to walk down a gauntlet of amplified sounds that surprise with their insistent intangibility in the long, narrow space illuminated with daylight. Words spill across the room and jostle for audibility. If you stand close to one of the 14 flat panelled speakers strung out in opposing pairs, the clarity of the words is discernible, but strolling down the centre of room in a straight line immerses the visitor in fluid sounds that occasionally cohere into words. Seven unseen people ranging in age from childhood to old age say the days of the week, as if they are chanting. These voices are clearer or weaker depending on your position in the room but they also suggest  the essential, albeit, unseen individuality of each speaker. However, these seven named days of which our routines are made of are not ordered correctly in logical sequence. They are irrationally jumbled and articulated on inclination, thereby disrupting the reassuring structure of sequential time. Each unseen, anonymous speaker subjectively assaults the notion of this universal register that governs us all. Instead of reinforcing a unified cycle of time, these voices compete for attention in that confined room.
‘Days’ takes the sound of the human voice as the subject and material of an installation comprising simple, flat, white speakers suspended at ear height on wire set approximately two metres apart across the floor. Here at the ICA, the piece is delineated by the floor plan of the modestly sized  gallery which is entered by descending several steps down into an area unbounded by interior walls. Starting with the factual presence of speakers, Nauman moves his audience from the visible into the less certain realm of auditory perception. The artist and his protagonists’ gestural and physical presence is absent leaving only a proxy, the process of sounds emitted from the body which are then recorded, edited and finally amplified.
What we experience is an ambient dissonance of sounds and meaning. We slip in and out of familiarity and structure. This is an arena of collapsing communication. Such spoken repetition of words progressively leads them from tools of common comprehension towards gibberish. Meaning slips away. And this profusion of noise within an urban setting might be expected, but Nauman’s willful manipulation of spoken language teases us and provokes confusion. This is not necessarily unpleasant but rather disorientating like one of those fair ground rides that toys with our internal spirit -level. Similarly, ‘Days’ interrupts artificial time, demonstrating the ease with which an artist can alter the parameters of common experience.
Days of the week are some of our earliest instructions. We encounter them as the building blocks of comprehension alongside letters of the alphabet, colours and numbers. From infancy, our parents and teachers try to convey structure and logic through language, the skeleton of human relations. Naumann takes this certainty, embedded like a seed within us and instills doubt. From order we are gently led towards an exaggerated subjective experience that borders on psychic dissolution. These clashing sounds in the gallery suggest the hope that repetitious intonation can thwart impending chaos by reasserting an assumption of concrete fact.
I first saw (or heard) this work in New York’s MOMA where it was exhibited within a pristine, sealed room. There Nauman’s work acquired an assertive, confident quality. It was less disconcerting and felt like an appropriate amplification of Manhattan’s competing energies and agendas encountered on the street below. At London’s ICA, ‘Days’ seems a more unnerving, inconclusive project. Inevitably, a sound installation such as this will adapt to its site, but in the incongruous setting of the Mall as the Olympic volleyball arena is being assembled nearby with all of the accompanying technology, time keeping andinvestment in accuracy, Nauman’s ‘Days‘ becomes a hesitant, wistful quest that exposes both our dependence on the calendar and it’s intrinsic artifice. Perhaps the days of the week inevitably slip out of alignment, as each of us take our own course through life, defying our best intentions to describe and share the irrefutable passage of the sun.