PRINT January 2005


BRUCE NAUMAN HAS ALWAYS BEEN an artist who does the opposite of what you think he should, then somehow makes you think it was exactly the right thing to do. When he agreed to create a work for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, I thought he had clearly accepted an invitation to fail. The Turbine Hall is the Jaws of museum architecture. With few exceptions, it opens its massive mouth and swallows what it is fed, even when artists super-size their work to the point that it seems like a caricature of itself. At 500 feet long, 115 feet high, and 75 feet wide, this public mall seems particularly wrong for Nauman, whose work is intensely psychological and private. For me, all of his sculptures, including the room-size installations, operate on a human scale. To make matters worse, Nauman’s project follows what was arguably the Hall’s most popular installation—Olafur Eliasson’s dramatic (some would say overly theatrical) Weather Project. How could Nauman possibly pull this off without seeming like a BB in a boxcar?

You might say he talked his way out of it, turning the problems into solutions. Nauman has left the vast space of the Turbine Hall empty of any extra visual effect. What he has added, however, is perhaps the most spatially invasive of all materials—sound in the form of the human voice. Making full use of the long, narrow space, Nauman has placed pairs of directional, wall-mounted speakers across from each other down the Hall’s full length. As you walk the space, you pass through walls of language, spoken by Nauman and others. Some are his original vocal recordings, and others are rerecorded or newly recorded pieces using text from works made in numerous media over almost forty years. It’s a brilliant solution, establishing a vast psychological landscape that, rather than dwarfing the visitor, makes us the object of a less-than-serene experience. Nauman is the dark side of Eliasson’s sun. No sunbathing here, just walking through shadows.

Raw Materials digs deep into the archaeology of Nauman’s involvement with language. Beginning with rare early works such as First Poem Piece, 1968, Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room, 1968, and False Silence, 1975, and stretching to such recent ones as World Peace, 1996, it is a kind of lexical retrospective. The title Raw Materials suggests the fundamental role Nauman sees language playing in his work, as well as the fact that he has left the Turbine Hall in a raw state. In a 1970 neon work, the artist presented the palindrome Raw War. In Raw Materials, he presents a war of words.

This is not a books-on-tape experience. Rather, it is what Conceptual art always said Conceptual imagery should be: a powerful form of mental sculpture. Like so many of Nauman’s best installations, it explores that strange boundary between an individual experience and a collective one. The result is an edgy confusion between “your” space, “my” space, and “his” space. Some of Nauman’s earliest works reflect his interest in blurring these boundaries. Video Surveillance Piece (Public Room, Private Room), 1969–70, consists of two spaces, each monitored with a video camera: a “private room” with no entrance and a “public room” of the same size. What the camera sees in the private room appears on the monitor in the public room and vice versa, offering a concise example of Nauman’s interest in confusing the distinctions between the personal and the communal. At the Tate, public and private are blurred on a grand scale.

The Turbine Hall is essentially an indoor city square, a place where large groups can congregate but also where an individual can walk around with his or her thoughts. Because Nauman has given us nothing to look at, we are left to navigate—physically, visually, and psychologically—between ourselves, the sea of other visitors, and, the trump card here, Nauman’s voice. The resulting experience can be a disorienting, even surreal, synesthesia. The artist’s projected voices blend with the ambient voices and gestures of other visitors to create a forest of signs and sounds. On top of it all, so to speak, the artist has mounted speakers near the ceiling that emit a constant mmmmmmmmmmm. It’s a little like being in a restaurant with poor acoustics, where fragments of conversation and background noise combine to make you feel you’re in an aural whirlpool.

One way of focusing is to center yourself in one of Nauman’s audio streams, although they offer a slippery foundation. Using a wide range of voices, Nauman has given each text a different personality, creating a small crowd within a crowd. The first voice you hear on entering the hall is like a drumbeat: Nauman loudly repeating the title of a 1992 piece Thank You in a cadence that is quick and at times strained. These two simple words, which everyone is taught are integral to good manners, have never seemed quite so incomprehensible, or at least variable in their intonation and meaning. As Nauman races through repetitions, his voice oscillates between sincerity and mockery. More than one person has noticed that somewhere in the loop of repetition “thank you” begins to sound like “fuck you.” Welcome to Nauman’s disjunctive world.

As you walk down the hall, the next voice you encounter is that of a young boy reciting different variations on the phrase “You may not want to be here.” In this case, Nauman distorts the message through the variable subtraction of words: “You may not want to be here. You may want to be here. You want to be here. You want to be. You may want to be. You may not want to be.” Eventually we are told, “You may not want to hear.” Indeed, the harder the child tries to adapt to Nauman’s variations, the more frustrated he becomes and the meaner he sounds. I take this to be a kind of child’s version of Nauman’s 1987 video work Clown Torture, in which the artist runs a smiling and brightly painted clown through a gamut of situations that turn him into something far too human to be funny.

Like his sculptures, Nauman’s use of language subverts expectations, flipping and coloring information so that it doesn’t register in normal ways. His use of acrid colored light to destabilize our perception of a room, or candy-colored neon to light up a dark word, say, “malice” in pink and yellow, finds its counterpart here, where pleasant and benign voices deliver dark messages. In False Silence, what sounds like the congenially disengaged voice of a flight attendant giving instructions for takeoff repeats the haunting monologue: “You can’t reach me, you can’t hurt me. I can suck you dry. You can’t hurt me. You can’t help me. Shuffle the pages. Find me a line. Arapahoe, Arapahoe. Where did you go? I blink my eyes to keep the time.” Like a dream in which you run but go nowhere, you are drawn in and then held at an uncomfortable distance. In this case, it seems as though the voice emanates from the unreachable end of a tunnel, underscoring the sense of presence and absence that haunts much of Nauman’s work.

Throughout his career, Nauman has grappled with the tension between private thought and public exposure—one of the great dilemmas facing the modern artist who is challenged to be intensely personal in a very public way. In other words, how do you withdraw into yourself to make art if you are expected to assert yourself at the same time? Nauman’s answer has been to assert his withdrawal. In a 1970 project for Artforum, he wrote down a number of ideas that would help guide his art over the next three decades. One of the most interesting statements, printed in boldface, reads: “Withdrawal as an Art Form.” One 1968 installation had already materialized this idea in a powerfully dematerialized manner. Speakers hidden in the walls of an empty room instructed viewers—who had no idea where the sound was coming from—to “get out of my mind, get out of this room.”

As he did in that installation, Nauman has transformed the Turbine Hall into a kind of analogue of his mind, placing us at his verbal/thought control center. The result is a strangely intimate melding of mind, language, and sculpture. As we cross the halfway point of the vast space, Nauman yells at us to “get out,” but we’re in too far to retreat. We hear the original 1968 recording of the artist’s voice, which is young and guttural. We are in the belly of the beast and in the heart of his Raw Materials.

Nauman once told me, “Misunderstanding is the basis for how a lot of us relate to each other—trying to figure out what the misunderstandings mean. Linguists and therapists use misunderstanding as material to work with.” Misunderstanding, especially as it relates to human relationships, is also a key element of Nauman’s Raw Materials. The text for his sculptural installation Consummate Mask of Rock, 1975, was initially titled The Mask to Cover the Need for Human Companionship. The installation, which according to a recent interview was conceived around the time of his divorce, consists of limestone blocks of various shapes and arrangements that suggest shifting perspectives and skewed relationships: Some appear to be coming together, others seem to be falling away from each other. Accompanying the blocks is a numbered list based on different combinations of seventeen words, among them “mask,” “fidelity,” “truth,” “cover,” “pain,” “desire,” and “need.” Here, Nauman seems more confessional than confrontational:

14. This is the need for pain that contorts my mask conveying the message of truth and fidelity to life.
15. This is the truth that distorts my need for human companionship.
16. This is the distortion of truth masked by my painful need.
17. This is the mask of my painful need distressed by truth and human companionship.

The text is even more powerful when spoken, as it is in the Turbine Hall. The words come at us like the unconscious being released. They are dark thoughts with double edges: The statement “The consuming task of human companionship is false” seems particularly poignant in the Turbine Hall, where couples and friends walk together through Nauman’s piece. Is it the task or the companionship itself that is false? While Warhol declared that everyone would have fifteen minutes of fame, Nauman seems to suggest that everyone will have fifteen minutes of pain. His riposte to Warhol is yet another act of implosion: “People die of exposure.” In Raw Materials, we are completely exposed. There is no sculpture or object to hide behind.

At the end of the hall, we encounter World Peace, which seems to summarize the frequent subject of Nauman’s work with language: the assumptions, blind alleys, and misdirections involved in human communication, whether between lovers, friends, enemies, or artist and audience. A female voice and a male voice, projected from opposite speakers, recite the same set of phrases based on different combinations of the verbs “talk” and “listen” and the pronouns “I,” “you,” “me,” and “them”: “You’ll talk to me. I’ll listen to you. I’ll talk to you. You’ll listen to me. . . . I’ll talk to them. They’ll talk to you. You’ll listen to them,” and so on. The systematic back and forth of the “conversation” initially sounds like two reasonable people working out the parameters of a dialogue, but soon morphs into a humorous battle for control, going nowhere fast. The title World Peace, with its implication of possible global understanding, amplifies the pathos of the vocal performance.

Although many artists of Nauman’s generation have employed language in their art—Sol LeWitt, Ed Ruscha, Douglas Huebler, Vito Acconci, Lawrence Weiner, Robert Barry, et al.—Nauman’s approach invites few comparisons. Like many of his colleagues, Nauman naturally gravitated to Wittgenstein’s writings about the nature of language and its relation to the world. In Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), the philosopher wrote, “The boundaries of my language mean the boundaries of my world.” To my mind, few artists have explored these boundaries as intensely as Nauman. When he speaks in his art, he reduces language to a fundamental, almost primitive level.

In fact, there are moments in Raw Materials when we don’t seem to be experiencing language at all, but some hybrid form of melodic linguistics—sound with attitude. I can’t help but think about Nauman’s background and interest in music. As an undergraduate, the artist studied music, among other subjects, at the University of Wisconsin—he has spoken specifically of his interest in Webern and Schönberg—and for a time worked as a jazz bassist. As he has said, “Music plays a role in a lot of my work, even when there is no music.” Music, or something like it, is indeed a reference in quite a few of Nauman’s works over the past forty years: the weighty aluminum slab with a mirror-finish bottom, John Coltrane Piece, 1968, which refers to the musician’s penchant for turning away from the audience; the Buster Keaton–like Playing a Note on the Violin While I Walk Around the Studio, 1967–68; the disconcerting Six Sound Problems for Konrad Fischer, 1968, in which the artist mixed recorded sounds with natural noises in a gallery; the audio assault of a rock ’n’ roll drummer in Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer), 1988; the eerie and mournful steel guitar in End of the World—Lloyd Maines’s, 1996; the wailing coyotes and whining horses in his recent Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), 2001.

Perhaps I’m confusing the biographical with the phenomenological, but to walk through the Turbine Hall quickly, letting each band of language register brief intonations, is also a musical experience. I’m not suggesting that these voices come at us like a symphony or choir. It is more like a lexical equivalent of jazz, in which a musician takes us to the very edge of melody, then brings us back to a refrain. Imagine the twenty-one bands of sound/language crossing the width of the space as a set of strings activated as the viewer walks through them. There are high points of melodic manipulation: the alternating male and female voices speaking in Portuguese the title The True Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain, 1966; the chorus of voices in One Hundred Live and Die, 1985; the almost operatic voice of Rinde Eckert in Anthro/Socio, 1991; and the staccato refrains of “thank you thank you thank you . . . work work work work work . . .” then “think think think think.” Sometimes these sounds have distinct bound- aries; sometimes they bleed together. Using different voices like differently tuned strings, Nauman plays with the space as if it were an instrument. Some of the artist’s drawings for Raw Materials vaguely resemble musical scores; their annotations could be a cross between John Cage and Miles Davis.

Stevie Wonder once said, “A lot of seeing is hearing and feeling. . . . You listen to the voice and get the image.” When you leave the Turbine Hall, Nauman’s voices have an insidious way of resonating, staying with you like an image flickering at the front of the brain. Someone said to me after experiencing Raw Materials, “Nauman is always in your face.” In the Turbine Hall, he may not be in your face, but he’s definitely inside your head.

Michael Auping is chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.