PRINT October 2018

Ken Okiishi

From left: Bruce Nauman, Three Heads Fountain (Three Andrews) (detail), 2005, epoxy resin, fiberglass, wire, hoses, immersible pump, rubber-lined basin, water; heads: 10 × 21 × 21“. Bruce Nauman, Three Heads Fountain (Juliet, Andrew, Rinde) (detail), 2005, epoxy resin, fiberglass, wire, hoses, immersible pump, rubber-lined basin, water; heads: 10 × 21 × 21”. Photo: Tom Van Eynde.

SOME ARTISTS become more interesting the more you talk about them. Bruce Nauman is not one of those artists. His retrospective, on view earlier this year at the Schaulager in Basel and opening this month at the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 in New York, is a master class in producing art, and in curating an exhibition, that confounds the impulse to make coherent statements about it. The more you try to explain its force, the more elusive its power becomes. In my case, the task of coming up with cogent propositions is especially daunting: When I was a teenager in the 1990s, Nauman, along with Hélio Oiticica and Adrian Piper, defined my idea of what an artist could become.

Bruce Nauman, Corridor Installation (Nick Wilder Installation), 1970, wooden wallboards, water-based paint, three video cameras, scanner, frame, five monitors, video recorder, video player, video (black-and-white, silent, indefinite duration). Installation view, Schaulager, Basel, 2018. Photo: Tom Bisig.

Nauman, like many other artists who confronted the then-new technology of video in the late 1960s, found himself collapsing the classical, Romantic, and modernist roles of both artist and model in ways that had nothing to do with self-portraiture, since video allowed the artist to appear in a real-time feedback loop. Trapped “between two machines,” per Rosalind Krauss’s famous analysis of video art, the artist undergoes a splitting and dissociation in which the interiority of Cartesian consciousness is undermined by an externalized “model” self, a doppelgänger made of electronic signals, glass, and light. It should be remembered that, in the masculinist tradition, the artist’s model is not a subject, but is instead an object of sexual subjugation as well as a screen for the projection of philosophical and libidinal desires, literally embodying a set of discourses and offering corporeal promises of potential utopias and heterotopias. When artists such as Piper, VALIE EXPORT, Rita Myers, and Hannah Wilke made themselves into the object of art, the patriarchal gaze was appropriated to activate a new set of subject-object relations that could enmesh and rewire how we see gendered and racialized prejudices—and a new, brilliantly verbose discourse emerged. When Nauman performed a similar set of operations on his own body—that of the “white,” “male” artist in the studio—a different set of forces collapsed in on themselves. What happens when the matrix of understanding “the body” moves away from how the gaze sees “others” and into a terrain of self-objectification? What happens when we ask questions of a body that presumably relies on the withholding silence of whiteness and maleness to exert its force?

What happens when we ask questions of a body that presumably relies on the withholding silence of whiteness and maleness to exert its force?

Bruce Nauman, Contrapposto Studies, i through vii, 2015–16, seven-channel HD video projection, color, sound, indefinite duration. Installation view, Schaulager, Basel, 2018. Photo: Tom Bisig.

A crack appears in one of Nauman’s most iconic works, Walk with Contrapposto, 1968, and in his recent revisitations, Contrapposto Studies, i through vii, 2015–16, and Contrapposto Split, 2017. If we work against the grain of the contemporary identitarianism that would have us see all white male bodies as equivalent components of the same patriarchal force, we can begin to understand power’s fragility, how freaked out the “straight white male” can be about failing to conform to a compulsively policed perfection, and how terrifyingly hilarious and libidinal the manifestations of those anxieties can become. A key element of the Contrapposto works is that Nauman-as-model is not the classically idealized male body: The young man is way too scrawny, the old way too saggy. Another key element is that this static form is forced into the temporality of real time. Over and over again, in Nauman’s sculptures, videos, and neon works, we are confronted with an ideal anatomical geometry along the lines of Leonardo’s hunky Vitruvian Man or Le Corbusier’s diminutive modernist Modulor Man, but oddly segmented. In the 1968 video, Nauman-as-model sashays back and forth in a narrow walled-off passageway, twisting his hips in a relentlessly unsuccessful attempt to inhabit a paradigmatic contrapposto posture for an hour; in Contrapposto Studies, i through vii, Nauman pushes the ugly flatness of digital video to monumental extremes, confronting us with a fresco-scale representation of a body marked by age and horizontally sliced—either bisected right at the paunch or slivered into sevenths—by an equal grid of discrete images that break the male anatomy apart without regard to the classical, harmoniously “golden” bodily proportions. The application of digital effects conveys a sense of the uncaring yet avid scrutiny of a surveillance state that watches bodies and reduces them to bits of data to be profitably mined. While a certain linear reading of Nauman’s practice would find that Contrapposto Studies traces the aging body as a way of elegizing the younger, more limber one in a dialectic of age and youth, the experience of viewing a younger generation’s encounter with a related work reframed everything for me. At the Schaulager I happened to see a group of teenagers interacting with Corridor Installation (Nick Wilder Installation), 1970, a work I had previously found suffocating. The series of claustrophobically narrow corridors with surveillance cameras and live feedback playing on monitors, modeled after the corridor Nauman used to make Walk with Contrapposto, offered no exit. I was surprised to see the teenagers laughing gleefully as they immediately gravitated to a particular misuse of the work. Since photography was not allowed in the exhibition and phones were prohibited, removing a primary visual mediator and disseminator of “live” experience, the teenagers had managed to make this enlarged iteration of Nauman’s initial self-objectifying work of video art into an ad hoc Instagram-like apparatus. Part of the group would gather by a monitor in one corridor, while the others would take turns doing their best runway walk through another corridor to giggles and applause. The Instagram effect worked because the combination of liveness met the walled-off corridors of vision in a way that recalled social media’s tactic of isolating the insta-live image, blocking off everything else to intensify the impact and encourage an immediate affirmative response.

Bruce Nauman, One Hundred Live and Die, 1984, neon tubing and clear glass tubing on metal, 9' 10“ × 11' 1⁄4” × 1' 9".

Contemporary theories of neuroplasticity suggest that the brain is constantly forming and reforming—and that repeated actions and experiences generate the most durable change. I wonder how the repetitions in Nauman’s early videos operate within the bubbles and tunnels of our social media-regulated society. Do we believe—as we obey the imperative to use “likes” to connect networks of data into analyzable groupings of identities, markets, voting constituencies, and propaganda-susceptible political subjects—that the images we post of ourselves constitute liberatory subjective content? Or are we, like Nauman, displaying the hysteria that results from inhabiting an objectified body? Are we doomed to continually return to the core geometries of that failure, as though repeating the desired form as screen image will incarnate it in real life? What if we apply the late-twentieth-century proposition that the body is a discursively created set of materials and affects to a body that relies on a preverbal, naturalized position in order to maintain its unitary power? What if the (straight) white male body is not actually impervious?

The alien, automated quality of the work’s directives seems to increase the longer you look, as if authoritarian control could become an unconscious reflex.

Bruce Nauman, Black Balls, 1969, 16 mm, black-and-white, silent, 8 minutes.

A grouping of works on the Schaulager’s lower level activated a particularly heightened sense of what it’s like to dominate and dehumanize via the eye, to weaponize vision as “straight white men” so often do—only now, the brutalized and sexualized object is that very “straight white man,” and the double-voided gaze could belong to anybody. Clusters of decapitated heads cast in resin and fiberglass hung from the ceiling on chains, with streams of water shooting out of multiple puncture wounds, as if the brain itself were pissing and cumming in a constant state of productive elation (Three Heads Fountain [Juliet, Andrew, Rinde] and Three Heads Fountain [Three Andrews], both 2005). A large neon work, Seven Figures, 1985, in garish red, green, blue, and yellow, activated a frieze of interlocking, mostly male bodies, flashing among states of fucking, sucking, and rimming, like an ’80s prefiguration of an animated GIF. As in so much pornography, where men of erotically ambivalent (probably straight IRL) sexuality are hired to perform acts that push all the viewer’s buttons at once, the radiant outlines expel any undesired projections, and the desubjectified, real-time phallic bodies are suspended in a state of “whatever” irrelevance. On the facing wall were two black-and-white 1969 films Nauman made with his balls (in Black Balls we see them being smeared with dark paint, while Bouncing Balls is what it sounds like). The limp cock is held up out of view, and the slow-motion effect intensifies both the abstracting function of the cropping and the lingering, wet pornographic gaze. Just outside of this gallery, One Hundred Live and Die, 1984, eroded affective capacities already depleted by the experience of inhabiting a sexual subjectivity in which pleasure is powered by a fragmentation of violated bodies. Commands that recall Samuel Beckett as much as New Age–inflected athleisure advertising (LOVE AND DIE, HATE AND DIE, FUCK AND DIE, SPEAK AND DIE, LIE AND DIE . . . CRY AND LIVE, KISS AND LIVE, RAGE AND LIVE, LAUGH AND LIVE, TOUCH AND LIVE, etc.) turn on and off in various color combinations, the alien, automated quality of the directives seeming to increase the longer you look, as if the circuits that connected language and action had started to bypass the brain’s processing of language and following orders had become instinctual; as if authoritarian control could become an unconscious reflex. And of course, it can. The ways Nauman brutally strips himself of agency allow us to see that the constructions of maleness and whiteness make unlivable shells for everyone, including the assumed beneficiaries of that “privilege,” and perpetuate a violence that can be visited by and on anyone.

View of “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts,” 2018, Schaulager, Basel. Background: Seven Figures, 1985. Foreground: Three Heads Fountain (Three Andrews), 2005; Three Heads Fountain (Juliet, Andrew, Rinde), 2005. Photo: Georgios Kefalas/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.

“Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts,” will be on view at MoMA and MoMA PS1 October 21, 2018–February 25, 2019.

Ken Okiishi is an artist based in New York.