New York

Bruce Nauman

Castelli Gallery | Uptown

None of the art that I’ve seen that purports to deal with “information” has really seemed to answer the question as to the meaning of this term in reference to experience. Yet this would seem to be an important question because “information” already appears to be wavering between being a concept and being something vaguely experienced; and the reification of information which contemporary technology is bringing about clothes the notion with certain assumptions about the nature of the perceiving subject, most dangerously, perhaps, that the perceiver’s own nature is not or should not be an issue for him. So much of the information presented in or as conceptual art is so remote from information in the strong sense, the sense of it which is necessary ultimately to distinguish between useful and superfluous or stupid utterances, that it often amounts to little more than a pun on “abstraction.” The esthetic uses of the concept of information up to now have mostly looked like attempts to maintain a kind of abstraction in attitude while playing at immersion in certain kinds of concrete and commonplace subject matter, such as the referents of the statistics found in so much conceptualism. The troubling aspect of all this is perhaps the disengagement of information as a concept from speech, and thus from the kinds of justification which spoken and written utterances are subject to and which frequently determine their value. And though not many people seem to have noticed, the embrace of “information” deepens the difficulties into which recent art has cast criticism for all that this move appears to some people to let the critic off the hook.

At times Bruce Nauman has seemed to have hold of these issues. His holograms, for instance, could easily be seen as being about the experience of information because the most intelligible explanation of what is seen in a hologram is given in terms of information. A hologram works, if I remember correctly, because all the phase information necessary for one to see a three-dimensional object can be concentrated in a light beam of a single wavelength, a laser, and projected to produce a 3D image. Though the technical explanation is much more detailed and elegant, no doubt, than that, it is not likely to come any closer to what we feel ourselves to be experiencing when we see a hologram; it seems that the only way around it is to say that the informational description does get at what we experience, or that this is a brand of experience to which a certain favored kind of language is denied access. Perhaps this is why Nauman chose to do facial contortions as holograms, both because we have an immediate sense of what it would feel like to distort one’s face in those ways, and so that we feel somewhat mocked by having faces made at us through a medium which is not merely impersonal but completely absurd in relation to our understanding of experience.

In an environment defined by “information,” the perceiver is in a real sense without a knowledge of where he is unless he has been trained to perceive information as definitive of his situation, and this is imaginable, I suppose. But it is that sort of dissociation of the perceiver from the terms of perception that a lot of Nauman’s recent work has been about, and which plays some part in his latest show at Castelli. In what I consider his most interesting pieces, Nauman steps outside the already familiar esthetic strategy of shifting frame of reference; the really challenging works have been devised so as to occur within the spectator’s body-image, which is, so to speak, on the hither side of frames of reference. Arranging things so that the body-image is the arena of esthetic events might have grotesque consequences, as proven by a lot of so-called “body art”; and in the context of Nauman’s work, a sensory disorder such as allochiria, if it could be induced temporarily, might have the status of an esthetic accomplishment. (These considerations might also raise a sort of moral question as to what is implied by treating Nauman’s kind of work as art.) But meanwhile this circumstance allows Nauman to set up some interesting channels between private and public experience, and one senses that this exchange between private and public which has been going on in the public media for years is closely linked to the whole muddle about the nature of what is called information.

Nauman’s show at Castelli consists of two films on loops. There’ are three prints of each of the films and they are projected on three adjacent walls simultaneously. Nauman was not particularly pleased with the circumstances of the projections. He had intended that there be four prints, so that the projections would surround the viewer completely, and ideally the films would have been back-projected to eliminate the presence of viewers’ shadows which he considers completely extraneous. The film shown most often was of a ball bearing in tight close-up spinning on a watch glass (though all one sees is the spinning ball) and reflecting very non-specific surroundings which clearly have no relation to the gallery space. The idea was to eliminate all customary scale references and thus to confuse the viewer’s sense of bodily size. Well, this does happen to some degree; one gets something of the sense that one has in looking at certain Redon graphics, such as Light. But the real room is too much there in this installation for this effect to have been achieved properly.

The incidental effect of the film, which Nauman says he didn’t have directly in mind, was to amplify the perceptual effect of the giant close-up. While there was no explicit scale reference in the film, one still felt that this spinning sphere was a small thing made very large, and a special sort of private experience is implied by that. One felt that to see the real ball bearing spinning like that one would have to be in a position such that one’s body would occupy the surrounding space in such a way as to make a similar simultaneous view by another person impossible. The feeling is then that one’s own body is providing a sort of privacy in this kind of close-up experience. The film takes this sort of perspective and magnifies and multiplies it so that it not only becomes public in the sense that other bodies can now occupy the space from which one looks out, but also that it envelops one’s bodily space entirely. Not an especially pleasant sensation and not a very powerful one either. One suspects, remembering that Nauman has read Wittgenstein with interest, that he may well be interested in the possibility of making private sensations public in a sense that hasn’t been achieved before. That’s probably far-fetched, and anyway I don’t think he’s succeeded in doing it here.

The second film is of a rotating glass plane, again without scale references. The problem is that the prints of this film are so gray that one can’t tell whether one’s confusion as to what’s going on in the film is the result of Nauman’s design or of the quality of the prints.

Nauman’s films almost form an ambiance abstract and bland enough to be describable as defined by information, at least there seems to be an encroachment of “information” on the real room, especially in the rotating glass film where the glass edges keep sweeping down the walls as if to replace them by wearing them away. But Nauman’s playing upon the viewer’s body-image, though it is less forceful here than in some of his other works, seems to depend upon the possibility of the body-image being distorted and one begins to wonder if that is what is necessary for what is called information to be experienced as such. At the limits of Nauman’s works there is the suggestion that a different kind of unconsciousness as well as a modified consciousness will be required to accommodate to an environment defined by information. Maybe the dissociation of “information” from language is only a precursor which finds its accompaniment in Nauman’s experiments with dissociative phenomena. Maybe. When Op paintings manipulated our optical faculties, nobody complained much, except of boredom after a while, and Op seemed to represent a limiting case. But as one of his pieces in the current Guggenheim International reminds us, Nauman is involved in manipulation too, but the stakes in his case aren’t clear yet, nor, really, are the limits.

Kenneth Baker