Düsseldorf and Krefeld

Bruce Nauman

Galerie Fischer, Museum Haus Esters

In the gallery show in Düsseldorf Bruce Nauman showed a drawing for a neon project for an American university, and one segment of the piece, realized in stone. The piece concerns the seven vices and seven virtues, and in this portion hope and envy overlap. With another artist we might suspect nihilism here, but Nauman’s intent is not nihilistic. Instead, his approach has to do with the creative shake-up of unquestioned structures that occurs in the dealings of certain people with reality. It’s true that this coolly glimmering game with human values, its design borrowed from the world of advertising, addresses the viewer’s social consciousness more deliberately than Nauman’s usual, rather more mysterious work. But what is truly subversive here is not the intertwining of “good” and “evil,” but the seductiveness of the light sculptures’ design: moral consciousness dissolves into colorful ornament.

The interweaving of quotation, memory, and the visionary in the other pieceshere and in the museum show in Krefeld proceeded more openly and anarchically. Two works from Nauman’s “Musical Chairs” series, both 1984, were shown under the German name of the children’s game that gives them their title, Die Reise nach Jerusalem (The journey to Jerusalem). The wood-and-aluminum sculpture that was in the gallery show appears fragile as it hangs from the ceiling, the found chairs poised about a ring strengthened by a cross and a triangle. In Krefeld the “Musical Chairs” piece dominated the show; it has a menacing look. When I spun the large suspended cross made of steel girders so that its ends banged against two suspended, semiabstract steel chairs, producing a muffled clank, I felt a chilly fascination. What compels viewers to submit to this frightful sound? There is something aggressive about these chairs, this cross, and the circle the girders describe when they turn, a circle that barely holds the piece together; the steel struts jut crudely into the room. Some force transforms the individual elements of the work so that the chairs take on human characteristics, and in some irrational way the all-too-heavy hanging apparatus suggests images of social interactions that may end painfully, even cruelly—like the “Musical Chairs” game itself, with its developing pattern of exclusion. Is the work an archaic relic, or science fiction? Its skimpy, crude facture and its nonfunctional quality fester in one’s mind, disrupting one’s sense of order.

Only at first glance do Stadium Piece, 1984, a long yellow construction of two converging bleachers (shown here in the form of a model), and Dream Passage, 1984, a cruciform corridor, appear less aggressive. In miniaturized form, Stadium Piece only hints at the ambivalent feelings its execution on a monumental scale would evoke—the opposition of communal fervor to the struggles of fanatical crowds, of the sensation of ascent to that of helpless isolation on the various grandstands of life. A walk through Dream Passage elicits a different kind of response. One enters a yellow-neon-lit corridor through which one passes to a central space, where a metal table and chair on the floor are matched by companion pieces on the ceiling. This room, the arms of the cross, is lit in red and white; in the cross’ second, farther axis the yellow neon returns. The principle of mirroring—in architecture, in furniture (with its suggestion of social communication), and in light—is clear. The architecture of the work is simple, noble; one is drawn in. But no one is there to make one at home; and where would one settle inside? On the floor or the ceiling, to the right or the left, in the passageway or the central space? This lodging is designed to raise doubt. The title refers to the dream state, but the viewer of Dream Passage is awake, and knows full well that the “normal” is neither above nor below, that a house doesn’t necessarily provide protection nor a corridor lead to a goal, that a table and chair do not of themselves create community. The viewer also knows that Nauman’s table and house are not for material or even symbolic use. These sculptures are fictions in a timeless realm between archaic recollection and utopian vision. The awareness that consciousness is a fiction becomes powerfully real before this work, but it leaves behind an equally powerful experience of strength, of security within the ambivalent flow of feelings.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.