New York

Bruce Nauman

Bruce Nauman’s work is important for proposing a departure from that impasse of conceptualism, the belief in the self’s authority over language, in its ability to control and define. Since the late ’60s, through punning and anagram pieces contemporaneous with works involving physical forms, Nauman has explored transformations in language that problematize meaning, revealing the arbitrariness of its assignment to words. These seemingly playful works demonstrate the abstractness of the sign, indicating that it has no inherent relation to a signified. In his more recent practice Nauman appears to delve more deeply into this questioning of meaning, to the point where it renders problematic the possibility of ideas.

This two-gallery exhibition consisted of a deceptively heterogeneous assortment of works. In the Sperone Westwater space Nauman showed a suspended-chair piece, a series of carved limestone plaques (Vices and Virtues, 1983), and several drawings for neon sculptures, three of them spiraling language works in the manner of Marcel Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs, 1935. However, all seemed subordinate to the larger, more complex structures that were exhibited in the Castelli Gallery below. In one, an indoor version of Room with My Soul Left Out/Room that Does Not Care, 1984, a horizontal and vertical cross configuration of six brown Celotex-sided corridors was built into the space and illuminated by lights at regular intervals. Three of the tunnellike corridors were shortened so as to conform to the gallery’s dimensions; a grate set into the floor at their convergence made the lower vertical one visible to the viewer looking from above. Despite its funky title, the work seemed to be concerned with an unattainable center: although the viewer could conceptually grasp or comprehend the structure, its totality remained impenetrable, so that knowledge and perception reversed themselves, resulting in an overwhelming impression of emptiness.

In the relief sculpture, One Hundred Live and Die, 1984, Nauman extends this theme of reversibility to the domain of language, where it implies the frustration of meaning. In the “logical” framework of a grid, four columns of phrases are articulated in different-colored neon, and each phrase becomes illuminated, one by one, in random sequence. Running across the top of the rectangle, the phrases read “Live and Die,” “Live and Live,” “Sing and Die,” “Sing and Live”; Nauman’s strategy consists in varying one term in each column (e.g. “Live and Die’’ becomes “Scream and Die,” “Hate and Die,” and so on) according to the syncopated rhythm of the lights. In this manner alterations in meaning are produced while retaining consistency of structure and syntax, but the very abstractness and pliability of language begins to defeat the possibility of sense. For inasmuch as the words are replaceable, they are displaced from the concepts to which they refer; to live, to die, to scream, or to sing become interchangeable, indifferent—notions lacking in value. It is only when the hundred phrases are illuminated simultaneously, in the final phase of the lighting sequence, that this alienation of thought becomes clear. Language appears as the play of signs, as pattern, as abstraction; its instrumentality, or ability to communicate meaning, seems to fade as concepts reverse and annihilate one another. Here Nauman seems to suggest the futility of convictions as the self loses “itself” within language’s representing power. And insofar as these words exhort us to action, he provides a caution to query their force.

Kate Linker