Bruce Nauman

In 1986, Bruce Nauman drafted a plan for a videotape (Circle of Death? Death by Mob Violence) in which six figures, grouped in a circle, beat a victim to death. This project was meant to transform the restrained violence of his South American pieces (South American Triangle, South American Circle, and South America Square, all 1984) into a direct, desublimated form. The analogy between the video project and the earlier pieces lies in the pressure discharging in the field of tension between periphery and center, whereby the center becomes the vanishing point of the external energy.

Nauman’s latest work, Carousel, 1988, reverses this process. Cast-aluminum replicas of skinned animals—a bear, a lynx, a stag, and coyotes—are suspended from the cantilevers of a guide machine (on which normally horses warm down after being ridden). Relentlessly dragged along the floor, the carcasses leave circular trails, while the room resonates with the clattering of their metallic bodies. A glance back at Circle of Death . . . reveals that outside and inside, center and periphery, are complementary pairs for Nauman. As a result, the excessive and merciless violence, demonstrated in Carousel as an insane piece of showmanship, is not limited to animals. The mutilated shapes in the piece are paradigms of disfigurement. It is no accident that the base of the machine is in the form of a swastika.

The counterpoint to this piece seems to be the video work Green Horses, 1987–88, in which two monitors show a horseman riding across a vast domain. The second monitor repeats the image on the first one, but upside down, in different colors, and with a phase displacement. The images of both monitors are projected alternately on the wall. The horse initially gallops in small circles, thereby keeping the viewer on the outside. The scene eventually changes: the viewer is drawn inside the now-larger circle, becoming its center. The viewer is virtually transformed into the filmmaker, the instrument controlling the movements of the horse and its rider. This alters the seemingly contrapuntal relationship to Carousel: the spectator becomes the pivot of a prescribed motion, turning into a “guide machine.” In regard to Cones/Cojones, 1974, a work made of concentric circles, Nauman has written: “Everything is finite, everything is closed, nothing touches anything else.” In the circular motion of Green Horses, the vastness of the countryside becomes a closed space.

The next piece in the exhibition, Doppelgänger/UFO, 1988, revises the perspective again. A cassette recorder is attached to each end of a metal girder, which slowly revolves in a circle. In order to make out the dialogue produced by the out-of-sync recorders, the viewer/listener has to follow the circular motion. The audience becomes part of the periphery of the work, while the center steers its movement. As soon as one refuses to go along with the work, one must step outside it in order to avoid being injured by the moving girder. The dialectic whereby the viewer becomes the object of the work is most pronounced in Learned Helplessness in Rats, 1987–88. We see a kind of setup for a scientific experiment: a constructed maze inside a transparent Plexiglas container. The two ends of the labyrinth, in a mirror-image correspondence, each lead to a monitor. The two monitors alternately produce three different sequences: the image of a rat trying to get through the maze; a percussionist banging out a nerve-wracking rhythm; and, finally, the experimental setup, which is photographed from above by a video camera.

The continual alternation of these sequences evokes a ghostly shift between fiction and reality, especially since the spectator appears in the video images when he stands near the setup. These images are projected on a grand scale onto the wall, and the atmosphere is that of a bizarre laboratory. In this way, the viewer feels psychologically menaced, a condition that parallels that of the imaginary rat. The same may be said about all the pieces in this exhibition. No standpoint is possible outside the events; only the perspectives change. We move in closed circles.

Martin Hentschel

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.