Bruce Nauman

Shaven heads detached from their bodies, wedged together or bending over one another: one licking the other, sticking its tongue into another’s eyes, mouth, and nose. Hanged heads, chopped-off hands, a trail of blood running from body parts: these are the subjects of the large-format color drawings that make up the environment of a new group of works by Bruce Nauman. Entitled Heads and Bodies, 1989, the installation consists of 12 sculptural pieces along with the drawings.

Nauman has always been interested in the human body. During the past few years, his early formal analyses and investigations of the body have shifted to the context of the living world, which is depicted in terms of the physical excess and violence done to and by bodies. Nauman’s new pieces open an existential scenario that embraces both man and beast, a scenario about damaged life and violent death. Pairs of wax casts of human heads dangle upside down from thin wires. One mouth gapes as if suffocating in mid sentence; one tongue lolls out; another tongue has been sliced off and stuck back in the wrong way. In another room, we find skinned animal bodies, casts made of foam and aluminum. Dismembered and randomly reassembled as monsters, they hang from the ceiling in twos, threes, or fours, like an exhibit of abstruse airplane parts. At the center of its body, one animal’s forelegs and hind legs have been “composed” into rotors. A dog and a sheep, connected at their anuses, seem to be dancing a macabre ballet; a dog’s head with a mutated body bites its own ass.

These are models of a human obsession with experimentation that has gone haywire and that condemns anything nonhuman to a dubious existence. Nauman shows us that this spirit of research—Mary Shelley developed its prototype in Frankenstein—inevitably turns against itself: the overall image of these dismembered bodies complements an animal existence that is now capable of nothing but externally controlled reflexes. “Human Nature/ Animal Nature” Nauman wrote in one work of 1983: in the duplication of the handwriting, one nature glides into the other. Heads and Bodies demonstrates that this congruence depends on social conditions. A video mounted over one of the hanging heads quite literally puts its finger on the situation: a vertically stretched middle finger, motionless on the screen, tells us, “Fuck off.” (Not just us, but also that head.) This is the only work with an individual title: Perfect Balance. The notion of balance ineluctably evokes the two polar balances that constitute the utopia of our industrial society: the ecological balance and the balance of terror. "Fuck off’ reads as a double rejection, a disillusioning commentary on an era in which the ubiquitous reification of all life has long since outstripped the utopia of balances.

Martin Hentschel

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.