Bruce Nauman

Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart

In this exhibition, Bruce Nauman’s sculptures and installations from the past five years were viewed in the context of representative examples of his oeuvre from the museum’s permanent collection, dating back to the ’60s. Included is the 1967 spiral neon sign that reads, “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths,” along with a dynamic neon piece Sex and Death by Murder and Suicide, 1985. At first glance, the two works might be regarded as opposites, but they actually demarcate the poles of Nauman’s oeuvre, which, in the course of its development, has become increasingly radical in its directness. Though Nauman’s noisy new video installations lead us into an utterly non-museumlike fun house, his primary goal is not amusement; the coexistence of the serious and the playful reveal elemental life situations that appeal to us directly and emotionally; the hubbub both arouses our expectations and renders us vulnerable. Nauman has come up with sets for a Samuel Beckett-like theatrical experience dialectically interweaving idea and praxis in a realm fraught with paradox. The resulting atmosphere renders us incapable of escaping thematicized violence; we are subject to these everyday situations of coercion and degradation.

Nauman uses straightforward metaphors—such as the movement of a merry-go-round and the figure of a clown—to convey these banal visions of horror. Here, the clown becomes the ideal protagonist in scenarios that turn from cheery treadmills to desperate endgames. Who could be better equipped than the clown, as institutionalized loser, to present the everyday madness dramatized here? The Clown Torture installation, 1987, as a Sisypheian play, becomes a torment or torture. Witness the aborted efforts to attach an aquarium to the ceiling by means of a broomstick or to do one’s business in a shithouse. Only one figure seems to rise up against his lot, shrieking “no, no, no” into the void, and expressing the rebel’s existential plight and despair.

No less anguishing are Nauman’s sculptural installations, some of which incorporate videos. They are dominated by images of bodily dismemberment. The colored-wax heads of Nauman’s friends, dangling from the ceiling on wires and sometimes in pairs, tap a realm of associations between tenderness and violence. Similarly, the bizarre “animal-part sculptures” can turn our irritation into horror; for Nauman’s prefabricated plastic taxidermy models are dismembered and then patched together in unexpected hybrids. These works have their comical, or better, grotesque side, especially when these mutant configurations revolve in a carousel. This comical effect is merely superficial, however, for, as in the case of the clowns, the unpleasant, almost physically tangible effect of the works cannot simply be ignored. Even if the work inevitably suggests a skeptical vision of modern gene technology, these concrete associations should not thwart other, deeper, and perhaps more personal resonances; for these associations are an intrinsic component of Nauman’s art. Personal experience does not degenerate into an ego trip here, it is part of a concrete social reality.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.