Bruce Nauman

How does one become a monochrome? The four Art Make-Up films, made between 1967 and ’68, answer that question and show their maker, Bruce Nauman, to be not only painter but painted. This work, in which the artist covers his body in white, pink, green, and black, stirs up from the spectator’s musings an assortment of memories: Noh theater, Al Jolson, the pink and blue bodies of Pontormo’s famous Entombment, even Rodchenko. Faithful to the logic of the monochrome, it is silent, a silence rendered all the more enigmatic by an exhibition subtitled “Image/Text 1966–1996,” and largely (if you take curator Christine van Assche’s word for it) devoted to the role Nauman accords language, music, sound, and words. Including none of the artist’s cast sculptures or taxidermic carousels and smaller than the show co-organized by the Walker and the Hirshhorn that traveled to the Museum of Modern Art two years ago, this exhibition nonetheless serves as something of an unintended retrospective.

The other axis around which the exhibition revolves is the “place of the spectator.” In this respect, Art Make-Up is in fact remarkable, but rather paradoxically so. First, like most of the video installations the artist has made since the middle of the last decade, it is a complete cinematic environment that occupies an entire room; the films, once they come to an end, start right up again—the cycle never ends. This blend of the transitory and the eternal is no doubt part of the pleasure—also limitless—that you get from viewing this piece, which unfolds with or without you, thereby creating, more than the traditional artwork does, a feeling of radical alienation from the object it presents. The highly reflexive activity to which Nauman devotes himself exacerbates this effect: the spectator’s exclusion is made complete once he becomes aware that Nauman, eyes directed at the bottom right-hand corner of a given frame, is looking into a mirror situated just beyond the camera’s range, which allows him, in a bold exaggeration of the genre of self-portraiture, to monitor the progress of his self-painting. Or, to put it another way, the viewer is already part of the work itself: the same person takes on the role of producer, product, and receiver at once. Welcome to Nauman’s land.

The cutting-edge Art Make-Up finds its perfect counterpoint in Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room, 1968, which, one could say, is all language and sound. A complement to the preceding piece, it allows the viewer to grasp the two themes around which the exhibition is centered. In a small room with white walls lit by a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, loudspeakers broadcast (in a loop, of course) a recorded voice (Nauman’s, naturally) that repeats, with constant changes in inflection, the sentence that serves as the title of the work. In an interview with Joan Simon ten years ago, Nauman said that he considered Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room “a very powerful piece,” adding, “It’s like a print I did that says, Tay attention, motherfuckers’ (1973). You know, it’s so angry it scares people.”

The comparison is worth noting. Nauman’s art is one that can aloofly ignore the spectator (at the very least creating a sense of total detachment), reject the viewer outright by shouting at him or her, or demand attention while pointedly insulting him or her. Psychologists have long had a term (“double bind”) for children who experience such mixed signals from their parents, but criticism and aesthetics lag far behind when it comes to giving a name to similar treatment of the spectator. Nauman’s legacy may well be to have spurred further research in this field. This exhibition, as was the case with the retrospective that toured Europe and the United States between 1993 and 1995, underscores the degree to which control over the spectator’s reception of his works, based as they are on a general principle of disorientation, is essential to Nauman’s art.

This is best exemplified by the artist’s well-known 1970 piece Live-Taped Video Corridor. If the visitor remains at the threshold of the installation, he or she will see two monitors at the other end, both of which show an empty corridor; only after taking a few steps into the narrow space does the image of the visitor, seen from behind, appear in the upper monitor. This image, recorded by a closed-circuit camera situated above the entrance, which one does not spot at first, gets smaller as one approaches it, while the lower, prerecorded image of the empty hallway remains immutable. This confusing setup enables one to escape oneself in at least two ways. On the screen of the upper monitor, the image of which we can discern in that very monitor, we ought to be able to see ourselves, but because of the entropy of reproducing the video through video, we can make out nothing but a vague dark band (the floor) bordered by white (the walls). Another work from the same year, Going Around the Corner Piece, choreographs a similar ballet of appearance and disappearance that includes several viewers at once. A closed cubic structure, it features a monitor placed on the floor at each corner, at the top of which a camera is attached that films the spectator as he or she passes. This allows us, depending on where we are, either to see ourselves or another viewer. The way that narcissism and voyeurism are simultaneously nurtured and frustrated here is reminiscent of Duchamp’s Étant donnés except that the spectator (or his counterpart) is also part of what is being looked at. But whether it takes the form of a headless woman spreading her legs or simply that of a passerby in street clothes, a mechanism of disillusion is central to each of these works: an obscure and irrepressible remainder makes seeing too much equivalent to seeing too little. In this regard, Robert Pincus-Witten’s article “Bruce Nauman: Another Kind of Reasoning” (published in Artforum in February 1972.), which reproached the artist for turning away from the wordplay featured in his earlier works toward “phenomenological,” indeed “behaviorist,” pieces, should be reread in light of the past two and a half decades of Nauman’s production. That is, Nauman did not so much abandon the Duchampian strategy of disorienting the spectator as transport it to another realm, conferring upon it a new breadth.

Hence the emblematic value of the 1986 drawing/collage Clown with Video Surveillance, which at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg was given center stage. The image consists of two parts, which together form the portrait of the “ideal” spectator: one is looking, the other is being looked at. To the right a clown on a toilet seat under the “surveillance” of the camera eye (an awkward, uncomfortable figure who would be employed once again the following year in the video installation Clown Torture); to the left, a retouched photograph, clipped from the pages of a magazine perhaps, that depicts an anonymous woman (gazing at who knows what) whose face and hand Nauman altered to suggest those of a clown, thereby fusing his two models of spectatorship. The same overlapping themes of control and derision, discipline and disorientation, underlie numerous recent works, such as the complex Shadow Puppets and Instructed Mime, 1990, in which incessant movement baffles the viewer. In this piece, images of a mime attempting to carry out the instructions dryly issued by a disembodied voice are intercut by shots of turning heads as if to create the viewer in the work’s own image. In this way, Nauman also validates our sense of exhaustion with or eventual rebellion against what is being imposed on us: it is comforting to see one of the actresses in World Peace (Projected), 1996, grousing about the words she is asked to repeat over and over, just as it is reassuring to see our master of ceremonies physically mistreat himself in Poke in the Eye/Nose/Ear 3/8/94 Edit, 1994. It’s too bad that a similar video piece from 1993 in which Nauman invites the viewer, even more energetically than does Aretha Franklin in her memorable song, to “think” (apparently including himself in this injunction) was not included as part of the Wolfsburg exhibition. Doubtless that word holds the key to Nauman’s art.

This formal command for reflection is not devoid of brutality. How can it be,when the point is no longer to “entice” or “captivate” the viewer but to activate him, to make him the ultimate object of the work? In almost every one of Nauman’s pieces, we find a technical or formal desynchronization that makes the act of viewing akin to taking a shower that keeps switching from hot to cold (remember the clown doused with buckets of water each time he opened the door). We’re clearly a long way from art that is, as Henri Matisse said of his own, “something like a good armchair”; Nauman’s chair—when he provides one—is surely made of sharp-edged metal. There is no room in his work for half-measures: here more than elsewhere art is a trying experience and one has to accept being put to the test. But, as in fables, whoever endures will reap much more than he sowed.

Jean-Pierre Criqui is editor of Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne.

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.

“Bruce Nauman: ”Image/Text 1966–1996" travels to the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris from 16 December to 3 March 1998; to the Hayward Gallery in London from July to September; and to the Taiteen Museo/Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki from October 1998 to January 1999.