Bruce Nauman, Left Hand Combinations of 0, 1 and 2, 2011, pencil on paper, 30 x 40".

Bruce Nauman, Left Hand Combinations of 0, 1 and 2, 2011, pencil on paper, 30 x 40".

Bruce Nauman

Donald Young Gallery

Bruce Nauman, Left Hand Combinations of 0, 1 and 2, 2011, pencil on paper, 30 x 40".

“For the solipsist reality is not enough. He denies the existence of anything outside the self-enclosed confines of his own mind,” Mel Bochner wrote in 1967, addressing the increasing use of serial operations in art. At first glance, Bruce Nauman’s recent exhibition at Donald Young Gallery recalls this tendency: Taking the most basic of artistic tools, the hands, Nauman presents four drawings that explicate thirty-one possible combinations of flexed and extended fingers—an open hand, an open hand with the thumb flexed, both the thumb and the index finger flexed, and so on. Projected onto a screen at the center of the gallery was the video Combinations Described (Chicago) (all works 2011), in which two hands, across the work’s thirteen-minute loop, are shown systematically forming each variation, with a total of thirty-one per hand. Recorded, overlapping voices, those of viewers upon seeing the footage for the first time, hastily call out the ever-changing arrangements: “Right hand, third finger, left hand, first finger,” “Right hand, third finger, left hand, second finger,” etc. The unusual descriptions—“third” instead of “ring,” “first” instead of “index” (although thumbs are referred to as “thumbs”)—only reinforce the reference to the “fundamentally parsimonious and systematically self-exhausting” proposals of the 1960s (to quote another of Bochner’s 1967 texts).

It should not be forgotten that Nauman was one of the original critics of “systems” art. In works such as Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body, Taken at Ten-Inch Intervals and Wax Impressions of the Knees of Five Famous Artists, both 1966, he deployed indexical measurements with Duchampian absurdity. However, in this most recent show, it was everything outside the apparent completeness of the set that was of interest. The drawings were roughly sketched, with erased and redrawn areas; the artist used one hand to trace the other, and drew freely when it suited him, resulting in a jumble of the naturalistic and the contingent. In Combinations Described (Chicago), the right and left hands appear to be reversed, judging by the wedding ring—the only sign of a social world—appearing on what should be the right hand. This video, the same as Beschriebene Kombinationen, 2011 (first shown in Berlin at Konrad Fischer, now featuring audio rerecorded with an American audience), is closely linked to For Beginners (all the combinations of the thumb and fingers), 2010, featured in his show at Sperone Westwater last year; that earlier version consisted of a stacked double projection, each channel showing a set of hands mirroring one another, with Nauman himself providing voice-over instructions for the hands to follow. With the new video, viewers replace the artist, their voices struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of transitions. Misidentifications, pauses, and giggles pervade attempts to describe. Initially, the dissonance is humorous, but as time elapses, the fun wanes and soon the inaccuracies themselves become repetition, part of the system. Pattern prevails.

Given its incorporation of prior spectators, Combinations Described (Chicago) can be read as a participatory work—perhaps proof that, at nearly seventy years of age, Nauman continues to sardonically, even aggressively, comment on trends in contemporary art. As most recently embodied in Creative Time’s “Living as Form” survey exhibition at New York’s historic Essex Street Market, 1990s and 2000s relational art unavoidably divides its human material into groups and stages: Later viewers, positioned as witnesses, experience the activity of earlier actors after the fact. Honing in on this structural tic of the genre, Nauman folds participation and witnessing back on themselves, rendering them one and the same. The second-order viewer’s task is to piece together the original system, which becomes a code: a set of instructions for the images we see, which viewers’ voices are imperfectly retrieving. In a sense, the video is a subtler variation of Nauman’s instruction-based works of the 1970s, such as Tony Sinking into the Floor, Face Up and Face Down, 1973, in which the artist-as-studio-explorer morphed into the artist-as-sadist, controller of another individual (the work’s Berlin iteration was paired with another titled Für Kinder [For Children], 2010). In Chicago, command and control floated free of the artist—they are inherent to participation and the viewing process alike.

Daniel Quiles