Bruce Nauman, My Name As Though It Were Written on the Surface of the Moon, 1968, colle. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam © 2021 Bruce Nauman / Pictoright Amsterdam

Feel that foot and that tension – Bruce Nauman’s retrospective at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Issue no3
juni - juli 2021
Makers Of Their Own Time - Relational Activism

Flickering light, screaming clowns and squeezing lips: in cooperation with Tate Museum, Stedelijk hosts a long awaited, affective retrospective of Bruce Nauman’s work. Much like the steps he takes while famously walking the white lines of a taped square, Nauman’s practice proves itself to be precise and controlled.

The Bruce Nauman retrospective reflects a long-standing interest in Nauman’s work, from the Netherlands in general and the Stedelijk in particular. Over the years, the museum has acquired major works by the artist and this exhibition offers the ideal opportunity to play out the interrelations between those works in a telling and broader configuration. Deciding not to present the works in a chronological order, the museum equally succeeds in underlining the work’s potential to relate to the present. The very first work you encounter as a visitor, Washing Hands Abnormal (1986), is an excellent example of this. Two superimposed monitors show hands that are being washed obsessively, in changing colours. Today, this work can easily be related to the covid-19 pandemic. Placing it so prominently at the entrance, the curators show the work’s ability to relate to situations other than those at play at the time of its making. In the introductory text, the visitor is therefore invited to play freely with the works’ aesthetics, imagery and emotive resonance.

Deciding not to present the works in a chronological order, the museum underlines the work’s potential to relate to the present

Bruce Nauman, Washing Hands Abnormal, 1996, coll. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam © 2021 Bruce Nauman / Pictoright Amsterdam

The exhibition rhythmically and successfully shows Nauman’s affective use of sounds, colour and space, as well as his ongoing interest in topics such as the presence of the audience, the studio as a habitat and artistic authorship. Nauman’s constant downplaying of his own authorship is displayed in the first room of the exhibition, where his famous neon work My Name As Though It Were Written on the Surface of the Moon (1968) is on view. The work consists of the first name of the artist, stretched out over the wall, humoristically downplaying the seriousness of such an authorial gesture.

In the taped video performance Walk with Contrapposto (1968) Nauman is walking in a way that references the classical sculptural pose. As an artist who had abandoned painting in the early stages of his career, and but who liked being physically involved in the making of something, he deemed sculpture worthy of exploration.[1] His engagement with sculpture cannot be narrowed down in terms of craft however. It was his more conceptual and experimental approach to the medium that kept it alive at a time when traditional sculpture and painting where under scrutiny.[2]

Take his sculptural treatment of his own body that manifests itself in several videotaped performances from the late sixties. In the screen-prints Studies for Holograms (1970) he manipulates his face sculpturally, pulling his skin and mouth, squeezing his lips... His sculptural treatment of video installations as such can be found in the penetrating and disturbing Shadow Puppets and Instructed Mime (1990), as well as in Hanged Man (1985): a neon sculpture that alternately –and morbidly– shows a hanged man with a flaccid or erect penis. More explicit is Nauman’s use of sculpture in works such as the cast iron sculpture Henri Moore Bound to Fail (1967/70), which seems to suggest that a more self-conscious type of sculpture is preferable; in the sculptural environment Black Marble Under Yellow Light (1987) and the grim work Carousel (1988) that consists out of animal cadavers hanging from a turning metal structure.

Installation view Bruce Nauman, 5 June 2021 until 24 October 2021, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Photo: Peter Tijhuis

Installation view Bruce Nauman, 5 June 2021 until 24 October 2021, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Photo: Peter Tijhuis

Installation view Bruce Nauman, 5 June 2021 until 24 October 2021, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Photo: Peter Tijhuis

The works in the exhibition signal major artistic developments from the 1960s to now. Think of the growing presence of the audience, the intensified use of time and duration, the increasingly playful approach of one’s authorship, the conceptual questioning of painting and sculpture and the various tendencies toward dematerialization. Nauman, while appreciating the reductive tendencies of minimal and conceptual art, never became satisfied with complete abstraction or dematerialisation. Through ‘‘simple’’ acts of manipulation and repetition he is able to relate aesthetics to existential ideas and topics related to the act of making art. Highlighting a word, such as ‘‘Eat’’ or ‘‘Die’’, or calling attention to a gasp, a scream, or a footstep, he makes his work relatable to existential and social issues at stake in different times and places.

Highlighting a word, such as 'Eat' or 'Die', or calling attention to a gasp, a scream, or a footstep, he makes his work relatable to existential and social issues at stake in different times and places

Nauman remains prudent and controlled, much like the steps he takes while carefully walking the white lines of the taped square in the video performance Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square (1968). The stepping, the balancing and the concentration have emotive and affective connotations. The square on the floor can be hypothetically related to the important Pollockian painterly gesture, for example. But Nauman is not stepping into the frame like Pollock did. Nauman did not pursue painting, nor did he step away from the white line, outside into the post-studio world.

Bruce Nauman, Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square, 1967-1968, coll. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam © 2021 Bruce Nauman / Pictoright Amsterdam

Nauman’s preoccupation with the studio is diverse. In the exhibition it is present in amongst others the impressive seven screen video projection Mapping the Studio II (1996) wherein Nauman filmed his studio at night. Nothing much happens, except for a moth, a mousse and a cat entering the screen. But it is not just a space. The added green, blue, red shades that emotively colour it; there is tranquillity in the slow passing of time. The studio is presented as a necessary space; a space in which the artist can find privacy and focus, in which he can fail and recommence his experiments. The video projection shows the studio’s normality, highlighting anecdotes rather than grand gestures. It demythologises the studio – but it also makes us feel its emotive and mental necessity in a down-to-earth kind of way, providing a necessary framework for distance.

An important thread that runs through the oeuvre and the exhibition is the presence of the audience. The 1960s and 70s, the decades wherein Nauman’s early work developed, was a period in which, as Claire Bishop argued, “the breakdown of medium-specific art” as well as the “explosion of new technologies” inspired artistic experiments that attributed a more substantial role to the audience.[3] It is also a period that saw an increased audience for art due to a prospering economy and therefore an increase of leisure time. Art increasingly became part of the emerging media and television culture. Like many of his contemporaries, Nauman started to direct his attention to the audience. In the work Going Around the Corner Piece with Live and taped Monitors (1970), installed in the Stedelijk, the audience is recorded from behind by a closed-circuit television system that shows the recording on a monitor on the other side of a partition wall. All you can see is a glimpse of your presence in the screen. It provides the visitor with a heightened awareness of her or his presence. It also relates to the idea of surveillance and the loss of privacy that became an issue at the time and that is obviously of even greater concern today.

But even in his preoccupation with the audience, Nauman has always maintained a certain level of control and resistance to its consuming presence. The artist has stated several times that relating to what is essentially an anonymous audience is rather difficult: “I mistrust audience participation. That is why I try to make these works as limiting as possible.”[4] He goes on to say that “the private thing can change the experience a great deal, and I don’t expect to be able to control that. But, on the other hand, I don’t like to leave things open so people feel they are in a situation they can play games with.”[5] Nauman has never favoured giving his audiences total emotive and lexical freedom. He has however simultaneously always questioned or downplayed his own authorial position and staged himself more as a vulnerable subject rather than as a masterful artist.

His exploration of the dividing line between amateurism and professionalism can also be situated in relation to this concern. Take for instance a work like Double Steel Cage Piece (1974), also present in the exhibition. The work is basically a big cage that the audience can enter. Space in the cage is limited, and as a visitor you can only navigate through it via very narrow passages. Feeling trapped, you are at the same time subject to the gaze of other visitors still outside of the cage. Of course cages can be linked to many different stories and atrocities, both on personal, cultural and historical levels, leaving the meaning of the work open to many interpretations. The oppressive feeling of being trapped, however, remains.

Installation view Bruce Nauman, 5 June 2021 until 24 October 2021, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Photo: Peter Tijhuis

Talking about his videotaped performances, that often show him repeating all kinds of physical activities for sixty minutes, the artist once stated that people watching them often “feel that foot and that tension”.[6] Nauman says that if you can control a situation physically, “you can have a certain amount of similarity. People are sufficiently similar so that you can have at least a similar kind of experience”.[7] It explains up to a certain level why Nauman often uses sounds and voice intonations that penetrate deep into your body. The room that shows his preoccupation with clowns, such as the video projection Clown Torture (1987) that shows a clown frantically moving, shouting and screaming, is physically almost unbearable. Just like Nauman’s use of flickering light, darkened spaces and narrow corridors, it impacts us on a bodily, emotive and affective level. It is here, rather than in the postmodern fragmented world of narratives, perspectives and deconstructions, where one can still find a kind of communality; in the ways in which Nauman touches his audiences.

Nauman often uses sounds and voice intonations that penetrate deep into your body

Bruce Nauman, Clown Torture, 1987. © 2021, coll. The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY/ Scala, Florence © 2021 Bruce Nauman / Pictoright Amsterdam

Left: Bruce Nauman, Pay Attention, 1973. Published by Gemini G.E.L. Coll. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam © 2021 Bruce Nauman / Artists Right Society (ARS), Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York © 2021 Bruce Nauman / Pictoright Amsterdam, Right:Bruce Nauman, Eat/Death, 1972, coll. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam © 2021 Bruce Nauman / Pictoright Amsterdam

It is an impressive answer to the representation debacles that started to manifest themselves strongly in the 1960s and that would lead to postmodern fragmentation and a gradual loss in translation. Many of these aspects can also be found in a small lithograph entitled Pay Attention. It pictures the words PAY ATTENTION MOTHERFUCKERS in mirror image. Is this a raw evocation of the intrusiveness – aggressiveness - embedded within the attention economy’s angling for the consumer’s attention? Or is the mirroring a downplaying of his own desire to make the audience pay attention? Is it a statement that coarsely questions all too rational approaches to the making or interpretation of art? Or does it refer to a world wherein people find it difficult to listen to one another? Whatever story we invent about this work, the crudeness of the statement and the blackness of the letters that mediate it grab you by the throat.

Bruce Nauman, Seven Figures, 1985, coll. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam © 2021 Bruce Nauman / Pictoright Amsterdam

In conclusion, I want to say that because of the curatorial decision to present the work in such an affective ‘routing’, the exhibition does what an exhibition should do: offering a stage for the physical, aesthetic and affective functioning of the artworks themselves. That makes the retrospective definitely worth a visit.

[1] On Nauman’s relation to painting and sculpture and the act of making something see: Butterfield, J. ‘Bruce Nauman: The center of yourself’ [1975], in: Kraynak, J., ed., Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words –Writings and Interviews, Cambridge Massachusetts, London England: The MIT Press, 180. Angelus, M., ‘Bruce Nauman. Interview’ [1980], in Kraynak, J., ed., op. cit., 268. Van Bruggen C., Bruce Nauman, Rizzoli, New York, 1988, 7, 14.

[2] Van Bruggen C., Bruce Nauman, Rizzoli, New York, 1988, 14. Wallace I. & Keziere R., ‘Bruce Nauman Interviewed’, in: Vanguard 8, nr. 1, February 1979, 18. Raffael,  Joe, ‘The way-out west: interviews with four San Francisco artists’ [1967], in: Kraynak, J., ed., op. cit., 105-106.

[3] Bishop, C., ‘Introduction’, in Bishop, C., ed., Participation, London: Whitechapel & Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2006, 10.  

[4] Sharp, W., ‘Nauman Interview’ [1970], in: Kraynak, J., ed., op. cit., 113.

[5] Butterfield, J., op cit., [1975], in: Kraynak, J., ed., op. cit., 185.

[6] Sharp, W., ‘Interview with Bruce Nauman’ [1971], in: Kraynak, J., ed., op. cit., 148.

[7] Butterfield, J., op cit., [1975], in: Kraynak, J., ed., op. cit., 182.

Patrick van Rossem
is universitair docent hedendaagse kunst op de Universiteit Utrecht

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