Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts, Schaulager

Scale has always appeared to be particularly malleable in the work of Bruce Nauman. Working in immense spaces, from the former grocery store in San Francisco that functioned as his first studio out of school to the several hundred acres he currently works and resides on in rural New Mexico, he has been distorting images and objects, driving them to a disorienting state: walls close in, human figures project two stories high, industrial bars clear out room for a soul, animals form neat pyramids. One of the most established and exhibited artists of his generation, Nauman’s Disappearing Acts fills two floors and more than thirty of the Schaulager’s cavernous rooms, in addition to the museum’s exterior, where the films Mr. Rogers (2013) and For Beginners (Instructed Piano) (2010) play for passersby and commuters waiting at the tram stop. This is only the most recent of several dedicated museum presentations of his work in Basel alone.

If there is any thematic thread that runs through his body of work shown here, spanning half a century, it is an agile, amorphous style of creating something out of thin air—giving substance to what is not there. Among the first works he exhibited as a student and young working artist was A cast of the space under my chair (1965-1968). The concrete block was an enormous weight, an undeniable affirmation of an overlooked, insignificant negative space. The artist’s spare use of humble materials began to take on their most intimidating forms with his Corridors. Originally made as a set for his video Walk with Contrapposto (1968), the minimalist fabrication of two tall, thin white walls standing parallel about two feet from each other entrap us where his previous sculptures may have stood where we least expected to find something. Though many meters tall and side, and strictly limited to one visitor at a time for one hour at a time, the narrow passageway would incite intense feelings of claustrophobia and anxiety. By 1970, he formalized the series with Corridor Installation (Nick Wilder Installation). This time composed of multiple parallel hallways, one of the chambers was intentionally built too narrowly to accommodate anyone at all, bringing on an even heavier dread onto anyone who squeezed themselves into the lines that were built to be just wide enough to walk through. Nauman placed a box monitor, or two of them, stacked, on the floor at the end of the walkable hallways of his Corridors. One of his first attempts at incorporating the techniques and technologies available for surveillance by recording devices on the consumer market, the monitor would present footage of the visitor approaching the monitor itself, intercut with footage recorded the same way in adjacent corridors, some of which remained empty. The forced, false sense of solitude in such a narrow space while crudely gathering and dispensing these images back to the visitor creates a cycle of low-grade dread that grows the closer one gets to its source.

His dexterity in the art of surveillance led to more innocuous applications, too: Mapping the Studio II with color shift, flip, flop, & flip / flop (Fat Chance John Cage) (2001) is overnight infrared video footage of his studio, catching the moths that flew through it and the mice that ran around in it. Each of the seven videos is bathed in a different color filter and saturates the walls that carries its upside-down projection. Having filmed over forty-two nights in 2000, the footage was eventually cut down to just under six hours long. His reference to John Cage in the title also acknowledges the uses of chance and silence in this exhaustive video log of every movement within his territory.

Nauman’s most iconic neon work, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967), hangs with other neons and their studies—the Punch and Judy figures, Marching Figure (all 1985). The magenta and cyan lines project its occult proverb conditionally—when the work, like all neon works, is plugged in, the statement is an invitation, an arrow bent into a swirl. When the work is unplugged, or breaks down, the message is erased. Created at the height of two wars initiated by the United States—Vietnam, and America’s raging civil rights storm—a question for a larger truth as well as an artist’s search for purpose and expectation goes unanswered with this riddle, which folds onto itself. He began to use this elusive medium throughout the next years, resulting in the transmission holograms of First Hologram Series: Making Faces B (1968). The 3D recordings featured a floating Nauman pulling at his own skin: a formless, abstracted artist reaching for physical evidence of himself. The neons, like films and projections, have the convenient option of powering down and fading at any time. The methods he’s been cultivating—experimenting with newly available technologies, manipulating projections, distorting self-portraits—crystalize in another informal series. From his earliest years of exhibiting, Walk with Contrapposto (1968) shows the artist dramatically pacing down one of his Corridor structures on fuzzy, black-and-white tape. More recently, Contrapposto Split (2017) utilizes a complex, new recording technology using a 3d imaging process and was filmed in 4K, a high-resolution format, finished in digital post-production and made in collaboration with technicians who generally work for Hollywood movie studios. The one he made just before it, however, showed a subtle glitch. Contrapposto Studies, I through VII (2016) multiplies the artist’s Renaissance-motif stance by seven, and, occasionally, fourteen, as the row of images duplicates and reverts. He filmed himself walking backward and forward, rendered in both positive and negative images. The young man animating the “counterpose” for the early-model Sony Portapak in 1968 wears a similar outfit in 2016, but his body is noticeably cumbersome, heavier in its movements, tender; it is difficult to keep watching him give the same performance decades later, even as his image covers every surface. In an unlikely moment, the artist fills the room.

Mousse 64, Summer 2018


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