“If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art,” Bruce Nauman has said of the period just after he graduated from art school in 1966. This simple revelation converted the studio in question, a former grocery shop in San Francisco, into a space Nauman inhabited with his literal body of work by shooting short videos of himself in motion. Whether purposeful pacing or slow swaying, the series of simple movements reduced art down to our most basic corporeal and temporal reality, a logical response to the deconstruction of sculptural convention that had been taking place in 1960s New York. There, the increasingly minimal and dematerialised object had replaced the expressively pictorial canvas of the 1950s.
Nauman’s use of the body as artistic tool is nowhere more clear than in his Studies for Holograms (a-e) (1970), a series of screenprints in which Nauman pulls at his skin or grimaces. For some the childish contortions might be funny, for others they are grotesque. Either way, Nauman’s ability to provoke the viewer simply by manipulating his face blurs the boundaries between the artist’s body, his process and the completed artwork until they are one and the same. For Nauman it was “at this point [that] art became more of an activity and less of a product”.
A sense of this expansive and experimental activity is central to the Nauman show at Tate Modern’s Switch House, part of the nationwide ARTIST ROOMS series. Curator Ann Coxon points out that Nauman worked ‘in all sorts of different media from neon light to video to sculpture and works on paper’ and this variety is communicated by the works, which span his career from 1967 to the present day. Each a unique example of Nauman’s ‘very characteristic style of being provocative’, thematically, the works are strikingly cohesive. They invite the viewer to examine the human condition in ways which oscillate between the often absurd to the ultimately unnerving. Above all, we are required to wrestle with our assumptions.
With their glaring neon tubing and crude assemblage, many of Nauman’s works might be mistaken for any other shop sign or the glow of a downtown dive bar. Nauman plays with this muddled line between the artistic and the everyday by employing the unexpected to disrupt the ways in which we passively process our surroundings. In Run from Fear, Fun From Rear (1972), Nauman’s raunchy wordplay trips us up off guard.
Not always in jest, Raw Material Washing Hands, Normal (A of A/B) and Raw Material Washing Hands, Normal (B of A/B) (1996) consist of two TVs each running a 55min continuous shot of Nauman repeatedly washing his hands. A once mundane activity is very soon an obsessive compulsion that leaves the viewer feeling anything from discomfort to distress. As the routine becomes relentless, the title’s description of his hands as a ‘raw material’ is nothing short of visceral.
Once an agile exploration of new media that now feels almost antique, Nauman’s works have aged surprisingly well. Nauman was a radical pioneer in using video for fine art, so accurately recording the original state of the works has been a priority for Coxon. In terms of presence, the physical enhances the psychological, with neon light seeping onto the walls and stacks of monitors rising above us. For Coxon, this is ‘not the sort of work that you can just ignore or drift around’. Running through each is the prevailing power to divert and disconcert.
Words by Jo Lawson-Tancred
ARTIST ROOMS: Bruce Nauman is open until July 2018 at Tate Modern, London.