Bruce for beginners

Time's running out to see the major retrospective of Bruce Nauman's work at Tate Modern. And it's a crying shame that lockdown in England has prevented us from seeing the show.

Bruce Nauman Run From Fear 1972

Neon tubing with clear glass tubing suspension frames

© Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2020, courtesy MCA Chicago, photo: Nathan Keay

Bruce Nauman is one of those contemporary artists whose work lots of gallery-goers find puzzling. It's not beautiful to look at and it doesn't have an obvious meaning. And for folks who just want to understand art super quick and walk on, his work can be frustrating. Take this video piece, for example, Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square, from 1967-8 in which he walks slowly around a square for ten minutes. What on earth is it about?

A still from Bruce Nauman's Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square (1967-68). Courtesy of EAI, NY; © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020

But the key to getting anything from it is to remember that conceptual art is all about ideas, and that you the viewer bring your own set of experiences into any interpretation. There's no fixed meaning, and you don't have to be clever or knowledgeable about art or art history to have a valid response. Even if that response is to say 'what's the point of that'? The point is, it might make you think a bit more on it. And then ideas can't help but start coming to your mind. With some artists, the more time you put into looking at, or listening to, or reading their art, the more you get back.

That said, it's useful to have a bit of context about the ideas that an artist is interested in communicating. Nauman was born in 1941 in the USA. He came out of art school in the mid-1960s just as the Conceptual Art movement was getting going. Like a lot of his contemporaries, Nauman wasn't interested in communicating ideas in traditional ways, like paint on canvas. And he didn't want a fixed idea of the outcome before he started making art. This is known as Process Art - where the process of making the art is a big part of the outcome or contributes to the meaning in the piece. Like this video Bouncing in the Corner No. 1 where Bruce films himself for an hour bouncing his body off the wall in his studio.

Still from Nauman, Bouncing in the Corner No. 1 (1968)

What's the point of that you may ask? But watch it, and there's something strangely mesmerising about it. A headless body shown on its side, pounding back and forward in the corner of a room. Then there's the rhythmical sound of the body hitting the wall. And didn't it start to hurt after a while? There's no specific meaning except what you, the viewer, make of it. Nauman had no preconceived notions of its outcome, but he is very interested in the role of the artist and what an artist could make with nothing else except their body.

Later in his career Nauman said: ‘I was picking things that were hard to do, so that would be part of the tension of watching. I think I had the idea that you should put yourself in an awkward position and see what you can do with it. These kinds of pieces had to do with what happens if you take the artist’s tools away. Is he still an artist? What does he have to do to be an artist?’

Nauman's had a long career, and his work has moved on from these early videos to other things. In his practice he has used lots of different media - neon, photography, video, sound, performance, drawing and printmaking. You couldn't point at his work and recognise a 'style' instantly, like you could with Picasso. But there are themes that he has been fascinated by throughout his life, which hold his body of work together. Words, for example, whether written or spoken. He has often cited as inspiration the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who explored ideas of language games. A lot of Nauman's neon signs are puns, or palindromes, or anagrams.

These are perhaps his easiest works to get your head round. Sometimes they are playful, other times a bit threatening or disturbing. Like this piece, One Hundred Live and Die, from 1984:

Bruce Nauman, One Hundred Live and Die 1984, Collection Benesse Holdings, Inc./ Benesse House Museum, Naoshima

A photograph of this piece just doesn't do it justice. The impact is so much more powerful when you're standing in front of it, with the phrases flashing randomly, the colour from the neon enveloping your eyes, and the menacing hum in the background of the current running through the light. Sometimes the sensory impact of an artwork makes you feel something in that moment you can't really put your finger on. But you know it. And it's the truth. That's when art is at its most powerful. And then it's gone.

There are a load more pieces we could mention here which are simply mind-blowing but in the interests of keeping it short and sweet have a look at Tate Modern's website, which has videos and stuff to read related to the Nauman exhibition. And if you're interested in knowing what Nauman thinks, here's a fascinating interview with the man himself.

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