An analysis of Bruce Nauman’s key artstic pieces

Bruce Nauman is an American artist who has produced a portfolio of different experimental artistic pieces utilizing a range of different mediums including photography, sculpture, metal work, video, and a number of different performance based works. Giving up painting early in his career, he embraced these alternative practices to create a versatile body of work materializing Nauman’s post-minimalist, almost absurdist and satirical ideology into playful exhibits like that of his early ‘Bound To Fail’ (1967) which depicts a person literally bound with rope.

boundrope bruce.png

Bound To Fail, 1967, Cast iron

It is important to keep in mind that much of Nauman’s work is created showing the folly of language and wordplay, and most notably in the following pieces, themes of oppression and claustrophobia, using the human body as an expressive and malleable artistic material, and the inaccuracy of communication particularly inherent between the creative role of the artist and the observer[1].

His screen based work remains as some of his most conceptually experimental and absurd pieces, in addition to pioneering the incorporation of video work in an exhibition[2].

Bruce’s most formative screen based work was produced early in his career and came to establish his inventive and experimental professional identity. His ‘corridor’ installations evolved conceptually from the late 60’s and into the early 70’s via various different iterations and can be referred to as his ‘Dream Passages’ work which he attributes to ‘the dream [he had] so many times… it must be a part of myself … important to objectify.’[3] His initial concept dubbed ‘Walk with Contrapposto’ (1969) depicted Nauman maintaining an iconic early Renaissance sculptural ‘contrapposto’ pose, reminiscent of Donatello’s ‘David’ (1430–1440), while walking through a tight 50cm wide corridor being observed by a CCTV camera[4] in his Southampton studio[5].

[1] J Villarreal, A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s, artdaily.org

[2] Ibid, J Villarreal

[3] R Morgan, Bruce Nauman, Baltimore 2002, p.41. PAJ Publications, 2011

[4] T Mann, Live-Taped Video Corridor, Guggenheim.org, 2016

[5] Electronic Arts Intermix, Walk With Contrapposto, eai.org

 

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Walk with Contrapposto, (1969), Video

 

Nauman’s performance in this piece is initially humorous, but his hands forced behind his head due to the constrictive space suggest the imitation of a prisoner and the camera acts subtly as a security device surveilling him[1]. This use of performance and artificially created space fuses two of the artist’s themes together and is recorded, framed, and presented in a (at the time) unique and inventive manner, juxtaposing a renowned and confident pose with the claustrophobic and constricting physical space of imprisonment while reappropriating the camera from being merely the medium capturing the performance, to a key participant within it. This hour long film would not be effective without the experimental synthesis of the absurd-looking performance, the deliberately oppressive corridor, and the participatory camera.

Nauman took the framework of his seminal film ‘Walk With Contrapposto’, the corridor and camera elements, and evolved the concept further in 1970 with ‘Live-Taped Video Corridor’. This installation notably includes two television sets stacked on one-another at the end of a similarly tight corridor and thrusts the observer into a participatory role. One of the television sets displays a live feed from a CCTV camera positioned at the entrance of the walkway and so in practice would appear as though you were walking away from the image of yourself on the television. The other TV presents a delayed feed, with the participant ‘uncannily, absent from the lower monitor’.[2]

[1] Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Walk with Contrapposto, lacma.org, 2004

[2] Ibid, T Mann

livetaped

Live-Taped Video Corridor, 1970, installation

 

This achieves a sense of spatial uncertainty for the viewer; simultaneously watching themselves walk away and appear as if they’re not there at all on the second screen. Nauman’s grievance with a previous experiment with the concept had been alleviated; while creating an unsettling environment, he was now also in ‘control of the situation’[1] while the work fully interactive and automatic. This specific iteration of his ‘Dream Passages’ further experiments with contemporary technology to create an effect and experience that wouldn’t be possible without the ability to delay a live video feed and reproduce on the TV afterwards. It retains the material imposition of claustrophobic walls to direct attention, with the cameras returning to make the audience a participant. Starting as someone monitoring, then transitioning into monitoring their own activities[2]. With the introduction of live video, the once passively observant audience has themselves become one of Nauman’s malleable artistic tools, a common theme in his work. Without the characteristics inherent to this technology, the audience would still be effectively viewing a recording of Nauman in another hallway. This innovation fundamentally changes the message of surveillance and the experience deduced by the observer. Writer Peter Plagens states ‘[Live-taped Video Corridor] is less a work of visual art… than subtle challenges issued by Nauman to the viewer[3]’ encapsulating the unnerving interactive nature of this iteration of ‘Dream Passages’.

[1] ME Angelus, Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words; Writings and Interviews, MIT press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 397 – 404

[2] Medienkunstnetz, Live-Taped Video Corridor, medienkunstnetz.de

[3] Phaidon, How Bruce Nauman turned corridors into artworks, phaidon.com, 2014

Jumping from his earliest experimental screen work to his latest, both ‘Mapping the Studio I’ (2001) and ‘Mapping the Studio II’ (2001) present a less surreal and haunting experience than some of his other screen works like ‘Clown Torture’ (1987). These two installations are reminiscent of his early work in the 60’s such as ‘Art Make-Up’ (1967), in that they are initially more mundane and sedate. The installations feature up to 7 different projectors chronicling notable ‘action’ taking place in his studio over-night during summertime in 2000, including his cat struggling to keep the field mice infestation under control.

 

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Mapping the Studio I, 2001, Multi-screen video projection

 

Nauman explains that he was inspired by the day-to-day journal entries of early American explorers, noting that ‘something interesting happened almost every day’[1]. Despite this, Nauman uses the Mapping installations to subtly critique the supposed genius of artists and their perception as privileged keepers of knowledge, when in reality their message is often misconstrued as something it isn’t. This explanation again fits in to the theme of disconnection between artist and audience. To further elicit this divide, he deliberately edited the videos so there was always something happening on one of the screens, even if it would take an attentive eye to spot a moth buzzing around while others would see nothing and become disinterested much quicker[2]. To be able to capture any of this footage, Nauman needed to use infrared cameras carefully positioned and synchronized to record everything which would have been impossible when he first started his experimental video art. This technology allows him to see things he never would have been able to with a regular camera and highlights “smaller and smaller incidents[3]” as you continue watching. Additionally, the constraints of the DVD medium which the works are stored on prohibited any more than 5 hours and 45 minutes of video, so Nauman had to edit them down accordingly.[4]

[1] Tate, Inside Installations: Mapping the Studio II, tate.org.uk, 2001

[2] The Art Story, Important Art by Bruce Nauman, theartstory.org

[3] ME Angelus,  p. 397 – 404.

[4] http://www2.tate.org.uk/nauman/process_1.htm

The reality of infrared recording meant that the footage was devoid of colour too, so a colour shift filter was applied that cycled through red, green and blue gradually presumably to further maintain viewer interest.

mapap

Mapping the Studio II with colour shifting, 2001, Multi-screen video projection

Bruce Nauman is a versatile artist who operates at the fringes of contemporary art, whenever ‘contemporary’ happens to be. His screen based art is characterised by an embracement of new, irregular technologies and mediums which he utilises to express his most intriguing concepts. With his video and screen based work, he aims to disorient the audience and drag them into the art mentally or even physically as a necessary artistic component in the case of ‘Live-Taped Video Corridor’ which continues the innovative and oppressive use of CCTV and temporary walls he experimented with when creating ‘Walk with Contrapposto’.

His other preoccupation is with the dialogue (or lack thereof) between the creator and the spectator as explored with his two ‘Mapping’ installations. These most recent video works require an investment of attention from the audience which is rewarded with the revelation of movement and an opportunity to witness a creative environment that’s meant to be devoid of anything the judicious creator says is noteworthy. This piece also demonstrates the effect of using experimental technology and techniques particularly well, as they’re largely a product of their medium’s restrictions.   

Ultimately, Nauman’s screen works are often a result of him synthesising his unique themes together with his unabashedly experimental approach to producing interactive art that’s defined by its own limitations and parameters.


Reference list

Header image: wikiart.org

 

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