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Visual Arts

Bruce Nauman and The Art of Thinking

Human/Need/Desire (1983) (partial)

In Bruce Nauman's art no complacency is allowed to reside. The complacent can only flee.

Bruce Nauman: Make Me Think

Director: Heinz Peter Schwerfel
Distributor: Facets
MPAA rating: Unrated
US DVD Release Date: 2008-07-22
First date: 1997

The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths (1967). This early work by Bruce Nauman consists of the titular sentence written in cursive in light blue neon lights twisted into a spiral so that the beginning of the sentence is in the middle of the spiral. A bright red neon line reinforces the spiral; it begins beneath the sentence but because of the spiral form of the piece, the line ends above the sentence. Thus, a single line appears both above and below the statement.

The sentence itself is simultaneously trite and programmatic. It sets out an ethical goal for art that has its roots in the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus but that has since come under critical fire for justifying a cult of artistic genius. Whether intended or not, the positioning of the spiral causes it to resemble the number 6; the number 6 is the first perfect number—that is, its factors other than the number itself sum to the number (thus, 1+2+3=6). This number has long been associated with perfection itself, wholeness, and aesthetic pleasure.

The sentence is simultaneously assertive and ironic, true and false, hopeful and tendentious. The garish neon light and the immediately recognizable design recall advertisements and “open” signs in the windows of grocers and liquor stores. Indeed, shortly after its completion, Nauman hung this work in the window of his studio (converted from a grocery store). Like so many advertisements, this one draws the viewer in—its spiral shape compels us to twist our necks and turn our heads to follow the script even though such an exercise is wholly unnecessary since the message is so short. The piece pulls us forward, into its simple design and perhaps its seemingly overly simplistic message like other familiar spirals—a whirlpool or a black hole. These vortices demand our unwitting complicity, thereby demanding our consent. And yet we may choose to resist the message itself inasmuch as it reeks of cheap mysticism and ridiculous presumption.

The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths is not an aesthetically pleasing work nor is it aesthetically displeasing. It is not beautiful but neither is it ugly. The materials, of course, contribute to its effect but they are hardly intrinsic to that effect in the way that paint is intrinsic to a painting. It is, of course, not a painting but it is not really a sculpture, either. It is a piece that uses words (perhaps abuses words) but it is not literary. It is merely there—on the wall or in a window, on your computer screen or in your mind’s eye. We may choose to interact with it or we may choose to pass it by.

Nauman might have considered Plotinus and the perfection of 6 and the compelling nature of whirlpools and black holes but most likely he did not. I contributed that. And yet those things are nonetheless in the work. They are in the work as I view it and as I continue to think about it and as I write about it at this moment. In another moment, with another consideration they may just as likely disappear. But the work will remain as an opportunity for further consideration or different consideration or no consideration at all. There is always the choice. The work is always ready to become.

To an extent, this may be said of almost any artwork. The viewer brings something to the artwork that the object does not contain a priori but that nevertheless is an important aspect of that understanding of the piece. And since most artwork demands to be taken as a kind of communication, all recipients alter in various ways the messages they receive. But few artists in history have made such a blatant point about the incomplete nature of art, the undecideability of art, the instability of art as have those artists we typically refer to as “conceptual” artists. These artists work, in a much more open manner, directly with ideas.

This is an important point that often gets dismissed as pretension. However, in a manner of seeing, it is actually a rather humble thing to be a conceptual artist. The painter works to attain a certain mastery of technique. Even Jackson Pollack, whom so many casual museum-goers dismiss as lacking all technique, worked to achieve the effects he produced; he worked to master his delivery of the paint. Such artists remain—to a large extent, and this is not to dismiss them—craftsmen. What is truly wonderful about their work is that they produce a multiplicity of ideas through their mastery of material. When Mondrian spent years working on getting just the right thickness in his application of black paint to those famous grids, he gave rise to numerous thoughts concerning spirituality, order, relationships, opposition, and time. All of those thoughts arise out of his manipulation of the materials at hand.

A conceptual artist can afford no presumption of mastery. For a conceptual artist the importance of the materials recedes to a large extent before the prevalence of the idea or set of ideas behind the work. Indeed the entire spatial metaphor of “behind” here is totally misplaced. To say that the ideas reside “behind” the piece is to assert that what stands out front is the material object. For the conceptual artist (in the ideal sense), this is not the case. Rather the idea stands in front of and indeed can substitute for the materiality of the piece. The material is merely a vehicle, a sloppy remainder of the idea. This is not to say that the experience of a conceptual piece of art is incidental; it is only to say that this experience is ultimately subsumed beneath the contemplation of a set of ideas.

Of course, I am speaking of what Weber would have called “ideal types”. All artists work with materials of some kind and all artists give rise to some conceptual content resulting from their work with materials. However, on the spectrum that runs from a hypothesized “pure materiality” to a “pure conceptuality”, Nauman can certainly be found on the fairly extreme end of the conceptual.

Indeed, as the 1997 film Bruce Nauman: Make Me Think, recently released on DVD by Facets Video, amply demonstrates, Nauman does not so much create art as he participates in processes in which the “art moment” can happen but that moment is only achieved through the participation (both willing and unwilling to differing degrees) of the viewer/listener. As the narrator repeatedly intones during the film: “To blown-up drama he prefers everyday life. And life has only one subject: you”. You are necessary to Nauman’s art in a way that you are not to the art of Picasso, Mondrian, or Fra Angelico.

This is not to point out the trivial. Of course, art only “happens” in whatever way it happens when you are there for it. But in another sense, a Mondrian painting is profoundly indifferent to your presence. Indeed that is what is so powerful about Mondrian (and why I pick him as a rather extreme example). A Mondrian painting has very little need for you. You need it. It hangs there with a kind of eternity that even physical demise cannot erase. There is something so permanent about a Mondrian.

Initially, one might say that this sense of “going on without you” is even more pronounced in Nauman in that one of the things that he enjoys about his own work is that it continues on in your absence. He said this about Clown Torture (1987) in which four video monitors and two film projections depict clowns in various situations. One clown sits in discomfiture on a public toilet. Another tells an endlessly repeating joke (“Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence. Pete fell off. Who was left? Repeat! Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence … ); another clown has a bucket of water fall on his head as he enters a doorway; another cannot balance the objects he carries; a final clown cries out in terror as the camera approaches.

All of the speakers connected to the images are blaring. The space is designed to be as annoying and combative as possible. What do you make of such images? Why do you put up with torture? Is it really the clowns that are being tortured or is it you? Is art always in some way the acquiescence to torture? Does such a question even make sense?

From Clown Torture

Nauman, in an interview, once claimed that what he enjoyed about repetitive structures such as Clown Torture was that they “can just repeat and repeat and repeat, and you don't have to sit and watch the whole thing. You can watch for a while, leave and go have lunch or come back in a week, and it's just going on. And I really liked that idea of the thing just being there. The idea being there so that it became almost like an object that was there, that you could go back and visit whenever you wanted to” (see PBS Art 21's piece on Nauman).

Now this would seem to suggest that pieces like Clown Torture exist just as autonomously as any Mondrian, perhaps more so. However, the repetition that Nauman here articulates is not identical to the permanence of the Mondrian. The experience of sitting and having lunch as this thing goes on is the experience of realizing and thus knowing that this thing is going on, that these clowns continue to torture and be tortured by an unseen force and that you yourself (even in your remembering of the piece) are forced to occupy the space of that unseen force. You are the tortured and you are the torturer.

It should not be surprising that a review of Bruce Nauman: Make Me Think should spend so much time thinking through Nauman’s work and so little time reviewing the film. This can be explained quite easily. You see, the film is hardly a film at all. It is certainly not a documentary in any accepted sense. It does not give the viewer a sense of the artist’s life. Indeed, it insists from the beginning that such an enterprise would be impossible and implies that it would be fruitless even if it were possible. It does not provide extended commentary on the development of Nauman’s style or on interpretations of his work (although it briefly, almost in passing, addresses these issues). Rather, the film is less a documentary and more a documentation of 60 works created by Nauman.

But it is precisely at this point that an important question arises. If Nauman’s work is so dependent upon the actual circumstance of its presentation that it is inconceivable that one could truly experience that work outside of that circumstance, then how could it be possible that a filmed (and obviously clipped) version of 60 pieces could resonate with a viewer in any meaningful way? This is, of course, not only a legitimate question, it is in many ways the question.

The answer, however, may very well be what you were expecting. Then again it may not. It may be that the answer is, like all things associated with Nauman, ultimately undecideable. And yet I would venture to propose that this film works insofar as it is not a film at all. It works insofar as it is a reconfiguration of Nauman’s works. It is, ultimately, a Nauman work in its own right even though it is a film directed by Schwerfel.

The film does not and obviously cannot offer the viewer the same kind of experience that the viewer would have if she were confronted with the installations or the sculptures as Nauman had left them. A camera directs one’s attention; a director chooses time limits and points of view. One is simply not free to wander about a structure and to come to one’s own decisions regarding the piece at hand. Indeed, when watching a film, there is no piece at hand, as such. And yet this film (but certainly not all films featuring an artist) allows one or, better yet, provides one a new experience with works that may or may not be familiar, that may or may not be something about which one has read, that may or may not be something one had once imagined.

The film exemplifies its own newness, its own recombination of other works and other times, by superimposing a group of four looped narrations from its various talking heads onto several video monitors. We hear their commentary simultaneously. It may or it may not recall things that were said by these talking heads earlier in the film. The phrases may or may not coincide. They may or may not fit together in whatever sense you take the phrase “fit together” to mean. They become simultaneously a commentary upon the group of pieces by Nauman and a piece by Nauman even though they were not created or set in motion by Nauman.

Nauman (and here Nauman includes you as the viewer without which there can be no Nauman) absorbs their commentary. The talking heads are quite literally only heads on a set of video screens and yet they become co-opted into the overarching sway, if you will, of Nauman’s vision, into the not-so-gentle riptide of an idea that evades simple paraphrase—as all ideas that require art ought to do—so that they are not resolved and do not merely remain ideas but rather they insinuate themselves or perhaps they intimate themselves into your own pulse, your own throbbing sensations of life and of understanding.

Perhaps the only way that Nauman’s art can be said to make sense is if you make sense of it. Perhaps that is why Nauman’s art can be said to be so challenging—because it does challenge and, more to the point, it demands that you attend to it, that you work to make sense of it because without you it makes no sense at all and therefore you cannot help but be complicit with the outcome no matter how horrific that outcome may turn out to be.

Perhaps the narration is not so trite, after all. Nauman truly is interested in you because without you he would have no accomplice. He needs you in order to continue to perpetrate the very crime of which he is accused. You need him in order to continue (or perhaps to start for the first time) to ponder the purpose behind art (again that damned spatial metaphor—how do we say what we need to say without speaking, which always involves the pitfalls of language?!?!?). Here no complacency is allowed to reside. The complacent can only flee. Here there is love and abhorrence. Here there is laudation and dismissal. Here there is admiration and denigration. Here there is everything in between. Here there is everything except the weak at heart.

Bruce Nauman photo from, Art in the Twenty-First Century, production still, Season 4. Episode: "Identity" © Art21, Inc. 2001

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