|Caught In a Trap
The Guardian, 24 May 2006.
24 May 2006
"Full of sneaky tricks and cruel laughs, Bruce Nauman's new show at Tate Liverpool is absorbing - and unnerving"
I am stuck, definitely stuck, in the narrow space between the steel fence of a cage, and the fence of a second cage that occupies most of the space within the first. I can't turn my head. The only way to move is a sideways shuffle. One of the gallery attendants held the door of Bruce Nauman's "Double Steel Cage Piece" open for me, as if to say: after you, I insist.
This could be a trap, as Nauman's works often are. Maybe the people at Tate Liverpool want me wedged in here. Then they will turn off the lights and run away. Perhaps it is some sort of metaphor, in which Nauman's work abounds, even though it often appears blunt, caustic and fundamentally brutal. It isn't always necessary to treat his art literally. It would be absurd, even perverse, to follow the instructions of his 1990 piece "Shit in Your Hat - Head on a Chair", although the female mime artist who appears on a video screen, behind a wax human head sitting on a suspended chair, tries her best to go through the motions. "Shit in your hat. Show me your hat. Put your hat on your head," Nauman says, with chilling authority.
"Make Me Think Me," at Tate Liverpool, is Nauman's first British show since "Raw Materials", the installation he made for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2004. "Raw Materials" was a reworking of almost all the sound elements he had used in his work until that time and, inevitably, the current exhibition includes some of those works, as well as revisiting some of the early, 1960s video performances with which Nauman made his name. The first half of the show, concentrating on his use of language, is a cacophony of competing soundtracks, neon and charcoal, printed and bronze-cast words. The second half focuses on "materials and mental activity" - corridors and cages, performance videos and sculptures from the 1960s to the present.
As an artist, Nauman reuses everything, throws nothing away, circles his obsessions endlessly. Recycling everything, he's trapped, too. All artists are limited in one way or another: there are material constraints, long stretches when ideas won't come, dread feelings that one is all used up. These provide the subject of Nauman's work, and have done since the mid-1960s.
He is one of those artists whose work does not pall by overfamiliarity. What he presents us with, as much as objects or words, is a situation. In fact, repetition makes his work all the more agonised, stripped-down and confrontational. The studio itself is a place of confinement and confrontation, where, for long stretches of time, nothing happens. The creative emptiness the artist encounters there has always been the pivotal goad to Nauman's imagination. Early on, pacing turned into dancing. Walking in circles became a ritualised, choreographed performance. Spilled coffee and making faces in the mirror became photographs. The simplest gesture, the smallest idea, can provide a way out, or a way into something new. This has always been Nauman's example.
Many of the earlier works here are known better by repute than for being often seen. Nauman doing his own sideways walk to a metronome beat, falling behind as tiredness overtakes him. Nauman playing one continuous note on the violin, as he wanders in and out of shot in his studio. Nauman, in "Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk)", made in 1968, attempting to maintain a precarious equilibrium as he propels himself, as his preparatory notes detail, "by raising the leg, without bending the knee, until it is at a right angle to the body, then swinging 90 degrees ... the body then falls forward on to the raised foot and the other leg is lifted again to make a straight line with the body ..." Inescapably, we think as much of John Cleese's silly walks as of Beckett's shambling protagonists, to which Nauman alludes. But while Cleese is a figure of fun, and the plight of Beckett's characters is itself an occasion for a certain hilarity, humour in Nauman's work is almost always so double-edged as to appear cruel or dehumanising.
Nauman is now everywhere. Since "Raw Materials" at Tate Modern, "Shit in Your Hat" was included in the keynote show at the last Venice Biennale. He was included in this year's Berlin Biennale and the long video work "Mapping the Studio (Fat Chance John Cage)", which tracks the activities of the cats and mice in Nauman's studio at night, was displayed recently in London, and is currently on show in the Pompidou Centre in Paris. He appears as a central figure in contemporary art, yet is almost always apart, living on his New Mexico ranch, where he works and breeds horses.
"In Setting a Good Corner (Allegory and Metaphor)", we find Nauman planting fenceposts in the dirt under the endlessly blue New Mexico sky. The posts are made of railway sleepers. He's got a little tractor with a motorised auger to drill the holes in the dry ground, and a bunch of other tools to excavate the holes and set up the posts. The whole thing is recorded in a single hour-long take on a fixed camera. Nauman sets the ties in the ground, checks his work with a spirit level, chainsaws cross-pieces that he uses to wedge the ties solid, vertical and correctly aligned. Part way through the task, Nauman's wife, the painter Susan Rothenberg, and dogs stop by. That's it. This could almost be an instruction video.
It's good to watch someone working, absorbed in their task and getting the job done. I watched this some years ago in New York, and take the same obscure pleasure in watching it again now. "Setting a Good Corner" is about many things. A brief text commentary by Nauman, and some observations by his ranch manager, top and tail the video. "A good fence can't be built or maintained without a good corner," Nauman observes. He used smooth wire rather than barbed wire so as not to rip his shirt and cause offence by cursing on camera. The professional rancher reckons Nauman's chainsaw belt could do with being sharpened.
All this could be boring, but isn't. It is about workmanship, purposeful labour, economy of means and effort, respect for tools and materials, a sense of rightness and completion. As the title suggests, it is an allegory and a metaphor and appears entirely of a piece with the artist's studio work. Perhaps Nauman is revisiting the hoary old gap between art and life. Maybe he's just building a fence. Someone built "Double Steel Cage Piece", too, and took a similar care. Farm fences, cages, fences surrounding a compound in the desert - what's the difference? If they are any good, artworks take on a life of their own, and come to mean different things at different times. They lose their innocence.
Suspended over a shallow tank, roughly made from plastic sheeting, three joined casts of heads gush and spurt arcs of water from holes skewered into their faces. One can take the whole thing as a kind of meaningless talk, as an obscure oracular font, a sculpted exercise in cartoon violence, an ornament for a torture garden. The idea originated with the breathing tube Nauman's models have to use when their heads are being cast. The whole thing has been made in the most basic way possible. There seems to be no illusion, no tricks, no hidden meaning. One wants to laugh, but it might be a trap.
- Adrian Searle