Bruce Nauman: Presence/Absence at White Cube

This year marks the 80th birthday of American artist Bruce Nauman. Following on from a recent Tate retrospective, is ‘Presence/Absence’ at White Cube, the first exhibition in Hong Kong for the pioneering video artist, featuring five video works: two single-channel works, from 1999 and 2001; and three dual-screen projections made in 2013. The artist is present in all but one of the featured videos. 

Many of Nauman’s earlier works are about time and endurance: his own as an artist as he pushed himself to physical limits; and the audience’s as they try to sit through videos of maniacal clowns (Clown Torture, 1987), and of the artist performing mundane tasks. In one of several early videos from 1968, we see him bouncing off the wall (Bouncing in the Corner I), making the viewer dizzy in the process.  In another, Walk with Contrapposto, (1968), he walks back and forth in a narrow corridor, exaggeratedly swinging his hips side to side. Similarly, in Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square, (1968), Nauman places one foot in front of the other, walking forwards and backwards around the edge of a square of masking tape affixed to his studio’s concrete floor. In another, Wall Floor Positions, he manipulates his body like a sculpture into a series of uncomfortable poses. 

The artist’s body, the studio space, and whatever else he has at hand, become the sites of sculptural and creative production. A lot of Nauman’s work takes viewers into the private sanctum of the artist’s studio. In the late 1960s the artist mused that if “I was an artist, and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art. At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product.”

Much of the work is repetitive, boring even—a documentation of the passing of time, and the struggle to overcome creative block and figure out what to create.  “I’m an artist, I want to be in the studio, I want to be doing something,” he has said. “And you just get desperate, and so you just do whatever’s at hand, and you don’t even worry about whether it’s going to be interesting or not interesting to anybody else or even yourself. You just have to make something.” 

Bruce Nauman, Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square, (1968)

But many of Nauman’s film also explore what people get up to when stuck inside alone for too long, such as during a pandemic lockdown, perhaps. Over the past year, many of us have been housebound and limiting social interactions, our daily activities reduced to repetitive chores and activities in a semblance of routine, and our life contained by four walls, passing time and being passed by it. 

Two parallax video works from 2013 are presented across two floors in the gallery space. Thumb Start and 4th Finger Start, and Bullet Illusion/Pencil Illusion, explore the illusion that can be created by viewing objects form two lines of sight. The works offer a sense of physical and perceptual disembodiment, as footage is doubled and superimposed, andhands and objects take on a phantom-like quality. As with a double exposure, the films create the impression that you are seeing double, like absent-mindedly staring at something for too long. It’s a destabilizing and disturbing feeling, yet there is a meditative quality to the repetitious movements of Nauman’s fingers as they respond to spoken instruction in Thumb Start and 4th Finger Start. They seem a solemn reminder of time ticking away, like a metronome, as he counts down on hands that appear, and move with, less vigour than in earlier films. In Bullet Illusion/Pencil Illusion, a diptych of two looped projections, Nauman’s hands feature once again, fingers pressed against a pair of bullets and a pair of pencils, point to point in mid-air against a white background. The objects are chosen for their formal qualities — both thin objects with a pointed or sharpened end— allowing them to be juxtaposed in an abstract manner.  Symbolically, they represent creation and death, or violence and pedagogy, but they are also objects that are readily available to a rancher (bullet) and an artist (pencil), revisiting Nauman’s musing on labour and creative production.

Bruce Nauman, Thumb Start and 4th Finger Start (still), 2013, © Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2021. Courtesy of the artist, Sperone Westwater, New York and White Cube.

Although most of Nauman’s video works are set in the artist’s studioby contrast Setting a Good Corner (Allegory and Metaphor), (1999) was filmed outdoors, on the ranch in New Mexico where he has been living since 1979.  The film centres on the artist building a fence; it is a job with purpose and a necessary chore on a ranch. The video, almost an hour, spans the duration of the task from beginning to end and the length of the video cassette. The film explores the notion of time and the value of work, whether carried out by an artist or a rancher. In a 1988 interview Nauman spoke of “…the particularly American idea about morality that has to do with the artist as a workman. Many artists used to feel alright about making a living with their art because they identified with the working class.”  Here Nauman is both artist and rancher, and manual labour is transformed into artwork.

Sound for Mapping the Studio Model (The Video) (2001), created from footage originally used for the artist’s celebrated Mapping the Studio (Fat Chance John Cage), (2001), is a continuation of the artist’s proposal from the ‘60s that anything an artist does in the studio is artistic production. Recording the studio space at night with infrared video camera located in seven different positions, the film captures the nocturnal activities that happen in the studio in the artist’s absence—scurrying mice, moths and a cat. 

Bruce Nauman, Sound for Mapping the Studio Model (The Video) (2001) 

Amid the long stretches of nothingness, the artist’s cat becomes the highlight of the hour-long film, creating a sense of anticipation and tension over what will happen next. Turns out the cat doesn’t do much, but if Covid lockdown has demonstrated anything it’s that people love cat videos. The mewing of the cat, banging of doors, and howling of coyotes competes for attention amid the ambient sounds of drilling from Setting a Good Corner. The exhibition space is a cacophony of sonic pollution, a testament to artist and composer John Cage’s conviction that the world is filled with unintentional symphonies, blurring the lines between noise and music—just as the studio is filled with the potential for unintentional art.

Nauman creates artwork that often makes the most out of nothing— or rather, anything— and explore the value of artistic labor and what art can be. But they are also an elegiac reflection on the passage of time, especially his more recent works, and arguably push the limits of our endurance for boredom. Nauman explores the moments in-between, filled with anxiety, frustration, tedium and procrastination. This is not only part of the creative act, but for Nauman it is the end product. Creativity after all isn’t just about the end result, but also about the moments leading up to it. And sometimes, life just ticks away.

Bruce Nauman, Bullet Illusion/Pencil Illusion (still), 2013, © Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2021. Courtesy of the artist, Sperone Westwater, New York and White Cube.

Published in Artomity, Summer Issue 21, 2021

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