BY Kristin M. Jones in Reviews | 04 APR 02
Featured in
Issue 66

Bruce Nauman

Dia Center for the Arts, New York, USA

BY Kristin M. Jones in Reviews | 04 APR 02

With its concrete detail, deadpan poetry and philosophical resonance Bruce Nauman's Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage) (2001) gets into your blood like a solitary night in the desert. The piece consists of seven large-scale DVD projections of footage shot at night in the artist's studio in Galisteo, New Mexico. The piece is accompanied by multiple audio tracks. Seven wheeled chairs that can be pulled up in front of individual projections heighten the installation's immediacy. Nauman recorded the tapes, which are five hours and 45 minutes long, in segments of about an hour over the summer of 2000, when his studio was temporarily infested with mice.

The results are mesmerizing. The infra-red photography is a murky grey-green, but its painterly surface pulses and shimmers. In stationary, low-angle shots moths skid through the air, tracing ethereal trajectories; a lizard hangs on the screen door; a black cat without a tail wanders through, peers out into the night-time landscape, and then attempts to stalk the mice. At certain thrilling moments glowing feline or rodent eyes pierce the pea-soup gloom like car headlights. Nauman himself makes brief, somewhat smeary appearances.

The studio looks usefully cluttered: you can make out objects such as a packing crate, moulds, cast heads, a ladder, a sink, a cat litter tray and a bucket of plaster. Some of these move abruptly or disappear, as one section of tape yields to another. The objects' ghostly presence - their suspended animation, as it were - uncannily intersects with the insects' and animals' more or less purposeful movements. All of this is rendered even more vivid by the compelling audio track, which includes, among other things, a howling coyote, barking dogs, buzzing flies, a grunting water heater, a sudden downpour and the melancholy whistle of a train passing in the distance. Much as when Cage's 'silent' piano piece 4´33´´ (1952) was first performed in Woodstock, New York, and the silence was filled with wind, rain and other natural 'music', Nauman's cameras and microphones became receptacles for a wealth of unexpected incident.

The variety of sound and activity is driven home in an array of laconic typewritten notes posted outside the room containing the projections. These carefully log the aural and visual contents of each tape: some entries are as minimal as 'mouse' or 'moth' while others are slightly more elaborate, as in 'mouse left goes up to sculpture', 'coyote howl plus dog bark' or 'moth with good sound'. How significant is Nauman's inclusion of these jottings? For one thing, it suggests that the material was organized and edited, subtly crafted into a seemingly shapeless but potent whole; for another, it reaffirms his need to worry away at material reality through language. Alain Robbe-Grillet's cinematic novel Dans le labyrinthe (In the Labyrinth, 1959) has been invoked in reference to Nauman's work, and here it seems especially relevant, as events are documented in such rigorous detail that it suggests they unfold with hidden deliberation. (And what is the studio, if not a maze in which the artist endlessly scrambles, like a rat travelling down blind alleys and doubling back?) The installation's truculent, punning subtitle is also revealing, in that it indicates an ambivalent stance toward Cage's valorization of chance - randomness in the tapes seems both overwhelmingly important and eminently dispensable.

Of course, Nauman has made his studio the site of repetitious actions in earlier video and film pieces, such as Playing a Note on the Violin While I Walk around the Studio or Bouncing Two Balls between the Floor and Ceiling with Changing Rhythms (both 1967-8). Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage) - with its suggestive deployment of animal life, emphasis on surveillance, keen sensitivity to negative space and loose incorporation of tools and fragments of artworks - feels like a summation of the artist's work to date, but also an inspired means of reinvigorating his practice through a renewed openness and a more generous acknowledgement of the absurdity of the artist's existence. Nauman has remarked that documenting the studio's nocturnal traffic was 'a way of mapping the leftover parts and work areas of the past several years of other completed, unfinished, or discarded projects'. Of the installation's myriad and mysterious effects one of the strangest is that it makes the viewer - who is dwarfed by the projected images - feel like a stand-in for the artist and for the other creatures that make use of the space. This underlines the fertile uncertainty of Nauman's investigative brand of art-making; it also highlights the palpable sense of exhilaration and unease in which cat, mice, objects and artist all seem to share.

Kristin M. Jones writes about art and film for publications including Film Comment and the Wall Street Journal. She is based in New York, USA.