BY Janet Kraynak in Reviews | 10 SEP 97
Featured in
Issue 36

Bruce Nauman

BY Janet Kraynak in Reviews | 10 SEP 97

It is a curious decision to include a disclaimer in an exhibition catalogue, but the curators of 'Bruce Nauman: Image/Text 1966-1996' are perhaps aware that the logic behind mounting yet another major Nauman exhibition on the heels of the Walker Art Center's travelling retrospective will inevitably be questioned. They thus tell us quite explicitly that theirs is a focused exercise, not a sweeping overview.

Indeed the weaknesses of the Walker retrospective and its lack of theoretical acuity left plenty of room for further investigation. As a monographic survey, the earlier show aimed more to raise Nauman to canonical status than to produce an historical study investigating the significance of his hybrid practice. The most glaring shortcoming was its lack of any serious analysis of the artist as a performer. Nauman's conception of performance as strategy is visible not only in works in which he is explicitly deployed as a performing body, but is evidenced in the construction of sculptural objects-as-props, as functioning devices. Performance also guided the development of the question preoccupying Nauman as he paced his studio, drinking coffee: what is the function of the artist?

In assembling an extensive body of film/video performance works, installations and sound pieces, the exhibition at Wolfsburg thus raised expectations of filling this critical void. The curator's stated intent was a specific thematic project comprised of two aspects: 'A detailed investigation of Nauman's interest in language', and secondly 'the evolution of the awareness of the spectator's involvement on multiple levels'. Housed in an impressive architectural interior, the exhibition is visually seductive and demonstrates a particular generosity towards the viewer. Entire rooms are designated for large-scale, multi-part installations (Art Make-Up, 1967-68, for example), while smaller rooms have been constructed for sound pieces (Get Out of My Mind Get Out of This Room, 1968), and the projection of films and videos has been staggered to limit visual distraction.

Despite these strengths, the exhibition cannot escape one inherent weakness: an unwitting ontologising of video. Thus it wrongly gives the impression Nauman's interest in the temporalisation of filmic processes is simply another critique of the object of Art. Nauman never made 'video art' as a genre: his contribution was in part to operate outside the spatialised boundaries of object and image production altogether, being concerned rather with the mode of presentation. Whereas the diagram of the choreographed movements Nauman followed in Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) (1968) could have aided visually and conceptually the viewing of the performance film itself, it is rather trapped here in the prison of 'drawing', finding its place obediently on the wall devoted exclusively to drawings and studies.

The constant, decontextualised framing of works that are theoretically unrelated produced another central problem: a fateful demise into the utterly ahistorical. There is a persistent refusal to distinguish issues surrounding, for example, Lip Sync (1968) from those of Poke in the Eye/Nose/Ear (1994). Sapped of any appropriate contextualisation, they become uncomfortable neighbours. Thus, despite the curator's stated ambition, this blindness towards historicity undermined any effective interrogation of spectatorship. One of the artist's most trenchant critiques of Minimalism's embrace of the phenomenological was to call attention to the naiveté of its claims for a primordialism of perception, which visually translated into an unrestrained freedom of physical movement granted to the subject. In seeking to narrowly circumscribe the viewer's level of participation, Nauman displaced the self-containment of private experience. Yet with Violent Incident (1986) housed in the centre of the exhibition hall, and the inescapable din of Raw Material (1990-91) audible from every room, the all too frequent misreading of a thematised aggression at the expense of a beleaguered viewer was reinforced.

Despite the differences in approaches - one thematic and the other comprehensive - both the Wolfsburg and the Walker exhibitions are marked by a similar deficit: the inability to locate a core within formally diverse works. Without such treatment, there is a failure to identify the work's coherence, which is not to homogenise it, nor posit it as transcendental. But if the reams of flimsily conceived criticism that fills Nauman's bibliography, and art history's compromised reception of his work reveal anything, it is that there has yet to be created the critical vocabulary that possesses the capacity to reveal the theoretical issues Nauman sets in motion, let alone address their substance.