BY Noemi Smolik in Interviews | 04 AUG 11
Featured in
Issue 2

An American in Dusseldorf

Bruce Nauman spoke with Noemi Smolik about his first projects with European gallerists, curators and artists and about how to turn a neon sign into a black square

BY Noemi Smolik in Interviews | 04 AUG 11

Bruce Nauman, Beschriebene Kombinationen, 2011, installation view

Noemi Smolik Your most recent show at Konrad Fischer Galerie took place in July in Berlin; your first show at his first gallery in Dusseldorf took place in 1968. Since you were living in California in the late 1960s, how did you manage to meet Fischer?

Bruce Nauman Kasper König visited my studio in San Francisco at least a year before I came to Dusseldorf for my opening at Konrads gallery. Kasper told Konrad, and Konrad wrote to me. We didnt phone in those days, it was too expensive. So we wrote letters back and forth, and then we made a date. At that time he couldnt afford to ship anything, so every artist came and made the work in Dusseldorf. I had to get the cheapest airline tickets which is why I had to stay for three or four weeks. So I stayed in a little attic apartment Konrad had, he gave me a little pile of paper, and I probably made some drawings. I also brought some audio tapes and a violin. I did a performance in the gallery called Six Sound Problems for Konrad Fischer  with a sound for each day.

Bruce Nauman, 6 Day Week- 6 Sound Problems (detail), 1968

NS The late curator Harald Szeemann was also an early supporter of your work.

BN Harald was interested in a lot of kinds of things, and he invited a lot of American artists to Europe. I dont think I met him when he invited me in 1969 for the exhibition When Attitudes Become Form at the Kunsthalle Bern. I dont think I even came for the show. But there was a correspondence, and then I sent stuff. Later, I met him quite often.

NS Theres an experimental approach even in these early works.

BN I became interested in the process of making art rather than the finished work. What was finished was of less importance to me than following and acting on how we make art and why I can examine those things. And maybe that was closer to some kinds of European thinking about art than in America at that point. Maybe closer to Joseph Beuys

NS When did you see Beuys work?

BN When I met Kasper in California, he talked to me about Beuys and some of his projects, but I didnt know anything about Beuys work. I had never heard of him. When I had the show with Konrad in 1968, I met Beuys, and then I was in documenta 4 with him, so this was the first time I saw a lot of his work.

NS Are there parallels between your approaches?

BN It was interesting to see the variety in the way Beuys used materials. But the logical thinking that he worked on was much harder for me to understand he made a career of developing complex ideas and was always working with ideas, which wasnt the way I worked. I appreciated his approach, but it didnt expand the way I thought about things.

NS You said that your interest in dealing with experience is European?

BN Yes, that was not so much Beuys but more the intellectual tradition of Bauhaus. I have often wondered if my work was understood differently in Europe than in the States. I dont know if there are still differences, but there was one way of looking at it here and another way of looking at it there with maybe a little overlapping. One other thing that really was significant for me the first time I was in Europe was recognizing the importance of artists. They had a role in the society and were important in a completely different way than in America. So that gives you a lot of confidence, you dont feel like an outsider.

NS At the beginning of your career, did this outsider feeling lead you to believe that the artist has an ethical role and is somehow responsible for society?

BN Yes, I did think that (laughs)

Dorothee and Konrad Fischer with Bruce Nauman at the opening of Naumans exhibition ‘Heads and Bodies’, 1989

NS Going back to those beginnings, Id like to talk about how you started to work with your own body: the photograph Self-Portrait as a Fountain (196667 / 1970) which recalls Duchamps ready-made Fountain (1917).

BN I really knew very little about Duchamp at that time. Very little had been published. I certainly knew about him, but I hadnt seen any of his work. I dont think my photograph had anything to do with him. Later I thought about him more. But I was young and very tense about things when I made that photograph. So Duchamp was interesting, but he was also a little frivolous, and so the influence is there, but its not a direct reference to his urinal

NS Another early reference seems to be Kazimir Malevichs Black Square (1915), since the square shows up in your video Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square (Square Dance) (196768).

BN I didnt think about that. I really dont remember if I put the square down on the floor for that purpose or for some other purpose. Near the studio I had in San Francisco, there was a grocery store, which was empty for a long time, but there was still a beer sign left hanging in the window. It ran correctly from the outside, but on the inside it was black, and I was interested in that: from the back the sign became abstract. So I was thinking about that in the sign: it means something one way, and then another way it doesnt. Its just background in the foreground.

NS What about your interest in language?

BN I tried to write some poetry, but I wasnt a poet. Then Ludwig Wittgenstein made me think about language and structure. And in the later works, I followed arguments until they either made sense or fell apart. I just want to follow them until something happens or nothing happens (laughs).

NS Your early videos and films feature real activities

BN Not all of them, but a lot are like that  and like Andy Warhols long films, repeating something thats physically difficult over and over again. A certain tension comes from getting tired and making mistakes. If youre watching it, theres tension in observing that human activity. There were two ways of doing them. The video or the film started when I began the activity and ended when I finished it or when I got too tired to go on. So it wasnt a structure, and La Monte Youngs music was always going on in my mind.

NS Why did you decide to use clown costumes in performances like Shadow Puppets and Instructed Mime (1990) or videos like Clown Torture (1987)?

BN I wasnt wearing any of those costumes, professional clowns were, so I was torturing them (laughs). I got them to do all these different activities, and they ended up making more fun of themselves. It was kind of hard to let go because it was one of the first times that I used other people and presented their performances as my work.

NS Violence is another important element in your work.

BN I guess it was my response to basic violence what people do to each other, either individually or in groups. To present something that appears to be funny or beautiful, but then in the end theres always an edge.

NS In your work, the chair seems to stand for violence.

BN I think the chair is partly standing for human presence. Its always the image of the chair in a room with light Thats mainly because I was having a hard time deciding how to represent a human figure. I was able to use violence in the video and neon pieces because theyre quite abstract.

Bruce Nauman, South America Triangle, 1981

NS South America Triangle (1981) is a work in this vein.

BN I made it out of wood in my studio first. It was kind of the first very overtly political piece that Ive done, so I had to stop and think, Do I really want to do that? And then I finally fabricated it in steel. I made a couple more works related to that one, but it was an important piece for me because at that moment, it was the first time that my intentions were there clearly in my mind.

NS Your neon pieces confront violence with sexuality

BN I dont really remember why I was using those clichés. Theres always a truth behind a cliché, and it comes up over and over again. But I remember how the neon pieces actually started. Somebody knew somebody who was opening a casino in Atlantic City, and they wanted to know if I would be interested in doing some sort of sculpture for the lobby. And so I did a neon with just shaking hands, but they were not interested (laughs). But because the work was neon, it was funny And then all other neon works came out of that one.

NS You once said that your interest in violence comes from a frustration with the way human beings behave.

BN Yes, probably, something like that. Frustration and anger about the way people behave. But I havent thought so much about that over the last few years. Ive calmed down (laughs). I was pretty mean to those people whom I had to train for the videos.

NS Do you think art can change how people treat each other?

BN It would be nice to think so, but I really have no idea if thats possible. An artist I know came to my studio one time and said, You must be really depressed and discouraged about the world, and I thought, I wouldnt work if thats what I felt, so I realize there must be some optimism in my work. That cheers me up.

NS Back to your show at Konrad Fischer Galerie, where you showed the sound piece Für Kinder (For Children, 2011). How did the work evolve?

BN I was reading a novel and looking at the front pages I dont remember the author, but there was a list of books the author had published, and there was another heading for children which listed a childrens book. I remembered when my son was learning to play piano, I got him the composer Béla Bartóks pieces For Children (1908) which are very simple pieces written for small hands, so I could play a duet with him. So I remembered that and thought, What would I do as an exercise for children of art? The one thing I thought of was a show on television where these kids are all holding their pencils. I could teach him how to hold a pencil, because in fact, first you have to hold it correctly before you start writing with it So I kept these different things in mind, and in the end I just recorded the words Für Kinder over and over again.

NS Why did you record the words in German?

BN Because I wondered if it would work. Thats why. It was just one more experiment.

Noemi Smolik is a critic based in Bonn, Germany, and Prague, Czech Republic.