Ursula Frohne on
Bruce Nauman

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At some point I simply get started with making something, regardless of whether it’s with a good idea, a bad idea or no idea. I just make something out of what is lying around. And precisely these things that arise out of speechlessness, out of despair, are often the most important ones. They lead to the core, to the question as to who I am and why I want to do anything at all.[1]

During the mid-1960s Bruce Nauman began to experiment with sculptural concepts that visualize the previous contact of an object or a body with malleable materials like wax or concrete. Representing traces of physical entities, works like Wax Impressions of the Knees of Five Famous Artists (1966) or A Cast of Space Under My Chair (1965–68) permit the viewer to mentally reconstruct the underside of a chair or associate the features of the artists’ knees with their previous presence, directing the viewers’ perception towards the implicit characteristics of their absence. These materializations of spatial relations translate the negative space that is hardly conveyed in the immediate perception of the everyday object or the body’s physical presence through casts of their surrounding space into tangible and comprehensible forms. Dating from the mid-1960s, these sculptures can be read as psychographic impressions of bodies or everyday objects in the way they represent negative forms that emanate from a materialized void. Conceptualized as casts, their shapes emerge from an indexical logic in which the sculptural dispositif draws its representational impact from the withdrawal of something that is no longer visually present.[2] As references to imaginable bodies or objects, these works suggest the spatial virtuality of environments that envelop their physical boundaries and are thus based as much on their materiality as on their mental extensions. The charismatic appearance of Nauman’s sculptural projects is drawn from the interpretative frame that combines material as well as psychological qualities of objects or bodies, defining both their formation and their perception. The casting of space as a manifestation of a negative shape in Nauman’s work is a central motif that marks the blind spots of immediate perception. It traces those areas that are consciously or by negligence blotted out in our fixation on visible coordinates in our habitual daily routines, guided by a purely pragmatic relationship to the world. This emphasis on the negative origin of form in Nauman’s sculptural work triggers a shift of meaning in which the binary perspective on interior versus exterior, form versus content, material manifestation versus psychological intensity is transformed by a variety of practices and techniques that lend tactile presence to the entangled condition of physical and mental agency. With the way the intermediary spaces between body and material, between object and space collide in these works, they cast light on the normative conditions that define behavior and the daily rituals of human existence. Under this perspective, Nauman’s early sculptural projects can been seen as prefiguring his video works of the late 1960s and the 1970s. They have in common a performative structure that explores the transitory relationship between human activity and the environment, connecting physical movement with mental behavior and inner processes. Both levels of work are embedded in a framework of conceptual methods that also examine the artist’s role and the status of his activities, which he began to explore systematically in his San Francisco studio after finishing his studies in the 1960s.[3] At that time, Minimalism was becoming influential in the art world.[4] Instead of formulating his adherence or opposition to this contemporary trend, Nauman chose the path of self-confrontation in the isolation of his studio. With this new approach to performances without an audience, he produced a set of video experiments that can be seen as a dialectical counterpart to his sculptural work. Acting in front of a fixed film camera, before using the new technology of video, which was easier to handle, he was able to produce footage without the support or assisting presence of another person, in the privacy of his studio. In the course of these experiments, video increasingly gained importance for recording simple choreographies that Nauman staged solely for the camera, showing him in action at his studio, performing repetitive activities that are directed at specific tasks mimicking common movements, poses, or exercises appropriated from the everyday scope of human behavior. Moreover, these mundane actions as performed in Stamping in the Studio (1968), Slow Angel Walk (Beckett Walk, 1969), and Bouncing in the Corner (1968) are accompanied by an aggravating soundtrack that extends the plasticity of the body’s action deep into the viewer’s perception. Recorded in real time from first to last move, these actions invoke the elementary qualities of artistic creation as a productive convergence of poiesis and practice; that is, as a balance between strategic, goal-oriented agency and a sensual-experimental activity, performed for its own sake. Such simple movements and basic activities also invoke questions about the artist’s creative act,[5] which Nauman programmatically addressed with his “auto-plastic” exercise that shows his Self-Portrait as a Fountain (1966–67). This exercise provides a blueprint for the performative aesthetics of his later actions, in which he focuses the viewer’s attention on fragmentary features of his own body—his hands, his mouth, or his testicles as featured in a series of prominent video works, including Pulling Mouth and Bouncing Balls (both 1969). These early video performances foreshadow the discourse on the “dematerialization” of art practices theorized by Lucy Lippard in her 1973 publication, the body itself serving not alone as sculptural blueprint for the physical casts but also as an ephemeral material that shapes the processual features of the early video performances.[6] At the same time, these recordings emphasize the material components of the medium employed by limiting the performative process to the temporal extension of the videotape. In this conceptual approach, the duration of the self-experiments is adjusted to the length of the standardized video format of approximately 60 minutes. Working with the roughness of the medium’s material basis, the side-effects of the video apparatus become part of the production aesthetics of this body of work.[7] The structural exclusion and masking of the technical means usually banned from the reception of video by the editing of the footage constitute the procedural structure and hence the aesthetic appearance of these pieces. They correlate with the conceptual status of the early sculptures in the way they also reveal the seams of their production, similar to the casts that reference physical boundaries, the touch of the body materialized as the basic form of sculptural method. These traces can be seen as equivalent to the real-time video recordings of Nauman’s performances, which are ostentatiously shaped by the length of the tape and thus abruptly interrupted when it reaches its material end.

Bruce Nauman’s videos in the archive at the Ludwig Forum Aachen are productions from this seminal phase of his work. It is even more noteworthy that these tapes were acquired as early as the 1970s, when video was not yet an established medium in public or private collections. In general, this new creative medium was hardly regarded as an art form equivalent to the classical sculptural formats. It is furthermore remarkable that this series from Nauman’s work was included in the collection of the Neue Galerie at a time when the curatorial expertise to present video in exhibition contexts was in an early phase and handling the demands of this new technology still posed multiple challenges for art institutions. The inclusion of these works in the collection of the Neue Galerie – Sammlung Ludwig by Wolfgang Becker attests to an extraordinarily fine sense of the experimental nature of these videos, both with regard to their formative status in Nauman’s oeuvre as well as in the context of the broader field of conceptual art practices at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s.

Wall-Floor Positions, 1968

Monotonous movements towards the point of exhaustion are characteristic for video works like Stamping in the Studio or Bouncing in the Corner, both produced in the same year as Nauman’s Wall-Floor Positions. The latter however shows the artist assuming a sequence of varying and sometimes even difficult positions, making the body relate to the walls and the floor of the artist’s studio. According to Nauman’s own comment, this video shows the re-enactment of an untitled performance from 1965, which he describes as “standing with my back to the wall for about forty-five seconds or a minute, leaning out from the wall, then bending at the waist, squatting, sitting, and finally lying down. There were seven different positions in relation to the wall and floor. Then I did the whole sequence again standing away from the wall, facing the wall, then facing left and right. There were twenty-eight positions and the whole presentation lasted an hour.”[8] Each change in bodily pose is highlighted by a distinct noise produced by either one of his feet or hands abruptly beating against the wall or floor upon each change of position. The succession of acoustic effects adds a rhythmic structure to the performance, in which the artist experiments with his body like a physical benchmark that explores the spatial coordinates, while he uses it at the same time as an instrument that produces a cut-off noise whenever he strikes a new pose. Comparable to the aforementioned Bouncing in the Corner (1968), in which Nauman directly makes contact with a wall by letting his body fall continually backwards in a corner of his studio, Wall-Floor Positions is also determined by a physical act relating to the spatial coordinates, in such a way that the body stays in continuous contact via hands and feet with the architectural setting. Nauman’s series of movements measures the space and fathoms at the same time the physical-psychological dimensions of simple rituals in order to acquire insights into the formative powers of normative structures and social patterns. Unlike the simple mode of action performed in Stamping in the Studio (1968), which shows the artist visibly fatigued towards the end of his performance, the physical exercise in Wall-Floor Positions appears complicated and non-sensical, conveying that these poses could also be seen as an expression of mental conditions. While the artist is going through a sequence of unstable positions that display his physical effort, this experience transfers to the viewer’s own body awareness, stimulating an attentive realization of one’s own auto-plastic aliveness suspended between time and space. In this process, Nauman exposes himself to uncomfortable positions and intentionally incurs feelings of discomfort. He later expanded such interactions in restricted spatial settings to the series of installation corridors. These works direct the experience of imposed postures to the visitors by creating spatial constraints that convey a tactile impression of the way constricting situations or environments have a psychological impact that manipulates human behavior.

Manipulating a Fluorescent Tube, 1969

Another video shows Nauman interacting with a customary neon tube. Inspired in part by a performance he had staged with a T-shaped iron bar in 1965–66, he holds the almost two- and-a-half-meter-long illuminated device in close contact with his body while experiencing the immaterial allure of the fluorescent prop as a sensational extension of his physical presence in space. As he sits on the floor inside the otherwise dark studio, the light makes parts of his body visible while others remain in the dark. First he places the neon tube parallel to his legs and arms, visually merging with its luminous aura. As Cristina Ricupero has pointed out, “the neon tube becomes (…) a member which he then takes in his hands to touch his feet, raising it in front of him, placing it on his body and moving it around in space.”[9] The physical experience of the body’s correlation with the material object follows a choreography in which Nauman places the light tube between his legs, taking the position of his penis, playing with the potential of transforming this device into a phallic object. Then he closes his legs, leans forward, and remains for several minutes in this posture. Every time he changes his position he lets the body rest in the new pose and seems to experience intensely the changing interrelations between body and illuminated tube. Nauman plays with its suggestive appeal by using it to emphasize the sculptural potential of his body.[10] The ephemeral apparition of these scenes is shaped not so much by the light’s brightness as by the invasive presence of the surrounding darkness. The camera focuses on Nauman’s torso, showing his head only briefly whenever he leans forward. Instead of underlining the artist’s identity, the sequence of actions conveys a more common human experience of existential isolation. Once again, it is a mental subtext so characteristic of Nauman’s early performance pieces that is mirrored in his physical action. In a similar manner as in the other videos of this phase, his performance can be seen as a way of dealing with a creative crisis that drove him to start walking around in his studio—until this exercise turned into a productive process in which the body is transformed into the raw material of art. Instead of addressing the artistic problem of the production of meaning through an intellectual or theoretical approach, Nauman chose to act out his frustration in the physical externalization of his negative state. It is characteristic of his explorative approach that he redirects the lack of creative inspiration into a procedure of basic movements and repetitive actions. The manipulation of the neon tube fits within this conceptual framework as a formal element that augments the effort to overcome the contingency of creative crisis and human ennui. This process is staged as a mainly physical experience, while the radiance of the neon light intensifies the absorbing obscureness of the studio space, suggesting its status as a highly ambiguous site. Inasmuch as Nauman’s performance indicates the visual and semantic void of the dark studio in the light of the neon tube, it also conveys the studio’s potential for producing an unfathomable psychological intensity and the promise of irrepressible creative work. Manipulating a Fluorescent Tube is anticipated by earlier uses of this kind of industrial material, e.g., in the “hollowed form” of the Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten-Inch Intervals (1966), which became as emblematic as his neon sign The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mythic Truths, which Nauman placed at the window of his storefront studio in 1967.[11] Communicating the question of the artist’s role in society when art belongs to the realm of elite culture by using a medium of mass culture, this phrase also highlights the effect of language, revealing how a universal statement is transformed when presented in an unexpected material manifestation. As Nauman explained: “The most difficult thing about the whole piece for me was the statement. It was a kind of test—like when you say something out loud to see if you believe it. Once written down, I could see that the statement ‘The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths’ was on the one hand a totally silly idea and yet, on the other hand, I believed it. It’s true and it’s not true at the same time. It depends on how you interpret it and how seriously you take yourself. For me it’s still a very strong thought.”[12]

Flesh to White to Black to Flesh, 1969

Nauman’s performances insist on the materialization of a distinct formal invention in a temporally limited framework, oscillating between mundane actions and physical formation, between object and abstraction. Recorded in real time, his studio performances invoke the elementary qualities of aesthetic creation as balanced between retained control and a non-sensual activity, pursued and performed for its own sake. In the video Flesh to White to Black to Flesh, the process of change is explicated on the artist’s body in an archaic ritual. Nauman slowly begins to paint his body white, remaining still in front of the camera for a while until he continues to paint his body black, suggesting that he faces an invisible mirror, which seems to be equivalent with the spectators’ gaze. In this process, the “natural” body disappears under the coatings of paint while it assumes a new and different kind of presence. In the course of its visual transformation, the body in “make-up” suggests in the literal sense the feigned character of its visual appearance, which is not to be confused with a person’s identity. The notion of make-up also refers to the technically recorded, mediated body by turning its essence into an oscillating projection screen. Accordingly, the concept of identity is subverted by the performing subject, which acts as a display for the superimposed visual layers of paint. The video presents the body as an image-object where several pictorial levels coincide and the states of past and present collapse into each other: the impression of the “natural” body, the masked body covered by make-up, and the technically recorded and video-transmitted body. Marked as image surface, the body, the skin, and the screen are highlighted as visual carriers of identity. A similar ritual is performed in the slightly earlier piece Art Make-Up: No. 1 White, No. 2 Pink, No. 3 Green, No. 4 Black (1967–68). It conceptually combines four films projected simultaneously on the surrounding four walls of a gallery space showing Nauman’s body and face against a blank background while he covers his skin subsequently with the four colors listed in the work’s title. Viewing this process, subliminal references to racial discrimination naturally come to mind, particularly against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement as it gained political momentum in the USA during the early 1960s. Nauman later conceded that the application of different tones of make-up “had whatever social connections it had with skin color and things like that.”[13] Produced only one year later, the video Flesh to White to Black to Flesh emphasizes the contrast between black and white, showing the artist’s face, torso, arms, and hands first covered with white make-up, then with black color, until finally all traces of this theatrical ritual are wiped away with paper towels, making the body’s “original” tone return and thus revealing beyond the color of the skin the common nature of human identity. The word “flesh” is striking in the work’s title and underscores the deeper connotation of the masking and erasing of one’s subjectivity, since the body is clearly marked here as a fragile surface for projections of social, political, and cultural attributions. Its unstable status finds an equivalent in the continuous elision of the artist’s head, since the fixed camera deliberately keeps his face partially off-screen, a cinematic method that contributes to the effect of withdrawing the artist’s identity. The camera’s perspective is focused on his naked torso, which frontally faces the viewer. In his later work from the 1980s, Nauman developed the idea of masking the subject further by introducing the figure of the clown to his videos and staging its make-up character as a prototype “for the abstract idea of a person rather than the image of the subject himself.”[14] Both in a literal and a metaphorical sense, the clowns can be seen as successors of the transformative identity that takes shape in the early film and video works as a central theme. In one sense they can be understood as structural likenesses of Nauman’s performed masking rituals, while at the same time the clowns impersonate the uncertainty of human experience: that of being captured in trans-individual codifications of socio-anthropological categories that are the “raw material” of Nauman’s sculptural (video) works and are never meant as autobiographical references to his artist identity.[15]

Lip Sync, 1969

In a similar mode as in the other early video pieces, Lip Sync shows the artist in an unusual position, his head turned upside down, tilted slightly to the back and captured in an extreme close-up. He wears a headset, while his mouth whispers repetitively the words “Lip Sync” alternating with this expression in reverse: “Sync Lips.” With only his mouth and neck in the frame, his lips and tongue appear close to the screen, producing an almost threatening trompe l’oeil effect that marks the threshold between the exterior and interior of both the body and the apparatus of the video display. Resembling a stage direction, the title underscores the course of action: While listening to the recording of his own voice, Nauman repeats the acoustically transmitted words “lip sync.” It is characteristic for the closed-circuit setting of the feedback motif that it mirrors the semantic meaning of the spoken words through the documented performance: The actor listens to the words spoken by the voice that seems to be transmitted via headset and repeats these in parallel. This method is usually applied in post-synchronizations of movies. In the course of Nauman’s 60-minute video, however, a discrepancy occurs between the facial expression and the sound of the spoken words, something that is to be avoided in professional studios. This intentionally induced loss of synchrony between the acoustic representation of the voice and the movement of the lips reveals that the assumed unity between sound and image, between the visual body and the perceived voice has been manipulated: Although the close-up of the mouth suggests that sound and image originate from the same person, it becomes obvious that the beholders have been deceived by the media setting. In fact, the audible voice comes not from the performer but from the headphones that he listens to. This experience of incongruence has an alienating effect on the beholders’ perception of the scene, which is metaphorically mirrored in the artist’s head turned upside down. Apparently, the entanglement between the body’s presence and its media representation is scaled in multiple ways to challenge viewers’ confidence in the literalness of their perception. One the one hand, the apparatus of the video’s production and display are addressed in this deceptive arrangement of the body and voice relationship, while on the other, the semantic definition of the words increasingly becomes blurred by the monotonous repetition of the same words. They are transformed more and more into an abstract sequence of sounds and lose their contours, so that “Lip Sync” frequently alternates with the sound of “Lip Think,” creating a shift of meaning that is characteristic for Nauman’s artistic repertoire. In fact, this slippage reveals the vital role of language for mental processes and their intrinsic linkages. Lip Sync experiments with the creative potential of language, playing with the oscillating sound of words and introducing asynchrony as a method for raising awareness of the semantic difference between image and sound. This discrepancy intensifies the conceptual complexity of Lip Sync and demands an intellectual effort to bridge the incongruence of this deceptive twist. But there is also a meditative way of experiencing the work, if one surrenders to its repetitive flow. Comparable to the basic actions of Nauman’s early studio performances in front of a static camera, the use of the body as plastic material is significantly expanded to become a playful experiment with language, displaying its malleability in sound and meaning.

The poetics of words and their variable semantics in written as well as acoustic manifestations proves to be a cross-cutting theme in Nauman’s drawings as well as in his audio-visual video works and also in his multi-colored neon sculptures in the way these display oscillations of meaning in anagrammatic combinations of words.[16] These works anticipate the expression of compressed words and fragmented language in Nauman’s Raw Material installations from the early 1990s, which incorporate sound in an intense acoustic environment.[17] Lip Sync is emblematic for these works, which document Nauman’s interest in the tension between the physical nature of language and its mental disposition. Moreover, the experimental setting draws attention to the performative formation of language as an open system that is bound to transformations in practice. The repetitive structure of Lip Sync makes the act of mimicking the prompted words explicit and at the same time it highlights the instance of asynchrony as a productive moment of emancipatory recognition when the discrepancy between the moving lips and the transmitted voice is realized. This aspect seems closely connected to contemporary discourses in performative theory that reflect on the impact of language in constituting identity and operating as a form of societal action.[18]

Elke Allowing the Floor to Rise Up Over Her, Face Up, 1973

At the beginning of the 1970s, Nauman began to work with professional actors who performed according to his instructions. He defined a set of mental exercises to be performed and recorded on video. For the work Elke Allowing the Floor to Rise Over Her, Face Up, the actress was instructed to lay on the floor  “face up” while imagining that the ground would rise up above her body and the molecules of body and floor would mingle to the extent that she would be transformed and become part of something else. Although this task was executed as a mental exercise, it caused disturbing anxieties, troubling the performer so deeply that she had to interrupt the action several times. None of her inner tensions or the actual disruptions of her performance become tangible in the video. Only the sound of heavy breathing conveys a sense of the actress’s inner agitation, while physically she remains relatively still and immobile throughout the whole sequence. Hence, the psychological intensity of the internal process cannot be seen on screen; the woman rests quietly on the floor, only bending her legs or turning her head from left to right and stretching her fingers from time to time. Unlike the fixed camera view in the live-taped videos of the 1960s, Nauman expanded the technical scope for the production of this work in its counterpart Tony Sinking into the Floor, Face Up, and Face Down. For both settings, Nauman rented a professional film studio and shot the footage with two cameras capturing the performance from different angles and in color. On the basis of the double recording, the footage could be edited in such way that the performance took place without interruptions. The idea for these videos goes back to one of Nauman’s earlier performances titled Failing to Levitate in the Studio from 1966. It is documented by a black-and-white photograph showing the artist lying on the floor, absorbed by his mental self-experiment, which was directed at the opposite effect. Here the actress attempts to sink into the floor, whereas Nauman performed the exercise of imagining lifting his body off the ground. Focusing on this imaginary process, which can naturally not be represented, this scene was staged to explore the discrepancy “between what we see and what we know theoretically,” as Nauman commented on the conceptual idea behind this and the accompanying work.[19] The production of both videos implied a new experience for Nauman, since he had not expected “the extent to which the participants in his performances took his instructions seriously and were able to put them into practice.” As much for him as for them, it turned out to be an experience of genuine intensity, “which convinced him of the predominance of the mental over the physical property of things.”[20]

Tony Sinking into the Floor, Face Up, and Face Down, 1973

The second video in this series of works is based on similar instructions as Elke Allowing the Floor to Rise Up Over Her, Face Up. In this case, it is a male actor who is performing the imaginary process of sinking into the floor. We see the man with stretched legs, first lying on his back, sometimes changing his position, turning his body to face the floor. In this video, the cinematic technique is applied of fading between the changing camera views, which were taken from different angles in sequences of approximately five minutes.[21] The actor performs his mental exercise less calmly and with more obvious inner agitation than the actress in the accompanying video. He frequently bends his legs and then relaxes them, and he even raises his torso. Several attacks of coughing make him stand up to leave the scene before reentering the visual field to then continue his act. Astonished at the effect of the mental exercise on the performer’s psychological as well as physical state, Nauman commented on his uncertainty as to how to react to the obvious inner conflict that the performer went through: “I didn’t know if I should ‘wake him up’ or what. […] I didn’t know if he was physically ill, or if he was really gasping and choking. He finally sat up and kind of controlled himself, and we talked about it […] as his chest began to sink through the floor, it was filled up and he just couldn’t breathe any more [sic!], so he started to choke. He said ‘I was afraid to move my hand, because I thought if I moved it some of the molecules would stay there and I would lose it.’”[22] Inspired by Gestalt psychology, with an emphasis on the phenomenology of language and the psychology of form, as well as addressing ambiguous perceptual experiences of back and forth effects in unstable visual figurations with two or more alternative interpretations, Nauman also plays here with homophonic resonances in the title of this work, since it proposes to the actor “to think he is sinking” into the floor. What is at issue here “is to explore the space between ‘sink’ and ‘think,’” as Neuner and Pichler elaborate, “and to see whether there are situations in which thought itself might begin to physically sink.”[23] None of these meaning oscillations or the actor’s mental activity take a visible shape in the videotape and yet it conveys a sense of the deep seriousness of the exercise and the intensity of this experience.

In the article “Notes and Projects” published in Artforum in 1970, Nauman proposes “Withdrawal as an Art Form … Sensory Manipulation / Amplification / Deprivation,” indicating with the rough and sketchy style of this essay his determination to explore self-referential methods by retreating into the metaphorical vacuum of the studio.[24] The studio becomes more a place of waiting and of loss for Nauman, instead of the classical typology that would have us believe it is primarily a field of action or a fount of inspiration where the artist’s creativity constantly surpasses itself. Nauman presents the inscrutable side of artistic activity as a psychologically charged empty space, a reservoir also for the absence of  “fallow” and uncultivated forms of enabling.[25] As if in reference to his negative impressions of body parts, the studio is experienced as negative space that surrounds the body of the artist with uncertainty and unpredictable creativity.[26] The empty spot or the concave space as a pointer to the presence of something absent became the actual theme in many of Nauman’s sculptural works and was further addressed in pieces like Audio-Video Underground Chamber (1972–74) and Model for a Room with My Soul Left Out, Room That Does Not Care (1984). In this context, the early video pieces spell out the potency of a sense of negativity as a means to overcome high expectations through basic action. And indeed, Nauman employs the videotape like some neutral, malleable material of the kind that traditional sculptors use to make impressions of sculptures, so as to produce a negative cast from his repetitive action. Georges Didi-Huberman has discussed this heuristic process for artistic reproduction under the paradigm of the trace, which implies contact and loss in equal part.[27] Nauman picks up on this topos in the real-time recordings of his studio performances, because they depict artistic activity as a trace. But this trace nevertheless remains questionable as an indicator of the authenticity of creative work, since he understood his personal experiences to be founded on collective patterns of perception and reaction. Based on this awareness, it can be said that individuality is a concrete manifestation of a greater totality, and that every individual action can be interpreted on a more universal level. Nauman draws upon the uneventful structure of pre-found habits and everyday items to explore the impact of pre-shaped modes of thinking and formations on human behavior. These are central themes that are introduced in Nauman’s early video pieces: the capacity of the body and language explored as raw material for experimental work. Without autobiographical intent, Nauman used the video camera in the privacy of his studio to film a series of daily routines, supplementing it regularly to create a type of encyclopedia of human behavior. In the mid-1980s, he began to experiment more rigorously with the plastic potential of video, until he started in 1987 to project his videos directly onto walls in combination with multiple monitors set up in different areas of the room. In these installations, the content of the video images and the formal composition of the various elements reintroduced a theme from Nauman’s earlier catalogue of topics: the capacity of the body and of language for social formation. Based on Jacques Rancière’s idea of a redistribution of the sensible as the political potential of art, one might even recognize as well in Nauman’s shaping of the negative form an implicit figure of dissent against the status quo in art and society. With the aesthetic experience of that which is historically, psychologically, socially, or culturally negated, as it were, a vision of the “conceivable” or the “speakable” emerges that literally acquires space and appearance in the video-plastic casts of the blind spots of our social patterns and perceptions. [28] Casting the negative is hence a cross-cutting theme from the early video sculptures to the video performances that remains central and productive for Nauman’s later installation works as well.[29] Linked by a genuine interest in the relational constellation of body, language, and space, this pertinent collection of works documents Nauman’s examination of correlations between physical action and mental behavior as he continuously interrogates the structural coordinates “not only of the role of the artist in society, but of the human condition.”[30]


[1] Quoted from Hanno Rauterberg, “Die Kunst erlöst uns von gar nichts” [Art doesn’t free us from anything, a conversation with Bruce Nauman], in: DIE ZEIT, October 14, 2004, https://www.zeit.de/2004/43/InterviewB_Nauman (accessed May 1, 2018).

[2] The conceptual meaning of withdrawal in Nauman’s sculptural work is addressed in an essay by Sabine Flach, “‘Withdrawal as an Artform’ – Between Withdrawal and Presentation – The Body in the Media Arts,” in: Ursula Frohne, Mona Schieren, Jean-François Guiton (eds.), “Present Continuous Past[s]”. Media Art. Strategies of Presentation, Mediation and Dissemination, Vienna, New York: Springer 2005, pp. 46–60. Flach focuses on the body-space-and-time relations of Bruce Nauman’s early conceptual sculptures, videotapes, and video-feedback installations. She theorizes that their representational logic is based on withdrawal and concealment as characteristic for the artistic method of works from this period.

[3] Bruce Nauman commented on the use of film and later video as a way of dealing with “the impossibility of finding places to present his performances (…).” See Cristina Ricupero, “Bruce Nauman. Introduction to the Art Work,” in: New Media Encyclopedia, https://www.newmedia-art.org/cgi-bin/show-art.asp?LG=GBR&DOC=IDEN&ID=9000000000067788 (accessed March 12, 2018).

[4] Bruce Nauman received his education as an artist during the early 1960s, “when Clement Greenberg’s dogmatic theory of modernism began to establish itself as a kind of canonic teaching in the U.S.,” as Stefan Neuner and Wolfram Pichler point out. See Stefan Neuner and Wolfram Pichler, “The Poetics of Withdrawal,” in: Bruce Nauman. Audio-Video Underground Chamber, exh. cat., Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Nuremberg, Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2005, pp. 28–123, here p. 46.

[5] The staging of the artist’s body in the photograph with the title Self-Portrait as a Fountain (1966–67) refers to Marcel Duchamp’s famous ready-made gesture of the Fountain presented at the Armory Show in New York in 1917. Nauman expands the conceptual impact of this influential re-definition of the “creative act” by putting himself on display and making his action the content of his art.

[6] Lucy Lippard, Six Years: the dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972; a cross-reference book of information on some esthetic boundaries, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1973. See also Tracey Warr and Amelia Jones (eds.), The Artist’s Body. London, Phaidon, 2000; Sally O’Reilly, The Body in Contemporary Art. London, Thames and Hudson, 2009.

[7] After producing several 10-minute films according to the length of a reel, he shifted to video, which has a normal length of one hour. See Cristina Ricupero, “Bruce Nauman. Introduction to the Art Work,” in: New Media Encyclopedia, https://www.newmedia-art.org/cgi-bin/show-art.asp?LG=GBR&DOC=IDEN&ID=9000000000067788 (accessed May 1, 2018).

[8] See description of Bruce Nauman’s Wall-Floor Positions on the website of Electronic Arts Intermix:  https://www.eai.org/titles/wall-floor-positions (accessed March 12, 2018).

[9] See Cristina Ricupero, “Bruce Nauman. Manipulating a Fluorescent Tube,” in: New Media Encyclopedia, https://www.newmedia-art.org/cgi-bin/show-oeu.asp?ID=150000000034746&lg=GBR (accessed March 13, 2018).

[10] Dan Flavin had introduced neon tubes in the early 1960s and placed them as minimalist props in spatial settings.

[11] See Neuner and Pichler (see note 4), p. 76.

[12] Cited by Brenda Richardson, Bruce Nauman: Neons, exh. cat., Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, 1980, p. 20.

[13]Bruce Nauman, quoted from Oral history interview with Bruce Nauman, May 27–30, 1980, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-bruce-nauman-12538 (accessed May 1, 2018).

[14] Stéphanie Moisdon, “Flesh to White to Black to Flesh 1969,” New Media Encyclopedia, https://www.newmedia-art.org/cgi-bin/show-oeu.asp?ID=150000000034502&lg=GBR (accessed May 1, 2018).

[15] See Ursula Frohne, “Raw Material: BRRR, 1990,” in: Mediascape, exh. cat., Guggenheim Museum SoHo, New York, 1996, p. 29.

[16] These litanies of laconic sentences combine the sculptural quality of language via the material manifestation of the neon tubes with the immaterial radiance of the fluorescent light.

[17] Another symptomatic work for the malleable meaning of language is Nauman’s two-channel video installation Good Boy Bad Boy (1985). Using professional actors, a man and a woman who speak identical texts while being screened on two separate monitors, the video shows how the synchrony of their performance slowly drifts apart, with the effect that the litany of identical phrases they speak in parallel seem to resonate with each other and eventually acquire new meanings in this pseudo-dialogical structure. See Ursula Frohne, “Good Boy Bad Boy” and “Raw Material – BRRR,” in: Bruce Nauman, Werke aus belgischen, deutschen und niederländischen Sammlungen, exh.cat., Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg, 2000, pp. 34–42.

[18] See John L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words. The William James Lecture, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1955, or Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay on Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” in: Theatre Journal, vol. 40, no. 4 (December 1988), pp. 519–531.

[19] See Cristina Ricupero, “Elke Allowing the Floor to Rise Up Over Her, Face Up, 1973,” in: New Media Encyclopedia, https://www.newmedia-art.org/cgi-bin/show-oeu.asp?ID=150000000034745&lg=GBR (May 1, 2018).

[20] See Ricupero, ibid.

[21] See Cristina Ricupero, “Tony Sinking into the Floor, Face Up, and Face Down, 1974,” in: New Media Encyclopedia, https://www.newmedia-art.org/cgi-bin/show-oeu.asp?ID=150000000034749&lg=GBR (accessed May 1, 2018).

[22] See Jan Butterfield, “Bruce Nauman. The Center of Yourself,” in: Arts Magazine, New York, 49, no. 6, February 1975, p. 53. Also cited in Ricupero, ibid.

[23] See Neuner and Pichler (see note 4), p. 86.

[24] See Bruce Nauman, “Notes and Projects,” Artforum, 9, December 1970, p. 44.

[25] See Beatrice von Bismarck, Der wahre Künstler, Ostfildern, Cantz Verlag, 1999.

[26] On Nauman’s thematic engagement with the studio in his later video installation Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage) from 2001, see Ursula Frohne, “Creativity on Display? Visibility Conflicts or the Claim for Opacity as Ethical Resource,” in: Hille Koskela and Greg Wise (eds.), New Visualities, New Technologies. The New Ecstasy of Communication, London, Ashgate Publishing, 2013, pp. 120–152.

[27] See Georges Didi-Huberman, Ähnlichkeit und Berührung. Archäologie, Anachronismus und Modernität des Abdrucks, Cologne, DuMont Verlag, 1999 [L’Empreinte, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1997], p. 10.

[28] See Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, translated by Gregory Elliott, London/New York, Verso, 2009.

[29] On aesthetic negativity, see Christoph Menke, Sovereignty of Art. Aesthetic Negativity in Adorno and Derrida, Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, 1998.

[30] See Laurence Sillars, “Bruce Nauman: Keeping Busy,” in: Laurence Sillars (ed.), Bruce Nauman. Make Me Think Me, Liverpool, Tate Liverpool, 2006, pp. 10–21, here p. 12.