American artist Bruce Nauman is a leading figure in contemporary art. Celebrated as one of the greatest living artists by ArtNews magazine, and as one of the world’s 100 most significant personalities by Esquire and Time magazines, Nauman has had a major influence on succeeding generations of artists for more than 40 years.
Notions of body and identity, the role of language, the phenomena of spatial awareness, and artistic process and viewer participation are recurring themes in Nauman’s art. Following a rigorous, innovative approach, he explores various means of expression—neon, sculpture, film, video, performance, drawing—and is considered one of the pioneers of installation.
To reflect this multidisciplinary aspect, the exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain consists of two separate but complementary parts. Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works with Light, organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum, features a remarkable series of about 15 neon sculptures and light installations produced in the first two decades of the artist’s career (from 1965 to 1985). Neon tubing fills the space, proposing word games such as None Sing, Neon Sign or Run from Fear, Fun from Rear. Other neons, like Mean Clown Welcome, show clown-like figures. These light-based works apply irony and humour to the contradictions intrinsic to the human condition and its opposites of sex and violence, humour and horror, life and death, pleasure and pain. The 1971 architectural installations Corridor with Mirror and White Lights (Corridor with Reflected Image) and Helman Gallery Parallelogram deconstruct the space and bathe it in an intense light, inducing a sensory experience in visitors that is disconcerting, to say the least.
Joseph D. Ketner II, chief curator of the MilwaukeeArt Museum and curator of this section, warns: “This exhibition is all about the visitor’s experience. Visitors will experience a disorientation of light and space, just as Nauman intended.”
A section exclusive to Montréal
The second section, assembled exclusively for the Montréal presentation by Musée d’art contemporain curator Sandra Grant Marchand, showcases a selection of films and videos from the 1960s, seminal video installations from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, and the masterly recent work One Hundred Fish Fountain, 2005. In his films and videos, which focus on body language and usually show the artist “performing” in his studio, Nauman expresses the passage of time, repetitiveness, the ritual of everyday gestures and the resulting self-awareness.
Each of the last three decades in Nauman’s output is represented by a major video installation. Clown Torture, 1987, is a key work in his artistic career, with the tension between comedy and tragedy that it arouses in visitors. It depicts clowns wrestling with feelings of anxiety and isolation, and tackles such sensitive themes as insanity, surveillance and torture. Anthro/Socio (Rinde Spinning), from 1992, examines the role of language and the spectator’s involvement in the aesthetic experience. In Office Edit II, 2001, Nauman films his mouse-infested studio at night. As Sandra Grant Marchand explains, “In a new way of conveying the strange continuity of life, the work becomes what happens in the studio space, and the artist, the witness to the activities going on there.”
This continuity of life may also be observed in the spectacular piece One Hundred Fish Fountain, 2005, which recalls the artist’s childhood memories of going fishing on Lake Michigan with his father. The work consists of 97 bronze fish suspended with wires over a large basin. Water is pumped through the fish and spurts out of their bodies. The fountain is programmed so that the viewer perceives the noise and movement of the water, followed by silence when the pumps stop.
Nauman has continually endeavoured to push back the boundaries of art and bring viewers to reflect on the contradictions inherent in the human condition and in our world today.