“My work comes out of being frustrated about the human condition. About how people refuse to understand other people.” Make Me Think Me
Bruce Nauman was born in Fort Wayne Indiana in 1941. Initially studying art, mathematics and physics. The artists that directly influenced Nauman as a student were the painter and sculptor William T Wiley (“don’t be afraid of being right or wrong about art … the art wont mind … be afraid of not feeling very much” – www.williamtwiley.com ) and sculptor Robert Arneson (who said when he dies he wanted his body glazed, fired up to 2,000 degrees “and when its cool, roll me over and shake out my ashes … make a glaze and color it bright” – (he died in 1992) – www.versimilitudo.com). Nauman graduated with an MFA in 1966. In 1993 he received the Wolf Prize in Arts for his distinguished work as a sculptor and in 1999 received the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale. Nauman lives in Galisteo in New Mexico with his wife Susan Rothenberg. Rothenberg works include life size paintings of horses, pared down to their most essential elements along with fragmented body parts (heads, eyes and hands) becoming like primative symbols www.pbs.org/arts21
Broad Overview of Practice
Nauman gave up painting in 1964 choosing to experiment with sculpture and performance art. He also collaborated on film projects with William Alan and Robert Nelson supporting himself by teaching.
Bruce Nauman has created a body of work that includes interactive environments, neon wall reliefs, holographs, photographs, prints, sculptures, film and performance.
“His conceptual work stresses meaning over aesthetics; it often uses irony and wordplay to raise issues about existence and alienation, and increasingly it provokes the viewer’s participation and dismay.” www.rogallery.com
Since the mid-1980’s, primarily working with sculpture and video, he has developed disturbing psychological and physical themes with imagery based on animal and human body parts.
Focused Analysis of Selected Works
Whilst researching the people associated in Naumans life, things that struck me were the use of language in the sculptural work of Wiley – ‘Nomad is an Island’ and ‘Boo Dada Bar BQ’ a cynical humour adopted by Nauman in his neon’s. Also the ceramic ‘Ear Piece’ by Arneson of two old men’s heads, one licking the inside of the others ear very similar to Nauman’s ‘Rinde Head/Andrew Head (plug to Nose) sculpture on Wax from 1989.
The pieces I decided to focus on were two artworks I photographed at the Hamburger Bahnof in Berlin, the installation, Animal Period 1989 and the neon MALICE.
I first encountered Nauman’s animal carousels when I saw the artcore DVD MAKE ME THINK – and I found it strangely beautiful. Unlike Hirst, Nauman’s pieces are aluminium replicas of animal carcasses used by taxidermists to mount the hides.
I have always liked Nauman’s work with neon – the clever use of language appeals to me – RUN FROM FEAR, FUN FROM REAR etc. However, the MALICE neon is different from his usual formula – the word MALICE appears both normally and reflected along the horizontal, the words are on top of each other rather than superimposed and the choice of colour makes it hard to read. The confusion caused by arrangement and colour scheme provokes frustration in the viewer until the point where the puzzle is resolved as the MALICE of the artist and the frustration gives way to juxtaposition of any dry humour that is typical of Naumans work.
Postmodernism was a late 20th century movement that opposed the Modernist preoccupation with purity of form and technique, and aimed to eradicate the divisions between art, popular culture, and the media. Postmodern artists employed influences from an array of past movements, applying them to modern forms. Postmodernists embraced diversity and rejected the distinction between “high” and “low” art. Ignoring genre boundaries, the movement encourages the mix of ideas, medias, and forms to promote parody, humor, and irony – World Wide Art Resources
As I have stated above some aspects of post-modernism such as humour and irony, in the neon works, for example, MALICE and RUN FROM FEAR, FUN FROM REAR are readily apparent in Nauman’s work.
Nauman also has worked in a range of mediums, starting with painting before moving primarily into video and sculpture to convey his ideas. In the latter, he has typically used non-traditional materials such as neon and found objects to create his art. An example of the latter is the aluminium animal carcasses used by taxidermists in the CAROUSEL piece.
Post modernism is a difficult concept to grasp, in that it mainly defines itself as being beyond modernism. As such, many modernist concepts are extended or opposed. The rejection of the distinction between “high art” and “low art” remains. The former being defined as the serious academic pursuit of truth and beauty, put forward by Kant in his discussion of aesthetics in his Critique of Judgement and developed and contextualised by later movements. The latter being mass produced, sentimental, frivolous, eye-candy for the masses. Some modernists rejected this division which many saw as elitist and like Nauman, used non-traditional objects and techniques in their work. This high art/low art debate reached its inevitable conclusion in the pop movement and the mass production techniques and appropriation of iconic images in the work of the artists such as Warhol.
The post-modernist response to this is complicated. On the one hand there is irony and wry humour which most people associate with post-modernism. This is a response by the post-modernists pointing out that the intellectual debate of high art vs low art is itself intellectual and elitist and therefore all art that seeks to define itself in this way is necessarily high art.
The response is a kind of self mocking knowingness, a wink to the audience. A lot of Nauman’s work in neon and video works in this way on one level.
However, there is something deeply unsatisfying in this at the end of the day for both the artist and the viewer. The argument that points out all theories of art are fundamentally flawed and the artist pointing this out ironically may be amusing, but is satisfying only for the nihilists among us.
Nauman’s best art goes beyond this and embraces one of the other strands of post-modernism, the rejection of the “grand narrative’ of art being based on philosophical, religious or political foundations and instead appeals directly to the senses on an emotional level.
While Nauman’s art references certain objects and ideas these are used to generate an emotional response. It is not necessary to contextualise them in philosophical or political terms, they convey emotion (often disturbing) at a visceral level.
In the CAROUSEL our emotional response to the objects is affected by our knowledge that they are taxidemists dummies and our aesthetic judgement by our familiarity (or not) with modernist sculpture. However there is no need to put the art in any grand context, nor does it reference art history. It simply is a disturbing image. While it is impossible to take anything out of context, (at the least I would say Nauman relies on a shared Western intellectual point of view) its context is not the main thing, the way the art makes the viewer feel is.
While Nauman does think about and reference philosophical ideas eg see his thoughts on Wittgenstein below, he also realises (as did Wittgenstein) the limitations of these theories and refers to his best art as that which goes beyond the theory.
Nauman has often referred to the influence of Wittgenstein in his work. In a New York Times article published March 5 1995 (A. Solomon). Nauman states that ” I pursue an argument up to the point I give up on it.” He goes on to expand, “You lay out a proposition and attempt to prove it. My work uses that structure, but from Wittgenstein I learned it is also valuable to look at the process of examining something that doesn’t read to a proof or even a real conclusion.” In fact both the proposition/proof idea and the idea of examining something that doesn’t lead to a proof or conclusion are both ideas that come from Wittgenstein.
In Wittgenstein’s major philosophical work the Tractatus Logico – Philosophicus, the idea of laying out a proposition and attempting to prove it can be said to relate to Wittgenstein’s Picture Theory of Language and the idea of there being something to examine beyond the proof can be seen is his argument for the separation of philosophy and the natural sciences (ie physics and chemistry etc).
Wittgenstein’s Picture Theory of Language can be summarised as
1) the world consists of atomic facts – existing states of affairs out of which larger facts are built.
2) language consists of propositions (note the reference to propositions in Nauman’s quote) that correspond to these facts by sharing a logical form – basically a syntax of language that we can understand and communicate.
3) thought expressed in language “pictures” these facts
Nauman’s first argument about laying out a proposition and proving it follows this theory. Nauman explores this idea particularly in his neon work and video installations. His propositions about the word literally become pictures, his art rather, than being a passive aesthetic, immediately shares its context with the viewer through language, usually by playing with it (Wittgenstein often used “language games” to express his philosophical ideas in his later writings) or subverting it, involving the viewer in the “proposition” (artwork) through this shared language.
However this theory is only helpful in interpreting Nauman’s work on one level and gives no help in understanding Nauman’s work at an emotional level.
The second idea Nauman comments on, the idea of examining something beyond the proof is, I think, more important for Nauman (as it was for Wittgenstein).
Wittgenstein’s thoughts on this were:
Propositions represent the existence and non-existence of states of affairs
The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural sciences
Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences.
Philosophy is therefore something outside the natural world, Wittgenstein refers to it as the mystical, including things like the existence of god, the nature of beauty, truth and ethics. Philosophy can give no “proofs” about these things as they cannot be adequately represented by propositions, hence the impossibility of the proof of the existence of god. This mystical, metaphysical, other thing is I think what Nauman is refering to when he talks about examining something beyond the proof or conclusion. His language and syntax sets the context, so for example in the Carousel piece our knowledge that the sculpture is constructed of taxidermist’s dummies gives the piece meaning but also invokes a response/feeling beyond the literal syntax (dread, beauty).
A quote from Wittgenstein is very appropriate I think to Nauman’s art and the concept of art in general,
“What finds its reflection in language, language cant represent. What expresses itself in language we cannot express by means of language.”
Wittgenstein was fascinated by this world beyond language and he described trying to attain knowledge of it as a kind of journey. You use propositions to try to shed light on these concepts, however they cannot adequately describe or explain them . Propositions can only describe things in the real world. So you use these to climb a ladder (his metaphor) and when you get to the top i.e. achieve transcendence you can pull up the ladder and throw it away. “He must transcend these propositions and then he will see the world aright.” I think this last phrase could be taken as Nauman’s motto and is why looking at his works provokes much stronger feelings than a reading of the syntax (or propositions) would imply.
Themes in Contemporary Art – Gill Perry Paul Wood
Bruce Nauman Raw Materials – Tate Modern
Philosophy for Beginners – Richard Osborne
After Modern Art – David Hopkins
Concepual Art – Taschen
Art Theory for Beginners – Richard Osborne
Ways of Seeing – John Berger