'NOTHINGTOSEENESS' -- Bruce Nauman at the Tate Modern
The first room of Bruce Nauman’s Tate retrospective is a wavy technicolour projection of his studio in New Mexico. Or 6 rather. The various angles of his studio are informally composed video footage. Though blown up to the size of cinematic content, the different colour monochrome images offer no heroes for the viewer. Sitting on the wheeling office chairs dispersed around the space, the viewer experiences Nauman’s studio as a series of planes of action – or inaction. The work, MAPPING THE STUDIO II with colour shift, flip, flop & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage), embodies the eponymous composer’s aesthetic of ‘nothingtoseeness’. MAPPING THE STUDIO II demands an inhabitant for its empty space, a witness to its monotony. Unlike the seasons zooming by in film, Nauman’s recorded time is painfully slow. Strangely it reminds the viewer of the representation’s connection to ‘real life’; the footage doesn’t magically accelerate or order itself into helpful clips of Bella Swan in front of her bedroom window. It makes for good, if boring, viewing in the pandemic. Nauman’s work is relevant to this moment, though Tate curators don’t always explain how.
In subsequent rooms, Nauman’s body becomes a unit of measurement, a framework for surrounding structures
that we understand intimately. Early video works like Wall-Floor Positions (1968) and Bouncing in the Corner No. 1 (1968) emphasize the tensions and vulnerabilities of the body. With remarkable subtlety, Nauman’s use of his body is reminiscent of a ballet dancer or a stuntman conveying his bones through exaggerated, albeit everyday, actions. His later sound art becomes less entrancing. The ominous, threatening and sometimes migraine-inducing voiceovers of Clown Torture (1987), Anthro/Socio (Rinde Spinning) (1992), and Shadow Puppets and Instructed Mime (1990) escape their respective galleries and pervade the retrospective with haunted house anticipation. The three works explore authority and performance, as well as the brutality of capitalist competition – Antro/Socio’s repeated cries of ‘Feed me, Eat me, Anthropology’ very clearly to respond to the ‘greed is good’ 1980s. This evolution in style, subject matter and viewer experience, however, is not explained by the Tate, as the pieces are split up in non-chronological order.
The construction of the exhibition in fact seems to deliberately avoid narrativizing Nauman’s life or his work, holding disparate works together through rough themes. These links are not only tenuous but completely miss the point of Nauman’s work as a direct engagement with his time. Nauman’s practice is already so entrenched in theory and art history – Musical Chairs (1982) and Black Marble under Yellow Light (1981/2) both make visual connections to Richard Serra and Donald Judd – that showing it untethered from any chronological thread makes the exhibit needlessly inaccessible.
By taking Bruce Nauman out of time, Tate also seems to be neutralising his institutional critique. Nauman’s practice takes on the cultural programming that we are raised with and resulting grown-up acceptance of political structures. Going around the corner piece with live and taped monitors (1970) interrogates our unquestioning acceptance of surveillance, our social performances, and the self-alienation of the contemporary era. These questions are incredibly relevant to visitors in 2020, however, Tate’s curation appropriates and dilutes its political content. Even the most controversial suggestions of the show are couched in weak potentialities and vague suggestions.
Within the slick redevelopment of the museum, the work is made digestible by a nostalgic patina of VHS and boombox allure. Retro TV sets and clunky speakers relegate urgent structuralist questions to comfortable bites of nostalgia. Tate’s artsy television displays seem to helpfully point out that we live in the time of capitalist realism and automatic cookie collection, and that questioning it is past. More importantly, the curation implies critiquing powerful institutions – like the Tate – is a part of a history that the institution is ‘woke’ enough to participate in. By refusing to engage with Nauman’s work as an institution and subject of critique, the Tate sidesteps any responsibility to make the artist’s intentions or milieu accessible – making conceptual work, yet again, a closed off language of the intelligentsia.
While Bruce Nauman’s work is interesting, it falls flat when re-directed towards the abstract and safely ensconced in Bankside’s healthy, wealthy embrace. This is particularly visible when taking the one-way escalator past the blockbuster Andy Warhol exhibition downstairs (arguably the financial offset for Nauman’s niche). Disappointingly for anyone new to Nauman’s work, the ‘nothingtoseeness’ of his best work has been filled by a new subject: institutional disfunction.
Note: This review was written a few days before the Philip Guston Exhibition controversy and Marc Godfrey's suspension.Tate's identity crisis is just something I have been interested in for a while -- see my longer essay 'Insider Art'.
(Take from my obsession what you will)