Autumn 1998

You may not want to hear

Bruce Nauman

Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre
London, 16 July - September 1998

Bruce Nauman’s work famously defies easy categorisation. So writers who attempt to interpret his oeuvre resort to exploring pieces by presenting them as an analogue of other people’s ideas. In an attempt to unpack Nauman’s rhetorical minimalism, critics explain him by reference to Beckett or Wittgenstein. In the process Nauman himself seems to disappear, while the work is reduced to an example of an influence.

What is clear from Nauman’s work is that his constant exploration of material is bound up in his sense of self, whether it be Get Out Of My Mind, Get Out Of This Room or Consummate Mask Of Rock or Poke In The Eye/Nose/Ear 3/8/94 Edit.

In Get Out Of My Mind, Get Out Of This Room, 1968, we enter the work of art only to be rejected by the guttural, aggressive repetition of the title – this inclusion /exclusion is a defining element in all his work. Consummate Mask Of Rock, 1975, has a literally invisible text which is revealed in documents that accompany the work. The text is a kind of poem: the later verses are the most revealing about Nauman and show his typical and almost irresistible urge to hide but tell nonetheless. This work most clearly reveals Nauman’s relationship to his art: it is his armour.

In Poke In The Eye/Nose/Ear 3/8/94 Edit, 1994, an enormous partial shot of Nauman’s head moves in slowed response to auto-violent acts (like one of the Three Stooges). This piece might stand as the archetype for another element that cuts across all his work, a desire to show the edge where anguish is translated into visceral discomfort for performance and audience.

He invites us to speculate on the interior of the artist. What this retrospective establishes is the way in which Nauman seems to hide and reveal aspects of his psyche which he has difficulty in containing within himself or resolving. His work seems to beg us to look into his head in pieces such as Raw Material-OK, OK, OK, 1990, in which the revolving image of his talking head utters the mantra ‘OK, OK, OK,’ like a frightened child using words to blank us out. These circular phrases appear throughout his work, constant repetition being used as a glaze against any reading of their subtle, sinister modulation. These phrases turn the apparently anodyne by the most simple switch into a disturbing, surreal spin on the banal.

His autobiographical video installation Clown Torture, 1987, replays some themes found in his film installation Art Make-Up, No. 1: White, 1967. In the earlier piece the artist carefully makes up and clearly enjoys the performative act of disguise. Nauman clearly sees himself as both Pierrot and Punch. In the earlier work he is a narcissistic, sad clown. But in Clown Torture he becomes the victim of the role: both are confessional.

One of the great things about all the work is the way in which, despite the various media and the deceptive simplicity, all are affecting and absorbing and obvious in the best way. ANTHRO/SOCIO (Rinde Facing Camera), 1991, for six singing heads shown in television monitors and screens, the sung lines – ‘Feed me, Eat me, Anthropology’, ‘Help Me, Hurt Me, Sociology’ and ‘Feed Me, Help Me, Eat Me, Hurt Me’ – which merge into a powerful mesmeric sound that fills the gallery. The talking heads of the earlier work become in this piece vast, minimal, singing symbols of the masculine.

The neons are the most spectacular and pleasurable of his works. To experience One Hundred Live and Die, 1984, is like being a child at a fairground. At this point you have to remember how sinister Nauman’s work is. Much of his work has an aura of threat: like the Joker in Batman there is the constant contrast of the big grin and a psycho voice.

A lot of Nauman’s work is about sex – rough sex at that. This is curiously absent from the show, apart from the relatively anodyne neon Run from Fear/Fun from Rear, 1972 – as sleazy as a desert motel sign. Sexuality underpins a lot of his work: risk, pain, pleasure and the unpredictability of our reaction, our ambiguity. Our discomfort and fascination are both alluded to and teased.

One thing that is clear from seeing the development of Nauman’s work is in this retrospective is his ever-increasing desire to explore ways in which performance can both conceal and reveal the self – a self that is increasingly dark and cerebrally sado-masochistic.

David Heathcote, cultural historian, London

First published in Eye no. 29 vol. 8 1998

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.


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