On ViewSperone Westwater
September 9 – November 14, 2020
I used to think that Please Pay Attention Please (1973) was Bruce Nauman’s best Wittgensteinian game, in that English speakers read it automatically and inevitably follow its command, but now I’m not so sure. Having spent time with the newer works currently on display at Sperone Westwater, I suspect that they might be his most searching philosophical inquiries. That they were undertaken at moments of career retrospection, recovery from illness, and the care of and mourning for a partner make the underlying melancholy that I somehow always feel when reading Wittgenstein that much more palpable.
In Walking a Line (2019), Nauman builds on a practice of walking pieces that dates back to his earliest video installations. Whereas Walk with Contrapposto (1968) featured the lithe, young Nauman attempting a slithery, seductive saunter through his studio—it ends up being a bit stilted and silly—an older, stiffer Nauman took on Contrapposto Studies, i through vii (2015-6) to figure out how to move. Those studies split the screen horizontally in two, so that the artist’s multiple torsos move dizzyingly out of sync with his bottom halves. Walking a Line explores the same premise but shoots him resolutely face- or back-on, tightrope-walking forward and back. It also adds the element of 3D. If one of the goals of Contrapposto Studies was for Nauman’s body to “appear to stay stationary ‘while the architecture moved around it,’” (realized through the use of a zoom lens), Walking a Line achieves this effect even more fully when viewers don the 3D glasses provided, and a rolling chair laden with cups and plates zips into the foreground ahead of Nauman.1 “[W]e say, ‘I can walk, I mean I have the time;’ but also ‘I can walk, I mean I am already strong enough;’ or: ‘I can walk, as far as the state of my legs is concerned,’” Wittgenstein writes in Philosophical Investigations (1953), suggesting one after another possible impetus for such movement.2 But he also writes, in a comment that is perhaps more important where these later pieces are concerned, “Now I can go on…” as Nauman, notably dressed in the same manner as his youthful self in jeans and a white t-shirt, manages unsteadily yet deliberately to go on.
Nature Morte (2020) takes the form of three-dimensional scans of Nauman’s studio that were used to build a digital model of the space, inside and out. Viewers are invited to manipulate the projection using iPads as trackpads (the gallery provides disposable gloves), which permits virtually moving into and out of the building, focusing on details of individual elements, such as a mysteriously suspended can of San Marzano tomatoes, and turning the entirety upside down to see what might be embedded in the structure’s concrete foundation. In an uncanny echo of the exhibition’s installation, a representation of Nauman’s écorché-like sculpture Two Leaping Foxes (2018) hangs “outside” the studio walls, peeking through a window, just as glimpses of it are visible in actuality down a narrow hallway in the back of the gallery.
In the projections, the studio is placed on a black ground, floating in a non-space that a friend referred to as the “Bruce Nauman studio event-horizon.” This quality is made clear by the inclusion of Nature Morte iPads in Sperone Westwater’s elevator, which spontaneously encloses viewers with images while silently ushering them up to the second floor in a seamless transition that does not involve pushing any buttons or feeling the elevator move. In this instant, the limits of the studio are truly the limits of our world, and the experience can—during a time in which our awareness of being trapped in hermetic spaces is heightened—seem every bit as creepy as the whispered voice of Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room (1968).
In art writing, we automatically read nature morte as “still life” without really even thinking of it. “The eye passes, one would like to say, with particular ease, without being held up; and yet it doesn't skid.”3 The words, though, translate literally to “dead nature,” and if we do ruminate on them, we must try to fit them into the visual place Nauman has created for us, as memento mori, another convenient linguistic euphemism that English speakers use to discuss “reminders of death” without talking of oblivion itself. The studio props are art historical tropes par excellence, as are hanging, desiccated animals, styled by artists for inclusion in a still life. But maybe here, too, the studio prepares to become a monument rather than a living space. Extinction outside the haven of the studio hangs over this exhibition. That is the difficult work, undertaken so lightly and with sly humor, by Bruce Nauman in this show: “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!”4
- Randy Kennedy, “Bruce Nauman, Art Provocateur, Returns. Are You Ready?” New York Times, September 8, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/arts/design/bruce-nauman-art-provocateur-returns-are-you-ready.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, 2nd ed. (Oxford; Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), §183.
- Ibid., §168.
- Ibid., §107.