New York CitySperone Westwater
Bruce Nauman: His Mark
January 13 – March 12, 2022
Brown spots spread across the blue veins and red knuckles of the artist’s hands, telling their own story of age and effort. These hands are the hands of a creator; these hands have made artworks that have affected the lives of people the artist loves and the lives of people he will never know. The pockmarked wooden surface over which these hands—the hands of Bruce Nauman—perform also tells a story, but the story of the scoring and the scarring is further removed. In this artwork, His Mark (2021),the trauma preserved in those anonymous traces corresponds with the marked flesh of the artist’s body, the stillness of one necessary to the speed of the other. The movement of Nauman’s hands also tells a story, one that shifts between the intimate and the historical. Amidst this new installation one feels always near a point of convergence, always approaching and receding but never reaching a place to settle.
To be unsettled is a satisfactory condition for a Nauman installation. It’s a feeling that activates extra degrees of anxiety and anticipation, both of which can trigger a general heightening of one’s awareness, even perception. Think of the narrow corridors, sound-proofed walls, neon lights, slanted mirrors, and canted video cameras that characterize so much of his early and important work. His Mark is essentially a virtual corridor: it’s one six-channel video installation presented in three sets of two, and the viewer wears a set of digital 3D glasses to experience the rich volumetric bounty that the new technology provides. The corridor effect is a result of the peripheral vision you’ve given up when you put on the glasses, and it is heightened by the nearness of the subjects of your attention: the six screens are large and Nauman’s hands fill them up.
Not only are Nauman’s hands presented at close range in massive, three-dimensional volumetric proportion, but the camera that tracks them—establishing the viewer’s perspective—is never stationary. It hovers, wavers, pivots, and swings, rarely giving a glimpse of any kind of edge, so that all there ever is from any angle—hands and table—remains absolute. The three sets of paired screens are situated in separate rooms on the first and third floors and each is arranged differently. One set is stacked; one set is side by side; one is face to face. The technology requires massive projectors and in the latter two instances the arrangement necessitated that the beams of the projectors cross in the room.
The story from which the performance of the hands comes is necessary to appreciate the crossing of the beams, which is not even something you can see, only imagine. Nauman’s hands are repeating the gesture of marking an “X” and they form the letter in a number of different ways. The gesture recalls a moment in history when a Native American Chief of the Blackfoot Band signed a legal document by marking it with an “X,” as opposed to his counterpart who signed her name. Nauman discovered the moment through a copy of the document that was published in a history book gifted to him by his grandson. Nauman doesn’t ever actually mark the surface with his finger; the mark is unseen after the gesture is complete. The unseen crossing of the beams is a corresponding moment, where the architecture of the installation mirrors its subject matter.
The two stacked channels are the first ones you encounter when entering the installation and the only ones that you can see from two positions. This is due to the structure of the gallery, which has a balcony on its second floor that overlooks the entrance on the first floor. From the first perspective you look up; from the second you look down. It’s a simple switch, but I was thankful for the handrail. When I looked down from the balcony through those digitally activated liquid crystal lenses my knees wobbled and my stomach spun. It was the only instance I felt it necessary to remove the glasses and recalibrate my system.
Featured in the gallery’s moving room, parked on the second floor, is Spider, a new single projection 3D video edition related to His Mark. Also located on the second-floor balcony are a few prints and photographs that feature Nauman’s hands, giving the briefest of indications that this is not new territory for the old artist. In fact, he’s made significant bodies of work using his hands as the subject of action and image. To that end, this installation carries further a constant theme and demonstrates how malleable and inexhaustible it remains.