Bruce Norman’s exhibition review at Tate Modern – Qianlin Wang

Just after London finished lockdown on December 2nd, and before it went to Tier 3 again on December 16, I was lucky enough to manage to see three exhibitions. The last exhibition I saw was Bruce Nauman’s exhibition at Tate Modern. I went with my partner Derek, who has no art background. Nauman’s work is often about the frustration of the human condition and how people refuse to understand each other. Obviously, he achieved expressing it successfully when Derek told me watching this exhibition with me had been a torture for him. As what Dave Beech wrote in On Critique, to understand conceptual art fully, merely by looking at it doesn’t do much. What Derek has suffered is the silence, the time spent waiting for my analysis on each work and discussion. For him, due to the lack of knowledge on history of art, current contemporary art debates, and exposure to conceptual art, even there are short explanations and descriptions of the work on the wall, it is hard for him to extract information out of it. However, also because of this, Nauman’s work did exactly what he wanted to do, to make the audiences uncomfortable, through the content, also the form. 

Mapping The Studio II, 2001

There are several themes in Nauman’s work, showing the invisible, using body as a tool to measure the space, surveillance, entrapment, power dynamics, repetition and suffering. Walking inside the show room, the first thing you see is projections of a studio in different colours all over the walls. There are several chairs being put in the middle for viewers to sit on, spin around and look at the videos, as if we are in a monitor room. Through further examination, I found the colour of the videos changes over time, some of the videos are projected upside down, and there was a black cat. In this piece Mapping The Studio II, Nauman focuses on the unseen, the mundane, silence, and the demystification of artists. The fact that we need to rotate our body to see everything so that we can understand what’s happening shows the influence from Minimalism. The use of body is more emphasised when one goes to the next room, which includes works such as Wall-Floor Positions, Bouncing in the Corner No.1, Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square. These pieces uses the artist’s own body to measure the space in real life but also the size of the CRT monitors, since the body often fills up to the edge of the screen. All of Nauman’s video works are shown in this type of box-like monitors. In his work displayed in other rooms, the sense of entrapment is further intensified, for example in the Clown Torture, and Going Around The Corner Piece, although in the Corner Piece, the audience became the trapped subject. 

Wall-Floor Positions, 1968
Bouncing in the Corner No.1, 1968
Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square, 1967-8

I often get a feeling of powerlessness in Nuaman’s work. In Double Steel Cage Piece, there is a narrow gap between two cages which people can walk in. The width of the passage is so narrow that you would feel free if you actually enter the inner cage. In Going Around The Corner Piece, there is a monitor at each side of the wall. The viewer has to keep moving around to be able to see the fleeting image of ourselves live-recorded and shown on the monitor. It’s a frustration of chasing our own shadows but never really getting a full grasp of it, like the Ouroboros. In Clown Torture, there are four sequences played in loops. In one sequence, the clown incessantly screams “No, No, No, No” while kicking his leg; in “Clown with Goldfish”, he tries to balance a fish bowl on the ceiling with a broom; in “Clown with Water Bucket”, he repeatedly opens a door and a bucket full of water falls on his head; and finally, there is a sequence that the clown is simply sitting on the toilet. Initially, after seeing all the other sequences, the toilet one seems rather relaxing. However, after researching about the work, the clown is actually suffering from constipation while having trouble in tearing the toilet paper because of his outsized gloves. This work is an exemplar of Nauman’s core idea of circular tales which only extracts some fragments of the story, but the process of endlessly repeating it in fact completes the story:

Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence.

Pete fell off. Who was left? Repeat. 

Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence…

Double Steel Cage Piece, 1974
Going Around The Corner Piece With Live And Taped Monitors, 1970

The frustration also manifests in more aggressive ways, for example, in Anthro/Socio (Rinde Spinning), the room is filled with projections and monitors with the same disembodied head of a man rotating and shouting ‘Feed Me, Eat Me, Anthropology’, ‘Help Me, Hurt Me, Sociology’, and ‘Feed me, Help Me, Eat Me, Hurt Me’. The surreal visuals and the vulnerability in this work absolutely struck me. The man is like a baby crying for food and love. Perhaps the most successful work on the idea of entrapment is the last piece Raw Materials installed in the stairwell. This piece is quite hidden since it’s outside of the exhibition room. The stairwell is all coated with black, and the speakers are in two black square-shaped panels hanging on the wall evenly throughout the stairwell. You start your journey from the fifth floor, with different audio pieces extracted from Nauman’s video works. Sometimes the volume is not so loud that you have to get close to listen, sometimes it’s very easy to be recognised like ‘No, no, no, no’. By walking from the stairwell, you start to lose the sense of time of space and feel like this will last forever, especially when you arrive at the Clown Torture audio. Again, the fact that you have walk down through the stairs to experience the work connects well with every other pieces which emphasise on the use of body.

Anthro/Socio (Rinde Spinning), 1992
Raw Materials, 2004

Sometimes the frustration is expressed in a more subtle and playful way. In First Poem Piece, sentences are etched onto a square steel plate. The words are rearranged and excluded in each sentence to create new meanings, which in the end is similar to the grammar exercises when we learn a new language. In Human Nature/Knows Doesn’t Know, the same kind of concepts are presented through neon signs. Nauman’s works are like language exercises which we partake in attempt to understand a new kind of art language. Nauman uses another way of creating tension in the work Coffee Spilled And Balloon Dog. There are two videos presented adjacently to explore the everyday failure. However, the audience never has the chance to see the moment of coffee spilling or the finished product of the balloon dog. The video always stops at the moment when the coffee mug is raised which gives a feeling of huge unfulfillment which actually resonates with the  work Clown Torture, that people enjoy seeing the failure and misfortune of others, as long as they are presented in circus, comedies, or some kind of platforms which they have distances with. 

First Poem Piece, 1968
Human Nature/Knows Doesn’t Know, 1983/86
Coffee Spilled And Balloon Dog, 1993

This show presented everything in quite a integrated way that they start to make more and more sense after you’ve watched everything. Every piece has multiple themes which connect with other works and in the end intensifies the viewer’s experience.