Text by Hannah Elizabeth Allan
As part of the nationally touring Artist Rooms project, the Harris Museum is hosting a body of work by American artist Bruce Nauman. The exhibition features work from the 1970s to 1990s, including the video and neon pieces usually associated with Nauman’s practice, alongside less frequently shown work, such as the large installation centre piece Changing Light Corridor with Rooms (1971).
The structure, which dominates the gallery space, is an imposing work which the show is built around. The visitor is funnelled into a narrow high-sided passageway with parallel empty rooms off either side. Each room contains only a light bulb switching on and off, at times synchronising, momentarily leaving you disorientated in darkness surrounded by the work. This piece highlights the influence Nauman had on later artists with a clear connection to Martin Creed’s Turner Prize winning piece ‘Work No. 227: The lights going on and off’. This sense of legacy reoccurs with the neon pieces featured in the show. ‘Violins Violence Silence’ (1981-2) is particularly impressive, its shifting combinations of phrases making a constantly renewed series of texts, a sculptural and dynamic form of poetry. This appropriation of the commercial medium of neon signage has perhaps lost some of its original impact following the popularity of the form in more recent decades.
Featured in the gallery space alongside the pulsating neon light is the multi-screen video and sound installation Violent Incident from 1986. This work features a vignette fight scene between a couple, choreographed by Nauman. Each of the twelve screens features a variation on the construct: at times the woman is the protagonist, then the man, some screens featuring colour casts bathing the image in red. The videos are sequenced at different rates, giving a fractured account of the scene at a glance. Uncomfortable and voyeuristic (although clearly staged), the multiple viewpoints offer a looping analysis of a chain of events which cannot be altered and seems inevitably to go on being played out. That Nauman has cited Samuel Beckett as an influence here seems apt, although the work also could also be interpreted as an early commentary on the role of video evidence and pervasive CCTV culture.
Featured in a final gallery space are two video pieces in which Nauman performs actions to camera himself. ‘Raw Material Washing Hands’ and ‘Setting a Good Corner (Allegory and Metaphor)’ are the types of work we might usually associate with the artist’s early film pieces, however they were made in 1994 and 1996. Each facing the other, these pieces feature ritualised tasks carried out by Nauman, returning to the successful formula of his earlier practice. In Raw Material two monitors loop a sequence of the artist thoroughly washing his hands: this everyday action is leant an obsessive quality and focus, with the allure of the simple, repetitive motion demonstrated.
‘Setting a Good Corner’, however, features the older Nauman struggling in the New Mexico landscape that is his home to create a length of fence before the glare of the camera. Without a functional use (the fence panel is unattached to any other walls, so performs no practical function) the influence of Beckett is again clear – this time Nauman himself appears as the character stuck in a loop of aimless action. The action feels at once important and pathetically hopeless, in its attempt to mark human endeavour within the vast landscape; a process which Nauman linked to the production of art itself.
Hannah Elizabeth Allan is an artist, writer and current PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University.