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The Crowd-Disturbing Work of Bruce Nauman

The Must-See Show in New York

Bruce Nauman, Clown Torture (1987). Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago © 2019 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York

BY Christian Viveros-Fauné
art and culture critic

Published
In Must See

Can a blockbuster exhibition feature art designed to be unpleasant? The question dogged my visit to the critically acclaimed Bruce Nauman retrospective at MoMA (until 18 February) and MoMA PS1 (until 25 February) in Queens. Well, not dogged, exactly. More like tickled.

Innocuously titled “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts”, Nauman’s second full-scale retrospective at MoMA (the first, organized by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC, took place in 1995) consists of 165 works of sculpture, drawings, paintings, neon signs, sound works, room-sized installations and more.

The museum, along with the Schaulager, Basel, which launched the exhibition last year, has literally pulled out all the stops: the walls of MoMA’s sixth floor, for instance, have been knocked down to accommodate Nauman’s largest works. Despite not being exactly a people-pleaser, many consider the Fort Wayne, Indiana-born Nauman to be the most influential artist of our time.

At PS1, the old schoolhouse-turned-arts-showcase plays host to Nauman’s cozier—and more hair-raising—installations. The museum’s former classrooms have been transformed into rows of cells that magnify the effects of his unsettling videos.

Bruce Nauman, Pay Attention (1973). Collection Robin Wright and Ian Reeves.  © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Pay Attention,  © 1973 Bruce Nauman and Gemini G.E.L.

Nauman’s most notorious piece, the 1987 installation Clown Torture, holds pride of place there. A set-up featuring two wall-sized color video projections on facing walls and two pairs of video monitors stacked atop two rectangular pedestals, its bare-bones elements recall certain real-life and fictional horror chambers (think Abu Ghraib and Zed’s dungeon in Pulp Fiction). Should viewers care to linger for the duration of the work’s 60 minutes, they will emerge confused as to who’s actually being tortured—the clown or the viewer?

Nauman’s four monitors and two projections loop five narrative sequences like snippets of an absurdist play. Each features the crazed activities of a sad sack clown locked into a set of repeating behaviors (all the clowns are played by the actor Walter Stevens). In “No, No, No, No (Walter)”, the figure screams the word “no” while jumping up and down and stomping; in “Clown with Goldfish”, the jester uses a broom to balance a fish bowl on the ceiling until it falls on the floor (surprise!); in “Clown with Water Bucket”, the fool repeatedly opens a door booby-trapped with a water bucket; in “Clown Taking a Shit”, the entertainer is ignominiously recorded on the toilet; finally, in “Pete and Repeat”, Nauman’s hapless character alternately shouts and mumbles the world’s creepiest nursery rhyme: “Pete and Repeat are sitting on a fence. Pete falls off. Who’s left? Repeat.”

To quote critic Jonathan TD Neil, Clown Torture trades in “psychic assault and battery”. Parallels are to be found in, among other fictive traumas, some Todd Solondz movies and most Samuel Beckett plays. Nervous laughter ensues. Like Michael Haneke’s 1997 film Funny Games, Nauman’s installation can be categorized as “torture comedy”—an instrument the artist uses to force from his audience annoyance, embarrassment and, finally, anxious laughter that flags the viewer’s complicity in the larger phenomena of violence. Rarely has the verb “to crack up” seemed more apt.

No wonder Nauman characterized Clown Torture as an experience akin to “getting hit in the face with a baseball bat”. Thirty-two years after the artist produced it, the viewer is rarely prepared for its impact. A far cry from rooms full of Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” and David Bowie regalia, Nauman’s work—both individually and as a corpus—does little to ingratiate itself with a mass audience. Instead, it provokes difficult reactions by presenting metaphorical ambushes: these enact life’s torments, and even its tortures, dramatically but with a wicked sense of humor.