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PARIS — Bruce Nauman at the Fondation Cartier is a hip, hodgepodge mini-retrospective, curated by Hervé Chandè, that sets an array of Nauman’s works against each other, ranging from the ’80s to the rather recent. As such, the exhibit sets up unavoidable comparisons between different periods in his work. Alas, the best, most emotionally engaging piece here is the oldest the enigmatic and non-reductive “Carousel (Stainless steel version)” (1988). The worst is the newest, “Pencil Lift/Mr. Rogers” (2013), an uninteresting, lackluster video-diptych that features Nauman’s steady hands. Throughout the exhibit a sense of waning artistic development hangs suspended in the air.
A while back Nauman discovered Béla Bartók’s For Children, a series of piano compositions that were written for children to perform. For the little sunken seating area in the Fondation Cartier’s garden, Nauman has adapted Bartók for an audio installation called “For Beginners (Instructed Piano)” (2010). It is a solo piano piece played in “Middle C” on a keyboard by artist/musician Terry Allen. The score is composed from a set of instructions by Nauman, which direct the placement of the pianist’s hands on the piano keys. The resulting timidly tinkling piano music advances and halters, beginning again and again — a succession of groping false starts that feel like an artistic embarrassment.
There also is a lame audio installation on the ground floor, “For Children/Pour les enfants” (2015). There I heard a voice (perhaps Nauman?) repeating “For children, for children, for children” over and over again, filling an otherwise huge, bare space with this deadpan utterance. This voice is replaced by another repeating the same words in French: “Pour les enfants, pour les enfants.” This rather convivial but art-less experience heralds back to the two-language sound installations “Days” and “Giorni” that were part of Nauman’s Topological Gardens show at the U.S. Pavilion at the 53rd annual Venice Biennale, where an ebb and flow of voices recited the days of the week.
With these two Cartier audio installations, I sensed Nauman’s decline. There is no psychological torture or thought-provoking conversation going on, either humorous or disturbingly painful. There is no evocative or disquieting ironies or moral dilemmas. There still is the use of LaMonte Young’s minimalist-continuousness in terms of time (here structured through the endless loop) but none of the transcendence. Nor is much left from Nauman’s early mischievous use of language: no radical handling of time, no dismantling of linguistic structure, no puns, no oxymoron, and no surprises. These two fairly recent audio pieces gave me the impression that Nauman, once a conceptual pioneer, has lost some interest in the artist’s role as manipulator and art’s complex communication.
I also did not feel that he was trying very hard with the main piece in the show, “Pencil Lift/Mr. Rogers” (2013) a looped LED screen (Jumbotron) video diptych that traversed the entire left ground floor gallery into an austere zone of boredom. On the left screen, Nauman demonstrates intense concentration as his steady hands take two sharpened pencils with which he picks up a shorter, stubbier pencil that has been sharpened at both ends. All this is performed against an uninteresting bare white backdrop. That happens over and over and over and over again. This tiny work of manual dexterity is projected grand. Why, I do not know.
On the right screen is an old worktable stacked with piles of papers and a still-wrapped CD box. But the poised performance is identical in both takes. The same yellow pencils do their balancing act. Indeed, every now and then all the pencils on both videos align, making a kind of wobbly suspension bridge. They sway and rise and fall, point to point, as Nauman keeps them aloft. The only thing that alleviates the coolheaded stiffness is when, on the right screen, Mr. Rogers, Nauman’s cat, pads by lightly behind the pencils.
Less problematic, “Untitled” (1970/2009), in the downstairs gallery, is a two-part video projection of two dizzying dancers rotating on a white matted floor divided into 16 radiating quadrants. Conceived in 1970, the dancers now have been photographed from above by a camera that occasionally also slowly spins. This odd, interminable scene is also projected onto a white mat on the gallery floor so there is the option of where to watch them hold hands and turn around each other, like the hands of a clock. Outstretched, they roll over and over, moving their legs as though they were walking on a treadmill in slow and regular movements. It was exhausting to watch them repeatedly spin like the spokes of a wheel, touching and parting, reaching out and coming together, but really going absolutely nowhere.
On the other side of the large basement, things improve significantly, as the art gets much darker, more perverse, complex, and discomforting. “Carousel (Stainless steel version)” (1988), a circling carousel, was loudly dragging taxidermy moulds of deer, lynxes, and coyotes, hanging by ropes around their necks, around the floor as they left behind a scummy black circle that marked the time. The work is simultaneously playful and nasty, a small masterpiece of black humor, at once funny, despairing, sly, and ludicrous. Nauman here displays a cold, sadistic sensitivity to animals and our growing awareness of them. The work’s wildly over-ripe cruelty is inevitably doomed to caricature and scorn, but it leaves an indelible mark on the history of art from the dark side.
Behind this monstrous, macabre kinetic sculpture are three massive projections of the Rinde Eckert screaming his shaven head off. He appears to be frenzied, both upside-down and right-way up, and again on six video monitors stacked on the floor between the colossal projections. His voice(s) creates a loud chaotic buzz that makes up “Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera)” (1991). Rinde is hysterically repeating three phrases: “Feed me/Eat Me/Anthropology,” “Help me/Hurt me/Sociology” and “Feed me/Help me/Eat me/Hurt me”: an endless politico-mystical plea for human exchange. Oh boy! Oh shit!
In this kind of abstract drama, I experienced danger, mystery, and obscurity. The screens astonishingly resonated together in a hellish, bleak way that suggested something of a secretive S&M club. (I sensed the internal conflict of a sinister beauty that meant something greater than its parts.) Taken together, “Carousel (Stainless steel version)” and “Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera)” confront people who once embraced their humanity but who now have fallen into a consensus trance. Both works disturb the typical comfort of watching the world through televisions and laptops. The works indirectly confront those who passively ignore the destruction of the animal world, silently acquiescing to the myriad number of crimes against nature while obediently purchasing and consuming according to the dictates of the corporatist world. Here Nauman awakens us to see that what we once took for granted will no longer exist. What we assumed would always exist will be made extinct. What we forgot even existed will be washed away, what we failed to learn and understand will be revised, and what we failed to cherish and defend will be destroyed. No shit, you might say.
Bruce Nauman continues at the Fondation Cartier (261 Boulevard Raspail, 75014 Paris) through June 21.
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