PHILADELPHIA – Bruce Nauman began working with video in 1968, after a move from San Francisco to New York. He’d been working with film, but found it difficult to find a good processing lab on the East Coast. Around this time Nauman had his first show at the Leo Castelli gallery. The gallerist knew of the artist’s interest in video, so he put up $1200 for some equipment and gave Nauman a year to work with it.
Throughout his career, Nauman has been interested in challenging existing methods of artistic production, due to an underlying belief in the notion of progress. One of his early works in neon, “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths” (1967), included in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s permanent collection, upsets the traditional idea of the artist as seer. As he said in a 1975 interview with Jan Butterfield, “It seems to me that painting is not going to get us anywhere, and most sculpture is not going to, either, and art has to go somewhere.”
Video was more than simply a new medium for Nauman; it also expanded his opportunities for repetition, duration, and the inclusion of sound. Because the first videocassettes were sixty minutes, he no longer needed to loop his work. He could simply extend the performances for the length of the tape. The performances, in turn, reflected the stamina of the performer, and not just the endurance of his audience.
Currently, Nauman is exhibiting “Contrapposto Studies, I through VII” (2015, 2016), at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In this video work, an expressionless Nauman walks with his arms behinds his head in an exaggerated contrapposto, wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, with well-worn boots. There is an eccentric humor to the entire exercise: an artist, holding an absurd pose associated with classical statuary, walks back and forth with Sisyphean pointlessness, while the small hole in his t-shirt’s right underarm and his glasses tucked in his left breast pocket endow him with the appearance of someone who’s come to fix the leak in your roof.
With the aid of digital manipulation, Nauman presents both negative and positive images of the footage. He has also horizontally segmented his body, with each study becoming progressively more disjointed. At various points, his head or a chunk of his torso might temporarily disappear while the rest of his body keeps moving. He is in profile in some, while in others he walks towards the camera before turning away. It’s as if he’s just been pulled over by a cop and forced to take a sobriety test. The room where Nauman carries out the performance is basically identical to the gallery spaces, plain white walls with the occasional scuffmark and electrical outlet.
In the larger of the two rooms devoted to the “Contrapposto Studies,” the sounds accompanying the video are forcefully industrial. The smaller room, where the videos are less manipulated, makes it clear that the ambient sounds are actually Nauman’s own footsteps and voice.
The exhibition’s third room contains a small TV set playing an earlier work, “Walk with Contrapposto” (1968). In this black-and-white video, Nauman walks down a narrow corridor trying to hold the classical pose. The sound consists of Nauman’s boot heels hitting the concrete. The dimly lit surveillance feel and low audio hum of the analog video provides a sharp contrast with the brighter and more recent work in the larger rooms.
Unsurprisingly, Nauman demonstrates greater physical agility in the older video. His hips swivel more fluidly and his back bends with greater ease. Nevertheless, his increasingly visible weariness as the performance wore on became, for me, the piece’s most compelling element. He is not a robot that can execute the same action over and over without error, walking back and forth for a solid hour while trying to pose in the manner of Michelangelo’s “David” (1501-1504). The manipulated images of the newer work instead obscure Nauman’s fatigue.
For decades, Nauman has worked with the idea that the gallery-goer should be able to begin his videos at any point, with no regard for what came before. But this doesn’t mean his films lack narrative. Peter Plagens insists, in his book, Bruce Nauman: The True Artist (2014), that Nauman’s work contains “almost Hitchcockian suspense: how will it turn out? Will Nauman collapse? Will the tape descend into total incoherence?”
The average visitor would probably rather see Psycho or The Birds projected on the walls of the PMA than Nauman’s version of suspense. But like any good thriller, Nauman’s work demands patience. Perhaps more than ever, the average citizen, not just the museum-goer, is primed with certain expectations when faced with any moving image. To list a few: quick cuts, explosions, some sex, and some gunplay. Even though I might enjoy and sometimes even crave these tropes, I’m happy that Nauman has a fierce allergy to simplistic manipulation.
As much as we might feel that our lives are lived these days at breakneck speed, Nauman’s work suggests otherwise. “Films,” for Nauman, as he told Joe Raffaele and Elizabeth Baker in a 1967 interview that appears in Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words (2003), “are about seeing.” If we are actually going to see anything, we need the images to move at our pace, not according to the undulations of the latest algorithm on Netflix. With the contrasts among the three rooms of this exhibit, given enough patience (or time), visitors will perceive the effects of aging, as clearly as they would by sampling a few decade’s worth of home videos.
Perhaps most tellingly, the videos inadvertently reflect our over-saturation in media. Children would usually try to perform the walk for a minute or so before giving up, while most of the adults I noticed while sitting in these three darkened rooms would type a few words into their phones, look up for a moment at Nauman’s hesitant balancing act, as if worried about missing some pertinent plot point, and then return without expression to their texts.
By all accounts, ever since he began working in video, Nauman has mostly been interested in simply showing what was happening in his studio when he made a particular work. In the same interview with Raffaele and Baker, he remarked, “I guess a film becomes a record of what went on. Maybe […] you believe a film or a photograph more than a painting.”
Two things are revealed in these galleries as the videos play: what happened in Nauman’s studio at the time of the recording, and our inability to pay attention to it. As the adults teeter between attention and distraction and the children give participation a chance, it becomes evident that the choice of where we need to look, for how long, and why, are not simply about comprehending this demanding artist, but about beginning to understand anything at all about ourselves.
Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies, I through VII continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through April 16, 2017.