SANTA FE — Seasick. This was the first sensation I had when sitting down to view Bruce Nauman’s 8-channel 3D video work “His Mark,” currently at SITE Santa Fe. They should hand out ginger candies with the 3D glasses, I thought while watching the two adjacent projections, which show close-ups of Nauman’s hands as he uses his index fingers to ceaselessly and invisibly create the letter X (in all eight of its possible permutations) on a worn studio table salvaged from a former post office. In each channel the camera continuously turns and shifts angles, denying viewers the relief of a horizon line. The effect of seeing two of the projections side by side is more than a little hallucinatory. Despite watching something on a wall while seated, I felt like I was walking unsteadily on a floor that kept tossing and turning, forcing one mental balance correction after another.

The eight channels of “His Mark,” a standalone piece in addition to being the exhibition’s title, sprawl across three different rooms — the first two side by side, the next two on opposite walls, and the last four in a room with a separate channel on each wall — frustrating any possibility of seeing all of the screens at once. The pacing of each gesture is consistent, and I became accustomed to the nearly forensic view of Nauman’s aging hands: the sunspots, the dryness of his skin, the flash of his wedding band; 3D indeed: there are moments when his knuckled almost-fist looked like it had jumped the fourth wall and was about to seat itself in the empty chair next to me.

After a time, I gave up on trying to figure out the choice of medium or the number of channels, or why the channels were split across multiple rooms, and instead submitted to the transmitted feeling of a repeated gesture. Gestures, repetitions, and the body are familiar motifs in Nauman’s oeuvre. Seeing the hands trace the X over and over again quickly became hypnotic, and I began to feel a ghostly sensation of the table surface he was inscribing, as if I was also creating invisible Xs on it, repeatedly, alongside him. Instead of questions regarding materials and strategies (what is added by making the videos 3D?) I mulled over the choice of mark, the X.

Installation view of Bruce Nauman, “His Mark” (2023) at SITE Santa Fe (© 2023 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS); photo by Shayla Blatchford)

The gallery’s introduction to the exhibit explains that the idea for the “X” came when Nauman’s grandson gave him a book that contained an image of Treaty 7, one of 11 numbered treaties between the British government and Indigenous tribes living in what is now Canada. In these treaties, the Queen’s representatives signed with their full names and titles, while the chief of the Siksika, Isapo-Muxika, signed with an X, next to which was handwritten in English “his mark.” An essay by Carlos Basualdo states that upon the death of his longtime partner, artist Susan Rothenberg, Nauman had to sign so many documents related to her estate that he asked his lawyer if he could just use an X, as Isapo-Muxika had. He was told that he could not because he could read and write English.

While this is the given inspiration for this particular gesture, I was reminded of “The Penal Colony,” a short story by Franz Kafka that concerns a condemned man who is to be executed with a unique device that will inscribe his crime into his flesh repeatedly over the course of a day. The officer who serves as executioner eagerly explains the device to a someone only known to the reader as “Traveler,” who has been invited to witness it.

It starts around the eyes and spreads out from there. A look that could tempt one to lie down under the Harrow. Nothing else happens. The man simply begins to decipher the inscription. He purses his lips, as if he is listening. You’ve seen that it’s not easy to figure out the inscription with your eyes, but our man deciphers it with his wounds. True, it takes a lot of work. It requires six hours to complete.

Installation view of Bruce Nauman, “His Mark” (2023) at SITE Santa Fe (© 2023 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS); photo by Shayla Blatchford)

The endless signing of one’s name on legal documents is one kind of torture; here, the endless loop of Nauman inscribing an X becomes a body memory for the viewer. We are reminded of how it’s possible to relive a gesture and its origin when we are made to repeat it, or when we encounter someone else making it.

On display for the first time, “Self-portrait at 80” is a black and white 3D video made after the death of Rothenberg, which is especially notable because half of it appropriates a video from 2019, “Walking a Line,” made while she was still alive. When we experience a significant loss, time is often divided into a Before and an After. This demarcation is made poignantly visible in this eerie and vulnerable work, in which the bottom half shows Nauman four years prior, walking with a steady sense of purpose, while in the top half, the After, his face and upper body teeter uncertainly and his look is one of monastic concentration. Small moments are not perfectly synched, and so the bottom half may turn a few seconds before the top half follows, exacerbating a sense of disconnection and disembodiment. While the three other works in the show are all variations on the practiced gesture of tracing an invisible X, “Self Portrait at 80” feels more familiar, as uncertainty is a quality that we all know well, and know that we will experience again.

Bruce Nauman, “Self-Portrait at 80” (2022), 4K 120fps 3D projection (black and white, stereo sound), continuous play projection size: 114 x 203 inches as installed, 15:45 min. (photo Stacy J. Platt/Hyperallergic)

Bruce Nauman: His Mark continues at SITE Santa Fe (1606 Paseo De Peralta, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through September 11. The exhibition was curated by Brandee Caoba.

Stacy J. Platt is a Colorado-based writer, artist, and educator. The founder of photobook addict, her writing has appeared in photo-eye, Don’t Take Pictures, the Society for Photography Education’s...

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