Exhibition: Bruce Nauman ‘Disappearing Acts’, Basel

Bruce Nauman - image credit Schaulager Basel, photo: Jason Schmidt

Disappearing Acts

Bruce Nauman (b. 1941) ‘Disappearing Acts’  (17 March to 26 August 2018) at Schaulager Basel, Switzerland

“If I was an artist
and I was in the studio

then whatever I was doing
in the studio must be art” – Bruce Nauman (Tate, 2017) 

A major retrospective – the first since 25 years, now in collaboration with MoMA and shown first in Basel. A blockbuster show I would assume attracts massive visitors – and capital. And I was excited to discover Nauman’s works I knew only from my previous researches, and to see how studio space can be a subject matter and a work in itself, as the quote made me wonder.

It was my first visit to the museum Schaulager in Basel, a modern architecture full of various perspectives. I was early and enjoyed exploring the surrounding and different viewpoints (Fig. 1):

Stefan513593 - Exterior Schaulager - Bruce Nauman - June 2018

Fig. 1: Stefan513593 – Exterior Schaulager – Bruce Nauman – June 2018

Some works inspired me – not always clear why. Nevertheless, I spend more time there – and different things started to happen. The title of the exhibition ‘Disappearing Acts’ intriguing, as it doesn’t clearly communicate what it is all about, what is behind. The outside of the museum with double large screens (these are permanently there) with a lo-tech and ad-hoc iphone recording called Mr Rogers (2013) of Nauman’s balancing act of keeping a short pencil with two pencil, each touching each other just with the tip of the sharpened end. The arbitrary title Mr Rogers, because it is the name of Nauman’s cat and his paws appeared at one moment into view. Kind of work on the go, enlarged for the public. For Nauman, this was another physical reflection on optical illusion of the parallax phenomena where one can see a virtual third pencil. So less disappearing than appearing, a human physiological phenomena. For me also a good example to look at my own space , to explore it and to make discoveries. Presentation of the work might be another topic.

Venice Fountain, 2007 

Standing and sketching. How did it kept my attention? The fountain that relates to Nauman’s earlier work Myself as a Marble Fountain (1967) (see Fig. 2), a conscious self-image as an artist (he just finished his MFA) and reflecting the quote above, the artist as the master and genius, quite contemporary of his time back then.

For me, it was more about the water flowing out of the negative (plaster and wax) casts (masks of the artist face) in a never ending loop, a loop like video or endless sequence (what I do at times with vimeo videos – loop at the end), no start, no end. Negative casts, another example his work A Cast of the Space Under my Chair (1965-68), the latter reminded my strongly of Rachel Whiteread House (1993) and her negative casting technique.

Nauman’s work is an assembly of stuff from his studio (later I found out that the sinks were already staged in his ealier work Mapping the Studio (2001). For me an expression of absence and presence of the artist. And the reversal of two flow directions, external and internal, outside the body and through the body. I found especially the inside-out presentation of what may happen inside of us an intriguing thought, though it might not be what the artist intended.


Stefan513593 - Sketches; Bruce Nauman 'Venice Fountain' (2007)

Fig. 2: Stefan513593 – Sketches, Bruce Nauman ‘Venice Fountain’ (2007)

The following rooms to be curated in chronological order, starting with Nauman’s earliest work from the 1960s.

One work that fascinated me were the room sculptures Untitled (1965) (installation view) , pieces of painted wooden logs, installed in different positions in the room. Seemingly, the installation is a response to the room, as a look at Nauman’s earlier drawings of that work revealed. One still video is called Sound Effects for Manipulating the T-Bar (1965-66) , a noise-less recording, and another one, noise-less as well, pretending to make noise. the artist tapping with wooden sticks on a surface. Are we as viewer suppose to complement with a sound? Or to take e.g. a pencil to make some noise? What can visual information show us? And how much do we rely on multiple senses to make sense of something.

In the next room one work at the wall Composite Photo of Two Messes on the Studio (1967) (see Fig. 3)Again, the studio, perhaps me trying to find some answers how I do see my own studio space? Similar to Mapping the Studio (2001), a night recording with several cameras on multiple large screens in dark room, rather still imagery but also with a heightened attention to small changes. Both works are reflecting kind of forensic attitude to a scenery, nothing special, just the artist’s own studio space. In Composite Photo of Two Messes on the Studio, Nauman appropriated visual imagery from NASA imagery published in newspapers at that time. Several thoughts do cross my mind: mapping as a topology and discernment of identity, appropriating contemporary visual technology (in that case: satellite imagery), and an interrogation and exploration of space and relationship. I felt reminded of my current course work with objects and the space around me, my studio space. How to make sense of what I see and what I experience through my movement. The use of contemporary imagery technology made me think my recent MRI in hospital and the resulting imagery could become part of my work, a topic I will discuss and look at separately. Somehow, I felt there are some links between what and how to use or adapt visual information in making something new.

Stefan513593 - Sketches; Bruce Nauman 'Two Messes on the Studio Floor' (1967)

Fig. 3: Stefan513593 – Sketches; Bruce Nauman ‘Two Messes on the Studio Floor’ (1967)

I was wondering how the change of view, rotating the image in a video right angle or upside down, as Nauman did in his works Manipulating T-Bar and Mapping the Studio does change the reception of the work. Made me think of Baselitz and his upside down portraits to shift the idea of representation of a person towards the pictorial plane, the painting as such. It also had an unsettling moment, when the view is tilted and the room seem to ‘fall down’, a sense of disorientation, a sense of trying to walk and stand up again.

These embodied sensations do fascinate me as it expands reception of visual work towards a more full body and phenomenological sensation. Like Nauman’s work Corridor Installation (1970) and Double Steel Case Piece (1974), both inviting the viewer to move inside and between narrow walls. This tightness can be seen from outside as a visual stimuli, but actually being there and experiencing the physical condition of tightness is very much different. Would this works than make is a participatory work? As the reception of it depends on the agency of the visitor? I was quite pleased to have had this chance after looking at Bruce Nauman’s work during my UVC course.

And how the senses of the visitor can be challenged was demonstrated in another room with the work done for the Konrad Fischer gallery in Dusseldorf, Six Sound Problems for Konrad Fischer (1968) (see Fig. 4). Six sounds for each of the opening days of the gallery at that time. Now replayed in the order of the openings day of the exhibition at Schaulager. It was the Wednesday sound ‘Violin sounds in the gallery’. What was so fascinating for me was not only the end-less repetition of the sound but also how it was installed: the length of the sound was equal the length of the tape moving through a tape recorder and turning around a pencil fixed at a chair in a certain distance. The distance of the chair depends on the length of the sound. And the position changed very day, a moving installation, quite literally. Quite a visceral, low tech installation, very material based, with the medium the message for the sound. How could this be translated into digital technology that is not material based? Quite clever, but perhaps more ‘normal’ at that time?

Stefan513593 - Sketches; Bruce Nauman 'Six Sound Problems for Konrad Fischer' (1968)

Fig. 4: Stefan513593 – Sketches; Bruce Nauman ‘Six Sound Problems for Konrad Fischer’ (1968)

The end-less sound became disturbing after a while, getting onto the nerves. What does it do with my emotions? And what with the emotions of the other visitors? A repetition that can fail? As people would leave the room? A test of endurance? And possibly an urge to ‘kill it’, to stop it. Nauman played in several works not only with repetition, e.g Venice Fountain (2007), but also alongside a disturbing combination of noise, e.g. Clown Torture (1987). A multiple projection of four monitors and two projections. Repetitive scenes, looped, an endless try, and enforcing failure as the only logical outcome. A failure that Nauman explored already in his earlier work Failing to Levitate in the Studio (1966), failing to hold body tension and defy gravity when trying to keep his body tight while lying on two chairs with a large gap in between. Very relevant to what I did so far in my current course with repetition and failure. 

The exhibition had much more to show and to look at. Works that explore language in a visual way, works that explore space and time. Further works dealt more with context of his residence on his ranch in New Mexico. It seemed to me that even the most mundane chores can be turned into a piece of art. It seemed to me as if Nauman himself is living a life of an artist and everything he touches or turns around becomes work of art (see quite at the top of this post).

Quite worth to spend more than one day there. But there was especially one work, or better several works that highlighted to me aspects of tools, material, and the artist’s performative interrogation of space. On the one hand his earlier video work Walk with Contrapposto (1968), his walking in the Renaissance term of the ancient pose contrapposto. and his own appropriation of his work in his most recent hi technology (4K and 3D) video works  Contrapposto Studies, I through VII (2015/16) and Contrapposto Split (2017). Works that go beyond the initial walking in a classic style through a small corridor, but extends the artist’s studio space into the museum space, inviting the viewer to enter and to discern through split and multiple screens the variation of a theme performed by Nauman, all in high resolution resembling the latest cinematic technologies. A comparison that reminds me once more of my recent last essay on video installation for UVC. How technology invites a critical stance or an immersive escape of a different reality.

Performance – Sketching as documentation? (a practice)

At the end I was happy to attend the performances, an appropriation of Nauman’s own performance Wall-Floor Positions (1968). A break before leaving, and some time to practice sketching of moving body. After a while I pondered my intention and whether my sketches would serve as a documentary or just as they are, past sketches.

Sketches of performance: 

Stefan513593 - Sketches Performance; Bruce Nauman 'Wall-Floor Positions' (1968)

Fig. 5: Stefan513593 – Sketches of Performance according to Bruce Nauman ‘Wall-Floor Positions’ (1968)

It was a pity that the performer escaped immediately afterwards. I was the only one looking, at times I am wondering whether other visitors would even notice it without indication.

Learnings and Take Away:

  • Sketching myself ‘through’ and exihibtion helps to look deeper, and to take my time to look and think beyond the surface
  • Repetition and Failure: relevant for my own current work, something to look once more at Nauman’s motivation, less the What more the How.
  • My studio space as the space and place of exploration, interrogation and deeper understanding.
  • How to trigger different senses beyond the visual through rotation of imagery and/or phenomenological experiences.
  • Good to see more of context, installation rooms, architecture, staff and other visitors. To discern ways of responding to art work. 
  • Technology and tools: The earlier works seem today rather basic and low tech, the most recent works quite high tech. A question of when to use what and with what kind of intention. The outside phone video provides a contrasting position to high tech visual imagery. Although, the tool itself most likely was a top notch equipment.
  • The artist as Self either as part of the work or the medium. How do I see me?




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  • Aug 2,2018 at 4:52 PM

    As always – inspiring read. I admire your commitment to the sketching at exhibit. I never seem to manage to do that in very dedicated manner…Sketching trough an exhibit…well said and thought. Seem to have been a good harvest of thing to ponder.

    • Stefan
      Aug 3,2018 at 7:24 AM

      Thank you Inger, perhaps it looks as if I stick always to that rigid routine – it is not. I love to do sketching through – at times it helps to avoid to write my notes hard to read. Yes, it helps me also to calm down and to think more visually what opens up new ideas. And I found that sketching in an at space is more social engaging than taken photo images (as so many others) There are not many sketchers and it attracts curiosity by others. Not bad and I like it especially when being on myself on that visit. Makes me think I could have wrote this down in my post as well . Now it is hear. At times I would like to spend even more time with one or the other work. But often I have a busy schedule and 2-4 hours are what I spend in one place – could stay two full days there 😉

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