Whitehot Magazine

June 2010, Bruce Nauman @ Hamburger Bahnhof

Bruce Nauman, Room with My Soul Left Out, Room That Does Not Care, 1984
Celotex, Rusted Steel, Yellow Light; 973,8 x 1206 x 1446 cm
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie
2008 donation from the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection
Copyright VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010; Photo: Roman März, Berlin 2010

Bruce Nauman: Dream Passage
Hamburger Bahnhof
Invalidenstrasse 50-51
10557 Berlin
May 28 through October 10, 2010

After accepting the assignment to write about Bruce Nauman’s retrospective at Hamburger Bahnhof, I experienced, for the first time in my life, a troubling realization: What could I possibly write about these canonical works that hasn’t already been written? While I’ve always been distrustful of the PoMo discourse that permits such lazy excuses as “Nothing new can be said, it’s all been said before,” I suddenly found myself thinking this exact thought in regards to Nauman’s work, which has amassed a near-library of scholarship and criticism over the years.  

But the trouble, I believe, is rooted in the limitations of the work itself. If any artist in the last century can be said to have engineered an anti-aesthetic, it is Nauman. This became increasingly apparent as I wandered, for the second time, through Hamburger Bahnhof’s designated maze of his works, so many of which I’d seen on countless occasions—but never altogether at once.  

One of his most famous neons, the spiral that spells out The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths, 1997, opens the retrospective. Robert Hughes famously characterized Nauman’s work as “everything that might you turn off” and “art so dumb that you can't guess whether its dumbness is genuine or feigned.” As such, this neon work is as good as any departure point. Forty-three years on, we still have no good idea as to the purpose behind this ironicization of sincerity—nor, in this case, the intention behind the curators’ positioning of the piece in front, as the Hamburger Bahnhof has recently been prone to disgracing itself with embarrassingly populist tactics (i.e. the gaggingly-named recent group exhibition, “Kunst ist Super!”) Confusion, as always, is the only correct answer.  

This work is followed by Untitled (Helmann Gallery Parallelogram), 1971, a room lit by painful green-tinted lighting that you enter from one of two increasingly narrow hallways. Here, Nauman seems to be literally mocking the more phenomenologically-inclined viewer who believes that the experience of an artwork should somehow permanently alter one’s perceptual faculties; in this case, the affect is temporary, as prolonged exposure to the green lights causes one’s surroundings to appear pink upon exiting the installation.  

Having initially developed his practice in the age when Minimalism and Conceptualist strategies ruled the roost, Nauman has always been the black sheep of both modalities in what is now regarded as their classical formats, while simultaneously speaking their languages. Indeed, Indoor Outdoor Seating Arrangement, one of the few more recent works included (it dates from 1999), is the sort of piece that would make Michael Fried’s skin crawl. It consists of two sets of bleachers facing each other, with a third row positioned behind one of them. Admittedly, it is not one of Nauman’s most brilliant contraptions—in the context of Nauman’s ongoing project of negation, it perhaps would have been more effective to have the third row facing away from the other two—but it does resonate with the enduring mutations of the society of the spectacle in our reality TV landscape: i.e., the only real spectacle left is the audience, which we are simultaneously a part of.  

The term “retrospective” is a bit of a misnomer in this case, as the exhibition doesn’t include any of Nauman’s more recent works, giving the impression that the artist hasn’t done anything since 1999. Other than that, it seems unfocused. In truth, it’s little more than an opportunity for the institution to show off its Nauman holdings. It would have been better if, for instance, the exhibition had focused exclusively on Nauman’s video works (at least two great ones are included here: Clown Torture and Good Boy Bad Boy), which tend to showcase Nauman’s highest achievement: the evolution of a studio practice that mirrors a certain existential situation in which one feels the pressure of needing to create something without knowing exactly what it is that one wants to express. It is the stuff of juvenile, defiant tautologies, of wanton aggression, of an inability to escape the choking parameters of the real. Indeed, it is the stuff of life, rather than art.

Bruce Nauman, Dream Passage, 2010
Installation view - Historische Halle, Hamburger Bahnhof
 Copyright VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010, Photo: Roman März, Berlin 2010

Bruce Nauman, Five Marching Men, 1985
Neon tubes on aluminium box; 201,3 x 328 x 29,2 cm
Friedrich Christian Flick Collection of the Hamburger Bahnhof
Copyright VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010; Photo: Roman März, Berlin

Bruce Nauman, Double Cage Piece, 1974
Steel, Concrete. 365,8 x 91,4 x 2133,6 cm
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie
2008 Donation from the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection
 Copyright VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010. Photo: Stefan Altenburger, Zürich

Bruce Nauman, Untitled (Helman Gallery Parallelogram), 1971
Green flourescent tubes, 457,2 x 551,2 x 690,9 cm
Friedrich Christian Flick Collection of the Hamburger Bahnhof
 Copyright VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010. Photo: Roman März, Berlin

Travis Jeppesen

Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio. 

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