Art That Leaves a Mark: Bruce Nauman and Roland Barthes

Bruce Nauman, His Mark, 2021 (still). 3D projection (color, stereo sound), continuous play projection installed at SITE Santa Fe Museum. Courtesy of the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York. © 2023 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS); photograph by Chris Doyen


By CHRIS DOYEN September 28, 2023

A pioneer in the field of video and installation art, Bruce Nauman’s latest exhibit titled His Mark was recently on view at SITE Santa Fe museum in New Mexico. With a career in the art world spanning more than five decades, Nauman is notorious for working across mediums—ranging from sculpture to performance to neon—and he continues to push the boundaries of his practice with this current collection of 3D video artworks.

His Mark (2021), an eight-channel 3D video installation spread out among three separate rooms of the museum, was accompanied by two single-channel video works titled Spider (2021) and Practice (2022). In another part of the museum was Self-Portrait at 80 (2022), which was on display for the first time. 

The artist’s hand takes center stage in His Mark as Nauman’s index finger traces an imaginary X pattern across the scarred surface of an old post office table. A bit of background for the impetus of these artworks reveals that the X shape is partly in reference to the signature used by a Siksika chief named Isapo-Muxika during treaty negotiations in the 1800s, and that the signature was accompanied by the phrase “his mark”.

As the spectator approaches the gigantic, wall-sized images while donning the 3D glasses, the artist’s hand looms large, aggressively insinuating itself into the museum space. The sheer size of the appendage evokes a sense of monstrousness. Just as a sculpture prompts a different type of engagement between viewer and artwork than a painting does, here Nauman’s hand encroaching into the spectator’s personal space elicits a physical negotiation with the image. In light of Nauman’s background in sculpture—and in terms of the formal mechanisms of Nauman’s artworks that turn sound and light into “materials” that fill the exhibition space—there is definitely a certain physicality to the Nauman video installation. Tellingly, the catalogue for Nauman’s recent Contrapposto Studies exhibit (2021-2022) at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Italy, refers to the “weight” of the video images (1). Through the heavy quality of the moving two-dimensional image projected into space that nearly attains a degree of materiality—as a kind of holographic theoretical sculpture—Nauman marks the space of the viewer. 

It was curious to see some visitors to the museum strolling rather quickly in and out of each room without bothering at all with the 3D glasses even though each room was supplied with a few chairs in order to sit back and take in the artworks at length. In that each of the eight videos seemingly shows a different view, and with the hand’s movements recorded from various angles—some in color, others in black and white—taking the time to view each one individually yields fascinating results. In one instance, coming close to the wall and viewing the action off to the side leads to a surreal stretching and foreshortening of the moving finger.

Bruce Nauman, His Mark, 2021 (still). 3D projection (color, stereo sound), continuous play projection installed at SITE Santa Fe Museum. Courtesy of the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York.  © 2023 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS); photograph by Chris Doyen

Out of the eight video images, one in particular operates uniquely. During Nauman’s tracing of the figure on the tabletop, our attention, of course, becomes drawn to the fingertip, resulting in a blurring out of our surroundings. The slowness of the finger sliding across the wood surface becomes mesmerizing while intermixed with a slight dizziness induced by the constant shifting of perspective. Pointing to the passage of time, the signs of aging on the back of the hand are echoed by the pockmarks in the table’s surface, the blending of these surface textures at first glance working to somehow flatten the image by pushing the background forward to meet the foreground. 

Moreover, a side effect of the thick 3D glasses is the cutting off of one’s peripheral vision, ultimately impairing one’s normal sense of awareness of the immediate surroundings. On more than one occasion when it seemed other museumgoers had entered the room, in reality those noises had come from the background soundtrack of the video, consisting of the eerie, muffled shuffling of digits across the table. Nauman on occasion lifts his finger an inch or two above the surface to reposition it before beginning again at his tracing. There are moments when the finger sliding across the surface seems to levitate above the tabletop of its own accord even though it is still obviously touching the wood. At these moments, the amorphous tabletop, peppered with an array of constellation-like markings, begins to recede from view like a vast universe as the finger seems to come forward towards the audience, hovering some ten inches above the surface. The effect is uncanny.

In a scene essentially delivered to viewers divorced from any narrative framework whatsoever, the meaning of the action itself remains veiled in ambiguity. Further, the brevity of the video set on loop does nothing to mitigate this uncertainty. Rather, the repetition appears to actually augment that opacity. As the finger floats free from the surface of the wood, it literally becomes the quintessential floating signifier: a sign without a clear or definitive referent. This is evocative of the French philosopher Roland Barthes’s analysis of the unexpected effects resulting from the extraction of a film still from the flow of its overall narrative context. Barthes defined the third meaning as “a signifier without a signified" (2). His analysis focused on the unusual effects resulting from isolating a film still from its original context; in doing so, the image transcends Barthes’s first two orders of meaning: the informative and the symbolic. Nauman’s use of 3D video achieves a Barthesian third meaning by dislodging the depicted sign from its referent. More profoundly, whereas Barthes’s focus was on the still image, here the Nauman video achieves what could be called a moving third meaning in three dimensions, one that is experienced in real-time by the spectator in the exhibition space.

In an area at some remove from these artworks was Nauman’s Self-Portrait at 80 (2022). Arguably the most compelling work in the show, Self-Portrait at 80 represents a return to Nauman’s 2019 Walking a Line. However, more compelling are the similarities between Self-Portrait at 80 and Contrapposto Studies (2015/2016), particularly the violent horizontal slicing of the figure, exacerbated by its unsettling rendering in 3D.

Bruce Nauman, Self-Portrait at 80, 2022. 4K 120fps 3D projection (black and white, stereo sound), continuous play projection size: 114 x 203 inches (289,6 x 515,6 cm) as installed 15 minutes 45 seconds. Courtesy of the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York. © 2023 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS); photograph by Chris Doyen

The action depicted in Self-Portrait at 80 is played in reverse with the images projected on the wall also flipped. The disquieting effect of the human body chopped in half at the waist is intensified when at one point the severed torso swivels around one hundred and eighty degrees, moving away from the viewer as the legs come forward. Things are literally turned on their head about halfway through the video with the image being inverted. The most poignantly harrowing moment occurs when Nauman’s torso, dangling upside down from its legs, disappears from sight altogether, only to reappear a few moments later in the corner of the screen before moving back to its original place.

The deconstructive dismantling of figuration portrayed in Contrapposto Studies—with Nauman’s body sliced into ninety-eight pieces—finds its homeostatic aftermath in the chaotic entropy on display in the artist’s studio. The cubist composition of form becomes literalized in 3D as stacked cardboard boxes, a chair, a wood board, a cement block, and square pieces of paper tacked to the wall menacingly spill out from the image into the museum space, threatening to overwhelm the audience, while the central figure of Nauman’s body ironically remains hovering in the background. The use of 3D allows for the goal of depicting a simultaneity of perspective—with more than one side of an object represented at once—to be  achieved in what may be called a type of video cubism.

In terms of a sense of violence to the image, some critics over the years have focused on the ways in which Nauman seems to ‘attack’ his viewers. Whether it be suffering along with the performers in Clown Torture (1987), weathering the stentorian monologue of the severed, spinning heads in Anthro/Socio: Rinde Spinning (1992), or enduring the penetrating gaze of surveillance cameras while walking through the unnerving lighting of a room or corridor construction, attending a Nauman exhibit has on occasion been described as entailing a certain assaultive quality to it. It is in this sense that Barthes’s notion of the power of the image to “wound” (3) viewers offers another compelling lens through which to view the mechanisms of Nauman’s 3D video artworks. In his book Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1981), Barthes describes the punctum as some aspect of a photo that “pricks” the viewer, as in a “mark made by a pointed instrument" (4). Of particular note is that Barthes refers to his engagement with the photographic image as an experience, calling to mind the audience’s experience (5) coming to grips with the imagery of Nauman’s artworks. The “sting” (6) of Barthes’s punctum finds a parallel in the scoring of spectators’ sensibilities in the Nauman installation, yet, for Barthes, the punctum remained part of the photo, whereas, in the case of Nauman’s work, the punctum is transmuted into space along with the moving 3D image, activating a symbiotic engagement with the spectator that represents an expansion of Barthes’s thought into the realm of the performative.

This latest exhibition remained consonant with the aesthetic of much of Nauman’s oeuvre that is filled with powerfully enigmatic artworks that are difficult to categorize, the complex ambiguity of which arguably plays a large part in the international appeal this artist has sustained over many decades. Nauman’s recent work continues to contribute to the evolution of the medium of video installation through its innovative demonstration of the seeming materiality of a two-dimensional image that references three-dimensional sculpture. WM


1.  Erica Battle. “Body at Work.” Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies, Philadelphia Museum of Art in Association with Yale University Press, 2018, p. 60.

2.  Roland Barthes. “The Third Meaning.” Image Music Text, trans. by Stephen Heath. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1977, p, 61.

3. Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. 1981, p. 21.

4. Barthes 1981, p. 26.

5. Barthes 1981, p. 97.

6. Barthes 1981, p. 27.


Chris Doyen

Bio: Chris Doyen is a PhD candidate in the History of Art at the University of Bristol in the UK. He completed his undergraduate degree in Comparative Literature at California State University Long Beach, after which he attended California Institute of the Arts, obtaining a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Critical Studies Writing Program. With research interests including postmodern sculpture and semiotics, his doctoral thesis redefines philosopher Roland Barthes’s theories as applied to Bruce Nauman’s installation art.

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