Overwhelming and close to unbearably strange: Bruce Nauman at the Tate Modern

Culture Life

Image description: A still from Nauman’s Clown Torture (1987) depicting a close-up shot of a clown screaming.

Arriving at the Tate Modern, I knew very little about the American artist Bruce Nauman. Based on a couple of Instagram posts which had popped up over the last month, I was expecting bright neon lights, and a light-hearted theme. But fun and made of candyfloss, this exhibition is certainly not.

Sections of the exhibition are indeed deeply instagram-able, which is somewhat strange given their creation in the mid-1970s. But the bright neon colours also clash with their meanings. One Hundred Live and Die is darkly comic as it flashes away ways to live and ways to die in exuberant colours. Simplicity allows Nauman to explore multitudes, and language becomes both ambiguous and deeply meaningful.

Simplicity allows Nauman to explore multitudes, and language becomes both ambiguous and deeply meaningful.

Towards the end of the exhibition the neon returns in shocking fashion. Ater the darkness and hopelessness of the previous experiences, the brightly lit Hanged Man is a horrific take on children’s playfulness, with its erection flashing pointedly. The whispers of the phallic throughout the exhibition suddenly emerge fully and alarmingly.

Nauman’s work defies categorisation, and spans an impressive number of mediums: video, neon lights, sculpture and more. Rather than display a structured development across his 50 year career, the choice to instead mix every stage together works very well. In one piece, Nauman as a recent graduate, and Nauman far later in his career collaborate in meditatively walking in and out of a shot which repeatedly inverts the monochrome tones of the video. This use of space is also clear in Mapping the Studio II – the first part of the exhibition, which ‘flips and flops’ videos of Nauman’s studio, and slowly shifts the colours over time. Nothing particularly happens in these videos, but that is perhaps the point.

Rather than display a structured development across his 50 year career, the choice to instead mix every stage together works very well

Nauman has an uncanny ability to make the mundane seem full of terror. Coffee Spilling, a video of a cup of coffee in a perpetual state of spilling is unnerving despite its minimalism. It is made even more bizarre by the guttural shouts echoing from another as yet unseen piece in the next room. Cameras follow you round a corner in a Foucauldian surveillance nightmare right next to a multi-layered cage. Quieter and more understated, it takes on an eerie sense of fear.

If there is a uniting theme, it is Nauman’s fascination with pressure, both on the mind and the physical body. The human body becomes something not embodied, but strangely detached, or in many cases, literally disembodied. A return to basic instinctual demands and sounds reoccurs. A rapidly spinning floating head sings what sounds like a scream on every wall of Anthro/Socio.  Elsewhere he hideously contorts his neck and mouth, in a close-up shot which is among his most infamous.

Nauman has an uncanny ability to make the mundane seem full of terror.

Sound is as much a feature as the visual in Nauman’s work, and in the winding rooms of a rather empty Tate Modern, it reverberates through more than its specific pieces. The exhibition, with its loud wailing, flashing, and disorientating movement cannot be passively experienced. It is completely immersive. Through the successive rooms, it is not only the pressure exerted on the recorded body, or the contortions of his mouth that take centre-stage, but your own discomfort; the pressure exerted on you as a witness to the exhibition.

The defining piece has to be Clown Torture. The room becomes a pressurised prison of four walls covered in deeply disturbing videos of clowns. One sits alone in a toilet stall, another contorts his mouth and cries. I heard a woman walk in and say “what the fuck”, a very valid reaction, which I should think most people would share.

The exhibition, with its loud wailing, flashing, and disorientating movement cannot be passively experienced.

But despite this shocking element, the exhibition is not so conceptual as to be inaccessible. It is based in such honest human reactions, and basic emotions that it would be impossible not to be affected. It demands to be experienced. In parts, it is deeply unsettling, but as a whole, it is overwhelming and close to unbearably strange.

The exhibition runs until 21st February in the Tate Modern.

Image Credit: Nauman via Tate Modern

 

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