Bruce Nauman: Spatial Encounters
(University of California Press, 2019)
Bruce Nauman stands between two walls. His belly brushes against one as his shoulder blades slide across the other. Above his head fluorescent tubes hum and flood the artist’s vision with green light. He is in his studio. It is 1970. He does not know where this work will be shown, but soon it will stand before a window that looks out over the ocean and the artist will be pleased. The work will be exhibited in many places in the years to come and then it will be reinstalled almost half a century later (in 2011) before the same window looking out over the same ocean. For many who pass between the walls, under the acid-green illumination, the experience is tense, frightening, even disturbing. The artist acknowledges those experiences, but for him, standing in the middle of the corridor, it is very calm.
A work of art is what it is, obviously, but it is also what it could be. In other words, it is more than itself, but how much more? And through what means does an audience recognize the multifariousness of its being? This is the question that gives gravity to the astute essays of Constance M. Lewallen, Dore Bowen, and Ted Mann in the remarkable book Bruce Nauman: Spatial Encounters, the first to directly focus on the artist’s architectural installations, particularly his corridors. The book’s origin lies in the reinstallation of Nauman’s San Jose Installation at San José State University in 2018, and the three authors provide deeply researched and complimentary paths to thinking about what the different installations mean for the artwork. Thankfully, their thoughtful contributions are accompanied by a great many stunning images, allowing the reader to visually track Nauman’s development over the course of more than five decades.
Lewallen’s essay, “Full Circle,” gives a historical overview of the artist’s architectural installations, taking care to ground her narrative in the conceptual and physiological currents that compel the artist and captivate his audience. Foremost amongst these currents is the manner in which Nauman’s work directly engages and affects the bodies of those who interact with it. Rather than viewers, Lewallen refers to Nauman’s audience as “participants” and shows with noted clarity how his installations emerged out of performance-oriented activities. What I found most interesting was her focus on Nauman’s corridors as “the connection between private and public experience” and the tension that is generated by challenging the participant’s expectations of that relationship. Disorientation may be the natural state of a transition, and though it may last only a moment, when the body’s senses are triggered by inconsistencies (or a lack) of incoming information, one response is heightened awareness. You pay more attention to yourself, to your surroundings. It’s an existential proposition with political ramifications, and one that the artist felt with considerable emotion. You can’t ignore situations you don’t like when you are tasked with attention to details. It feels like a wakeup call when Lewallen concludes her essay with a quote from the artist in all caps, “PAY ATTENTION MOTHER FUCKERS.”
To Lewallen’s big-picture narrative of Nauman’s corridors, Dore Bowen adds an intimate case study of a single work, zeroing in on how his San Jose Installation accumulates meaning, how its meaning changes, and how new meanings are developed. In doing so, she also tells her own story, and it involves good sleuthing that leads to the uncovering of overlooked documents and previously unpublished photographs. Time plays a major function in her analysis and conclusions. Early in Bowen states her effort to “unravel the corridor’s relationship to time,” which includes fascinating architectural, etymological, and literary histories. The word “corridor” initially referred to a person, like a courier, not a passageway. In fact, the passageway got its name from the messenger who passed through it. Speed was a desirable characteristic, but not for Nauman. In his case the person passing through the corridor—if they could even do so (some of his corridors were impassable or inaccessible to participants)—was intended to step slowly. Throughout, Bowen shows how movement structures experience in Nauman’s San Jose Installation, and adds important reflections on this relationship in terms of the network of social and civic infrastructures within which the artist operated.
Concluding the triad of essays, Ted Mann explores the relationship between Nauman’s architectural installations and the artist’s drawing practice. Mann gives the reader an image of the artist in his studio, standing before a large sheet of paper, moving around and making marks. He praises Nauman’s economy of line and considers him a fine draftsman, but it’s the “role the drawings perform” that is truly worth note. Mann describes their function as conceptual documents and quasi blueprints, but he also recognizes their independence as aesthetic statements and intellectual exercises. Naumann made drawings before and after building out installations; one doesn’t necessarily follow the other. To that end, Mann situates Nauman’s practice in conjunction with Mel Bochner’s idea of “working drawings,” which was groundbreaking insofar as it established the notion that the information contained in a drawing could itself be the artwork, that a “finished” object was no longer an essential endpoint. Indeed, objects in general come to seem secondary to Nauman, whose true focus was phenomenological—not the object, per se, but the sensory experience it engenders. And it’s this flexibility of form—the impermanence of the San Jose Installation—that activates the artwork’s agency, and enables the engrossing discussions of this significant book.