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Attention Must Be Paid: Bruce Nauman In Basel
John Quin , July 28th, 2018 08:37

John Quin gets to grips with the American master’s retrospective at Schaulager

Bruce Nauman, Eating My Words from the portfolio Eleven Color Photographs, 1966–67/1970/2007 Tintenstrahldruck, Ausstellungskopie (ursprünglich Chromogendruck), 49.2 × 60.5 cm, Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Gerald S. Elliott Collection, 1994, Foto: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago, © Bruce Nauman / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich

Switzerland and half an hour after leaving the bumper Bruce Nauman show we catch a smooth ride in a specially customized tram advertising the exhibition that glides us back to Basel’s city centre.

Time to ponder the challenge of summarizing Nauman’s vast influence on contemporary art practice, what to hone in on. Should the focus be on his interest in sound or language or philosophy? Then I remember a black and white video of him ambling down a narrow corridor, Walk with Contrapossto (1968), his gait odd, his hips moving side-to-side in a manner some have misinterpreted as ‘sashaying’. There’s nothing casual about his stride. His stance looks awkward, he’s having a right old struggle as if he had sprains or bilateral hip dislocations, and then I think – yes – I can anchor down on Nauman’s fear of clumsiness; his interest in dyspraxia; his remorseless fascination about instability; his persistent message being (as if he were some Art God Green Cross Code Man) that we stop, look and listen; that we should watch out.

And just at that moment of epiphany – the realization that Nauman seems to be constantly telling us to be careful – I’m suddenly aware that I’m walking alone. I turn in horror to see my wife on the ground, tripped by a kerb facing the kinetic Jean Tinguely fountains (!), her ankle everted, swollen, broken. I, we, hadn’t been paying enough attention.

Indeed Pay Attention (1973) is a lithograph of Nauman’s with said message written (it actually says ‘pay attention motherfuckers’) as it would appear in a mirror. Nauman worries about his audience; he knows we can get hurt. This then is a short orthopaedic/neurological take on the artist that will concentrate on his compulsive absorption about balance.

Nauman is considered to be one of the most cerebral artists around and anatomically he can be seen as the poet of the parietal lobe, where our sense of spatial navigation and language processing lies. He is the laureate of proprioception, he tests his body, he knows where it’s at whether he’s taking lessons on movement from Meredith Monk or when he experiments with contorting his arms and legs and torso, as seen in his Wall-Floor Positions (1968).

Bruce Nauman, Wall-Floor Positions, 1968 (still) Video (black and white, sound), 60 min., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchased from Video Data Bank, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Exhibition file courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York, still: EAI, © Bruce Nauman / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich

The show is largely chronological in display, suitably reflecting the evolution of his thinking, his obsessions. Nauman digs making things, he likes knives, he’s even fashioned his own saying there’s ‘something beautiful about its utility’. A man who uses pocketknives has to be careful with his hands. Spilling coffee because the cup was to hot (1966) is a pastel and pencil drawing that shows just such an accident. That misspelt ‘to’ hints at a minor dyspraxia, a slight parietal dysfunction, if not that then Nauman’s own fears of poor coordination, a failure of dexterity. As the show progresses, as he ages, there’s a painful knowledge of Nauman’s own maladroitness as with All Thumbs (1996) – a plaster sculpture of two obviously clumsy hands where the fingers are, of course, all the aforementioned opposing digits.

Then there are the newer versions of that funny walk referencing the poses of Renaissance sculpture as with Contrapposto Studies I through vii (2015/16) and Contrapposto Split (2017), each utilizing up to the minute technology – seven-channel video with split screens in the former and 3D projection in the latter, both highlighting the artist’s frailty, his decline in suppleness with ageing, his warp and wobble. He’s gone on record as saying ‘my hips aren’t as flexible as they were’ but in both these later works he holds his arms triumphantly aloft, he still manages to stay upright. Nauman knows that gravity will get him in the end, ultimately he will fall, as with an earlier image – the mordant humour of a self-explanatory photograph Failing to Levitate in the Studio (1966).

Bruce Nauman, All Thumbs, 1996, Plaster, two parts: 10 × 5 1/2 × 4 inches (25.4 × 14 × 10.2 cm) and 9 1/2 × 4 × 4 1/4 inches (24.1 × 10.2 × 10.8 cm), Private Collection, Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York, photo: Courtesy the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York, © Bruce Nauman / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich

Another metaphor for precarity comes with Untitled (1998-99) – a cast-concrete staircase of 290 steps with varying heights of risers set in Sonoma County. There are no handrails: the work is an obvious test of parietal function and tumbling threatens. Maybe there should be one of those signs that you see outside a roller coaster saying ‘this artwork may not be suitable for vulnerable persons with heart complaints, epilepsy, pregnancy or any other medical condition’. Indeed the Schaulager show can be experienced as an adult theme park complete with flashing neon signs in lurid colours and design. Nauman is interested in slapstick, pratfalls; he knows we are all clowns. The ever-present thrill of threat is here, a destabilizing taste of that adrenaline rush we get with waltzers, ghost trains, and dodgems at the end of the pier funfair. There’s even his horrid Carousel (Stainless Steel Version) (1988) with its revolving grotesques, a group of strung up animal casts used by taxidermists.

Staying with animals Nauman gives us an Aesopian allegory on the giant pair of LED monitors embedded in the outside walls of Schaulager. With Mr. Rogers (2013) we see the artist’s hands manipulate three sharpened pencil stubs to balance up against each other, point to point. A pointed exercise but, it being Nauman, this act cannot be as pointless as it first appears. The parietal effort involved is obvious, this trick takes skill, but just as he achieves the minor feat we see the paws of his cat (the eponymous Mr. Rogers) pad past. The cat is insouciant, light stepping, its skill in a cramped space obvious, innate and utterly unconcerned with the ridiculous spatial striving of a mere human. Poise – if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

This retrospective confirms that Nauman, the mystic cowboy in New Mexico, the font of ludic wisdom on (as he would have it) learned helplessness, is the most consistently inventive and influential artist alive. Mind how you go.

Bruce Nauman: Retrospective is at the Schaulager, Basel, until 26 August and then moves on to New York’s MOMA from 21 October to 25 February 2019