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Bruce Nauman Retrospective at Tate Modern (7 Oct 2020 – 21 Feb 2021)

Tension throughout

by Harry Carlson | 19 November 2020

Bruce Nauman Falls, Pratfalls and Sleights of Hand (Clean Version) 1993 Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020





Bruce Nauman’s presence at the Tate Modern is inescapable; climbing the stairs to the ground floor of the building, fellow staff writer, Kitty and I are accosted by the artist’s voice being played through speakers that have been placed ever so slightly out of sight. We approach the entrance to the retrospective and are greeted by Nauman’s hands submerged and vigorously scrubbing one another in an amalgam of suds, dirt and paint displayed on a double monitor view. Afterwards, as we exit, we’re sent on our way by Nauman’s 1985 work ‘Good Boy, Bad Boy’ which is displayed in the café – the ambience supplied by a group of mums forcing overpriced flapjacks down their protesting children’s throats perfectly supplemented the unsettling tone of the two floating, droning heads playing on a loop nearby. Tension pervades the entire gallery. The echoes of screaming clowns, spinning heads, humming neon tubes and sharp screeching from a detuned violin that Nauman seems to be slowly dispatching with his bow sonically penetrates every cubic meter of the space. Whether this was an intentional move during the curatorial stages or a consequence of placing Nauman’s work in such a sterile and bare environment remains unanswered. No matter, the effect was apposite.

(left): Installation view, Bruca Nauman, Bouncing in the Corner, No. 1, 1968, video with soundTate Modern, London

(right): Installation view, Bruca Nauman, Walk with Contrapposto, 1968, video with sound Tate Modern, London

The retrospective follows Nauman’s work from his early video pieces such as ‘Bouncing in the Corner No.1’, 1968 and ‘Walk With Contrapposto’, 1968 to the most recent work on display ‘Walks In Walks Out’, 2015. The decision to display the works non-chronologically allows the visitor to identify the commonality of themes between works, some created up to 50 years apart. Though the works selected accurately portray the evolution of Nauman’s work from his time at UC Davis in the 60s to his more reflective work from the last 10 years, I couldn’t help but feel a slight absence when we reached the final room of the gallery without having viewed some of my favourite works such as ‘Three Heads Fountain’, 2005 or ‘Carousel’, 1988. Their inclusion, I felt, would have helped further reflect the wide range of mediums Nauman works with in conjunction with motion.

Regardless, making my way around the galleries with a friend who had no prior experience of Nauman’s work was a valuable insight through fresh eyes into the visceral reaction his work garners upon first experiencing it. As someone who has been both familiar with and inspired by the artist, the cacophonic clangour and cackling that surrounded us during the viewing elicited a strange pang of both anticipation and familiar anxiety –Kitty, on the other hand, was more shocked by the absurd nature of much of his middle-period and curious about the source of the noises.

Usually when I am viewing or reading about Nauman’s work, it is through the lens of a lecture or work of theory. I focus on a specific piece, happening or theme Nauman explores and pick apart the work over a number of pages or hours. The Tate’s retrospective allowed me to step back from the specifics and guide myself through a brilliant selection of Nauman’s last 50 years of cutting-edge and arguably epochal works, also serving as an excellent introduction to those unfamiliar with the artist’s work.


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