In His Biggest Survey in Decades, Bruce Nauman Speaks to the Times
Disappearing Acts, Bruce Nauman’s two-venue masterclass on conceptual art at MoMA and its Queens-based sister institution, MoMA PS1, challenges the tropes of art itself in order to redefine life—two antitheses history labeled as opposites. For Nauman, polarity means amalgamation. In his undertaking, life and art are not two sides of the medallion, but two threads of a knot. Occupying the museum’s spacious 6th floor galleries and its Long Island City outpost in its entirety, the exhibition comes a quarter century after the 77-year-old artist’s last survey, proving the intricacy in contextualizing his work for new generations and social landscapes.
Righteously, our “post” era deserves Disappearing Acts, which approaches the artist’s oeuvre not only through physicality, but also absence, making the viewer search the invisible, both in corporal and cerebral states. The exhibition’s spacious hang at MoMA’s top floor grants visitors with generous mobility and association with the work, most of which comes in grand scales and ambitious displays with corridors and passages splitting the space and determining our movements. Spearheading the curatorial team is Kathy Halbreich, who co-organized Nauman’s previous survey in 1994. She leads us to seek the invisible, embodied in our tumultuous times as truth in the face of political instability and meaning on personal level behind computer screens and phone swipes.
The artist’s toying with life and its “meaningless meanings” reflects the zeitgeist’s ebbs and flows, our back-and-forth with nature, technology, sexuality, and, most importantly, ourselves. In his email to Galerie, Magnus Schaefer of MoMA said: “Once we knew that the scope of this retrospective, we decided to let the distinct architecture of the two buildings guide the selection of the works. Most of the exhibition spaces at PS1 are former classrooms that could not be reconfigured. There, we often chose to install only one or two works per gallery to allow for a more intimate experience of the works. At MoMA, we kept the 6th floor almost entirely open and let Nauman’s architecturally scaled installations define the space.”
The 6th floor’s show-opener Venice Fountains (2007) greets viewers with two industrial sinks adorned with utilitarian tools—faucets, buckets, hoses and pumps—followed by the intruders: plaster masks continuously spurting water from their mouths. They absorb the liquid through tubes and spurt it back again. Source of life is cycled and spilt out through artfulness of the masks. The declaration on the adjacent graphite and ink drawing reads: “The True Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain.”
Created four decades apart, these two works encapsulate Nauman’s scrutiny of creative deliverance and how art history, particularly Western, is institutionalized. The subtle sensuality of the fountains prepare the viewers for his corporeal experiments, rendered in performance, photography and neon, and exhibited at PS1’s nooks of galleries.
From the iconic 1968 performance Walk with Contrapposto, documented in a 60-minute video, to his neon sculptures of flickering orgy sequences or plays on words, Nauman peels mundane layers off of life, revealing art in its core. In Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square (Square Dance) or Art Make-Up: No. 1 White, No. 2 Pink, No. 3 Green, No. 4 Black performances (both from 1967-68), he is a young, attractive man, utilizing his body to measure his surrounding through space and time or testing limits of his physical being as a blank canvas.