The Daily Telegraph
This show is like a primer on how to make contemporary art
Tate Modern, London SE1
Bruce Nauman is not, to be frank, a purveyor of visual pleasure. Coming across one of the 78-year-old American artist’s installations is more like encountering a live wire. Danger: high voltage. Don’t visit his new retrospective at Tate Modern, then, if you want a fix of joie de vivre. Nauman deals in adrenalin rushes, not sugar highs.
Here, like fragments of a nightmare, are a few flashes from the show: steel cages and surveillance cameras; spinning, screaming disembodied heads; scary clowns. And, around a corner, a monitor broadcasting footage of – creepy! – you or your doppelganger walking briskly out of shot. It’s very Blair Witch. Have we taken a wrong turn into a house of horrors?
“The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths,” proclaims a swirling neon sign, like something above a godforsaken bar in Nowheresville, at the exhibition’s threshold. Yeah, right.
Nauman – who once produced a print of the words “Pay Attention Motherf-----s” – is being ironic. “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” would be more like it. Throughout, we hear offstage howls and wails, like the cries of sinners from Dante’s Inferno. For all that, though, I left this superb exhibition feeling elated. Why?
Occasionally, Nauman’s described as an artist’s artist – often a euphemism for someone who makes demanding work that’s tough to categorise. Here, though, it means more.
As you walk through this exhibition’s 13 rooms, arranged thematically and mostly filled with individual installations, it is astonishing to note how inventive and influential Nauman has been. Honestly: this show is like a primer on how to make contemporary art.
I’ve already mentioned one of his neons (hello, Tracey Emin) – but, at every turn, we find ideas subsequently cherry-picked by others. A concrete cast of the space beneath Nauman’s chair anticipates the work of Rachel Whiteread. A room saturated with fluorescent yellow light throws forward to Olafur Eliasson. The tense, political oeuvre of Mona Hatoum is predicted by Double Steel Cage Piece (1974), a chilling installation of two mesh enclosures, one inside the other, separated by a narrow gap, which foretells Guantánamo Bay. Nauman, the great influencer, isn’t afraid of being influenced, either. His works are subtle sallies on art history, not dumb, provocative empty gestures.
But how best to describe the unforgettable power of Nauman’s art? For me, it all clicked into place when I learnt that as a student, he was obsessed with Samuel Beckett. Because behind Nauman’s austere oeuvre, which customarily fuses menace with wit, is the theatre of the absurd. One early piece consists of a taped recording of a scream embedded in a concrete block. All we see is the device’s cord and electric plug poking out. It could be a tragicomic prop for an existential skit.
The impotence of the individual is a constant preoccupation. And this, I suspect, explains the artist’s interest in childhood, another recurring theme. Clowns, card tricks, games of musical chairs and hangman: all feature at Tate Modern, but given a dark yank, to evoke the powerlessness of infancy.
The finale is Falls, Pratfalls and Sleights of Hand (Clean Version) (1993), which features a magician’s eerily glowing hands performing a card trick, against black. It doesn’t sound like much, but, slowed down and projected across a wall, accompanied by rumbling, ominous noises as the magician riffles through the deck, the footage becomes mesmerising, epic, infinite. Here is a Big Bang moment, a spark of creation in the abyss – conjured, ex nihilo, by a spectral deity whose purpose we cannot fathom.
Hands against a void: is it absurd to divine an allusion to Michelangelo’s fresco of God imparting the spark of life to Adam via his fingertips? Perhaps. After all, this is, ostensibly, nothing but a two-bit trick. As ever, with Nauman, the joke’s on us – but this time, at least, the mood is benign, not stern. Maybe there will be a happy ending, after all.
Nauman clicked into place with me when I learned that he loved Samuel Beckett