The Daily Telegraph

This show is like a primer on how to make con­tem­po­rary art

Bruce Nau­man

- By Alas­tair Sooke Entertainment · Arts · Tate Modern · Dante Alighieri · Olafur Eliasson · Guantanamo Bay Naval Base · Samuel Beckett

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

 ??  ?? Mean swirl: Bruce Nau­man’s work is full of irony and un­set­tling im­agery
Mean swirl: Bruce Nau­man’s work is full of irony and un­set­tling im­agery

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