This year marks the 80th birthday of American artist Bruce Nauman. Following on from a recent Tate retrospective is Presence/Absence at White Cube, the first exhibition in Hong Kong for the pioneering video artist, featuring five works: two single-channel pieces, from 1999 and 2001; and three dual-screen projections made in 2013. The artist is present in all but one of them.
Many of Nauman’s earlier works are about time and endurance: his own as an artist, as he pushes himself to physical limits; and the audience’s, as they try to sit through videos of maniacal clowns (Clown Torture, 1987), and of the artist performing mundane tasks. In one of several early videos from 1968, we see him bouncing off the wall (Bouncing in the Corner I), making the viewer dizzy in the process. In another, Walk with Contrapposto (1968), he walks back and forth in a narrow corridor, exaggeratedly swinging his hips side to side. Similarly, in Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square (1968), he places one foot in front of the other, walking forwards and backwards around the edge of a square of masking tape affixed to his studio’s concrete floor. In another, Wall Floor Positions (1968), he manipulates his body like a sculpture into a series of uncomfortable poses.
The artist’s body, the studio space and whatever else he has at hand become the sites of sculptural and creative production. A lot of Nauman’s work takes viewers into the private sanctum of the artist’s studio. In the late 1960s, the artist mused that if “I was an artist, and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art. At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product.”
Much of the work is repetitive, boring even – a documentation of the passing of time, and the struggle to overcome creative block and figure out what to create. “I’m an artist, I want to be in the studio, I want to be doing something,” he has said. “And you just get desperate, and so you just do whatever’s at hand, and you don’t even worry about whether it’s going to be interesting or not interesting to anybody else or even yourself. You just have to make something.”
But many of Nauman’s films also explore what people get up to when stuck inside alone for too long – such as during a pandemic lockdown, perhaps. Over the past year, many of us have been housebound and limiting social interactions, our daily activities reduced to repetitive chores and activities in a semblance of routine and our life contained by four walls, passing time and being passed by it.
Two sets of parallax video works from 2013 are presented across two floors in the gallery. Thumb Start and 4th Finger Start, and Bullet Illusion/Pencil Illusion explore the illusion that can be created by viewing objects from different lines of sight. The works offer a sense of physical and perceptual disembodiment, as footage is doubled and superimposed, and hands and objects take on a phantom-like quality. As with a double exposure, the films create the impression that you are seeing double, like absent-mindedly staring at something for too long. It’s a destabilising and disturbing feeling, yet there is a meditative quality to the repetitive movements of Nauman’s fingers as they respond to spoken instruction in Thumb Start and 4th Finger Start. They seem a solemn reminder of time ticking away, like a metronome, as he counts down on hands that appear, and move with, less vigour than in earlier films. In Bullet Illusion/Pencil Illusion, a diptych of two looped projections, Nauman’s hands feature once again, fingers pressed against a pair of bullets and a pair of pencils, point to point in mid-air against a white background. The objects are chosen for their formal qualities – both are thin objects with a pointed or sharpened end – allowing them to be juxtaposed in an abstract manner. Symbolically, they represent creation and death, or violence and pedagogy, but they are also objects that are readily available to a rancher (bullet) and an artist (pencil), revisiting Nauman’s consideration of labour and creative production.
Although most of Nauman’s video works are set in the artist’s studio, by contrast Setting a Good Corner (Allegory and Metaphor) (1999) was filmed outdoors, on the ranch in New Mexico where he has been living since 1979. The film centres on the artist building a fence; it is a job with purpose and a necessary chore on a ranch. The video, almost an hour long, spans both the duration of the task and the length of the video cassette. The film explores the notion of time and the value of work, whether carried out by an artist or a rancher. In a 1988 interview Nauman spoke of “… the particularly American idea about morality that has to do with the artist as a workman. Many artists used to feel alright about making a living with their art because they identified with the working class.” Here Nauman is both artist and rancher, and manual labour is transformed into artwork.
Sounds for Mapping the Studio I (2001), created from footage originally used for the artist’s celebrated Mapping the Studio (Fat Chance John Cage) (2001), is a continuation of the artist’s proposal from the 60s that anything an artist does in the studio is artistic production.
Recording the studio space at night with infrared video cameras located in seven different positions, the film captures the nocturnal activities that happen in the studio in the artist’s absence – scurrying mice, moths and a cat.
Amid the long stretches of nothingness, the artist’s cat becomes the highlight of the hour-long film, creating a sense of anticipation and tension over what will happen next. Turns out the cat doesn’t do much, but if Covid lockdown has demonstrated anything, it’s that people love cat videos. The mewing of the cat, banging of doors and howling of coyotes compete for attention amid the ambient sounds of drilling from Setting a Good Corner. The exhibition space is a cacophony of sonic pollution, a testament to artist and composer John Cage’s conviction that the world is filled with unintentional symphonies, blurring the lines between noise and music – just as the studio is filled with the potential for unintentional art.
Nauman creates works that often make the most out of nothing – or rather, anything – and explore the value of artistic labour and what art can be. But they are also an elegiac reflection on the passage of time, especially his more recent works, and arguably push the limits of our endurance for boredom. Nauman explores the moments in-between, filled with anxiety, frustration, tedium and procrastination. This is not only part of the creative act; for Nauman, it is the end product. Creativity, after all, isn’t just about the result, but also about the moments leading up to it. And sometimes, life just ticks away.
布魯斯很多早期作品都探討時間和忍耐：就其本身作為一名藝術家，將自己的身體發揮到極致；亦對於觀眾，他們耐心看完一段又一段瘋狂小丑的錄影（《小丑酷刑》，1987年）；以及藝術家做著日常事務的影片。在1968年的某段早期錄影中，他不斷從牆上彈開《Bouncing in the Corner I》，令人看得頭暈眼花。在另一部影片《Walk with Contrapposto》（1968年）裡，他在一段狹窄的走廊中來回走動，邊走邊誇張地左右擺動臀部。相近地，他在《Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square》（1968年）裡，他將一隻腳置於另一隻前面，圍著他在工作室地板上用膠帶畫出的一個正方形周圍前前後後行走。錄影《Wall Floor Positions》 (1968年)中，他像對待雕塑般擺弄自己的身體，擺出一系列扭曲不舒服的姿勢。
兩組於2013年創作，探討視差效應的錄影作品《Thumb Start》和《4th Finger Start》，以及《Bullet Illusion/Pencil Illusion》在畫廊的上下兩層展出。作品探索了物體在兩種不同視線的觀看時會令人產生一種錯覺，給人一種身體與知覺分離的意識，當鏡頭重疊時，手和物體呈現出幽靈似的效果。而雙重曝光讓人產生了一種看到疊影的感受，彷彿是盯著一樣東西看了太久所致。這予人一種動盪和不安的感覺。但在《Thumb Start》和《4th Finger Start》中，當瑙曼的手指重複執行著指令與回應的動作時，又有了些冥想的意味。像是打著拍子倒數，緩緩出現，動作減弱，似乎在鄭重提醒時間正在一分一秒流逝。《Bullet Illusion/Pencil Illusion》呈現兩個並排的迴圈投影，瑙曼的手再次出現其中。他的手指在半空中握住了一對在白色背景下點對點並置的子彈與鉛筆。這些物品因其規則性而被選中——它們都是帶有尖端的纖細物體，如此能夠以抽象的方式並置。在象徵意義上，它們代表著創造和死亡，亦或是暴力與教學；但它們也是牧場主人（子彈）和藝術家（鉛筆）輕易能得到的物品，借此我們也重溫瑙曼對勞動和創作的思考。
瑙曼的大部份錄影作品都是在他的工作室內創作的，除了《Setting a Good Corner (Allegory and Metaphor)》(1999)，其拍攝於新墨西哥州的一個牧場裡，他從1979年起便在那裡居住。影片圍繞他建造柵欄的過程，這是個「有目的」的工作，也是牧場裡必要的雜務。整部片子近一小時，這既是建造柵欄所用的時間，也是錄影帶的標準時長。作品探索時間的概念以及工作的價值，不管執行的人是藝術家還是牧場主人。在1988年的一次採訪中瑙曼曾說：「美國特有的道德準則，把藝術家視作工人。很多藝術家也很習慣以藝術為生，因為他們把自己定義為勞動階級。」 瑙曼是藝術家也是牧場主人，將體力勞動轉化為藝術作品。
《Sounds for Mapping the Studio I》 (2001年) ，以藝術家著名的《Mapping the Studio (Fat Chance John Cage)》（2001年）毛片製作，延續了他自60年代提出的假設：藝術家在工作室裡做的一切都是藝術。他通過安裝在不同機位的七個紅外線攝像機記錄下工作室夜間的活動。影片呈現了夜晚當藝術家離開後，工作室裡的活動——竄來竄去的老鼠、飛蛾，還有一隻貓。
在很長一段靜謐之間，藝術家的貓的出現成了這部時長一小時影片的亮點。觀者對接下來會發生什麼產生一種期待和緊張感。然而貓並沒有什麼舉動，但此次疫情封鎖讓人明白的是，人們喜歡看有關貓的影片。貓叫聲、砰砰作響的關門聲還有土狼的嚎叫聲在《Setting a Good Corner》充斥著電鑽聲的環境裡爭相引人注意。展覽空間被一片刺耳的聲音污染，證明了藝術家兼作曲家約翰·凱奇的信念，即世界仍在不斷譜寫偶發的交響樂，模糊了噪音和音樂之間的界線，正如工作室充滿著無心插柳創作出藝術品的可能性。