Thursday, April 16, 2015

Bruce Nauman, Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain

It’s always with a dose of apprehension that I go to see an exhibition of the work of an artist who has a reputation made and confirmed in a past historical and cultural moment. What could Bruce Nauman be doing today that will continue to push at the boundaries of possibility as he tested them in the 1970s? And how will he live up to the billing he has been given at one of Paris’s most seductive spaces for the exhibition of contemporary art? These were the skeptical questions in my thoughts as I approached the Bruce Nauman exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain.

Bruce Nauman, Pencil Shift/Mr Rogers, 2013

On entry to Jean Nouvel’s modernist—or is it post modernist?— glass building on Boulevard Raspail, the view is consumed with Pencil Lift/Mr Rogers (2013). A short pencil sharpened at two ends is held between two sharpened pencils by the artist in his studio. A diptych, two giant LED screens, one with a blank white background, the other with Nauman’s studio desk, show the “pencil lift” images on an asynchronous loop. The moment I liked best was on the right screen, when we saw the passing presence of the Mr Rogers of the title. Nauman’s cat walks across the table, each paw seemingly weightless as it is nonchanantly placed on a CD and a pile of papers on his path. Mr Rogers’ presence is the heart of an otherwise manual and intellectual exercise, though I didn’t really see the conceptual point of the actions.

In the smaller ground level space there was an audio piece—For Children/Pour Les Enfants— a sound installation in the genre of Nauman work that was so radical in the 1970s, but today lacks a little lustre. The words, “for the children” and “pour les enfants” are endlessly repeated, eventually creating an auditory illusion. I was reminded through experiencing this piece, how words for Nauman never communicate in the conventional way, language is always made into a kind of misinformation that then carries the theme.

Installation View of Bruce Nauman 
The three installations downstairs had none of the playfulness of Pencil Lift/Mr Rogers. On the contrary, Carousel (Stainless Steel Version), 1988 is one of the most terrifying artworks I have seen in a long time. Taxidermy cast sculptures of fragmented body parts of deer, lynxes and coyotes are dragged around the floor by wires around their necks that are, in turn, tied to a complex carousel-type structure. The piece is frightening because the animals are screaming silently, unable to audibly cry out against the injustice that has been committed against them. The sound of their paws gently sweeping the floor as they are dragged around, makes their utter powerlessness confront us, especially as we think of Mr Rogers gentle poise as he walks across the table upstairs.

“Carousel (Stainless steel version)” (1988) (detail)
Bruce Nauman, Carousel (Stainless steel version)" , 1988 detail
The brutally tortured animals share the space with another equally violent installation from 1991. The head of the classically trained singer Rinde Eckert is projected three times, once upside down, and on six monitors stacked on the floor to create a circle of heads. He repeats “Feed Me, Eat Me, Anthropology” “Help Me, Hurt Me, Sociology” and “Feed Me, Help Me, Eat Me, Hurt Me” with the volume turned up so high that the gallery guard was wearing headphones. The voice is aggressive and violent, giving the visitor a headache from the dissonance when standing in the middle of the circle. And just when the voices trail off and we think it is going to stop, they begin again. It’s not possible to sit with it for any length of time. Because Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera) is so confrontational – it pushes the aesthetic beyond its limit. I felt trapped, violated almost, in its presence. At the same time, if we do stay with it we begin to hear the music as, once again, repetition leads to an auditory illusion and the words become lost in the din.

Ultimately, the frightening, violent works in the downstairs galleries from the Nauman archive, so to speak, are still the most powerful works of the exhibition. Pencil Lift/Mr Rogers is visually striking and rhymes with the glass walls of the Nouvel designed space, but I am not convinced that he is doing anything conceptually that would come close to the challenges of Carousel and Anthro/Socio downstairs. What I also found interesting was the human element of the earlier works, what they evoke in the viewer. In distinction to the cuteness of  Pencil Lift/Mr Rogers, the downstairs pieces evoke substantial feelings, and a visceral experience.

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