Pay Attention! — Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts
By THOMAS MOODY
Greeting you as you enter Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts at MOMA PS1 is the installation Violins Violence Silence, a triangle of neon letters that flicks intermittently between lighted scrawls of the title’s words. With every shift in the lights your expectations shift. The words cross over and begin to cross each other out. Violence? Silence? Violins? They all begin to read the same way. The phonetic similarities of the words as you sound them out in your head, and the closeness of their spelling to your eyes, disguise the vast and critical difference in their meaning. Small changes, the piece suggests, or innocent and minor mistakes can lead to radical differences in outcome. Misunderstandings, it goes without saying, are rife and to be expected, but this fact in no way lessens their consequences.
This blurring of moral clarity is indicative of the work in Disappearing Acts, a mammoth retrospective of the American artist Bruce Nauman, which fills nearly the entirety of the sprawling MOMA PS1 in Queens and the sixth floor of MOMA in Manhattan. Nauman’s work constantly sets out defined moral dichotomies — “good” vs. “bad,” “love” vs “hate” — and then goes about dissolving them, putting the viewer’s perceptions in a blender in the process.
For over half a century, Nauman has been experimenting with mediums — from watercolors to video corridors; from sound installations to live performance, sculpture, drawing and more — to become a central figure in contemporary art. But whatever form his art takes, there is always an expression of the ethical risk in any pursuit we undertake, including, ironically, looking at art itself. Nauman once stated that any interaction with art involves “doing things that you don’t particularly want to do, putting yourself in unfamiliar situations, following resistances to find out why you’re resisting.”
Resistance is therefore refashioned into attraction. In this way, there is much to resist in Nauman’s art. It is confronting and beguiling. A small gallery room at PS1 is given over to the video installation Clown Torture, which shows four screens of clowns in various settings: One is sitting innocently on the toilet, silently reading a magazine; while another is waving his hands and legs in a defensive position yelling “no” over and over again. It is instantly disturbing, and becomes increasingly so as the piece is considered more fully. There is nothing actually bad happening to the clown in the video. It is our own minds that fill the installation with the violence we assume will occur.
It is a typical ploy executed throughout Disappearing Acts. Nauman suggests something only to disappear from his art, allowing — forcing — the viewer to take over. The work constantly interrogates its viewers with a disquieting question: Why are you looking? Double Steel Cage Piece, an empty steel cage that sits ominously in a room of its own in PS1, is only ominous because we fill it with our own associations. A cage is inanimate; it is neither good nor bad — that is, it is not menacing by definition but by association. Why, then, are we drawn to it? Why do we stare at it so long just to get that cold chill down our spine? Why do we fill the cage with someone or something being held against its will?
The center of the piece is often absent in Nauman’s art, and therefore its presence is ever more deeply felt. The viewer is compelled to complete the work, and in doing so becomes complicit in the statement being made. Lighted Center Piece, an aluminum plate surrounded by four 1,000-watt halogen lamps, invites the viewer to come and peer into what the lamps are illuminating, only to discover that there is nothing more on offer than the plain aluminum plate. Like moths to the light we are drawn. Nauman dissolves the distinction between art and viewer: The art is not in the well-lit centerpiece, but the misleading of the viewer, inviting him or her to peer into near-blinding lights at absolutely nothing of interest. It is a masterful display of the power of anticlimax.
Nauman’s retrospective is immersing and, I dare say, exhausting. There is so much for the senses to take in, and the mind to consider, that perhaps unlike any other show I have attended, I felt like I had experienced Nauman’s art, not merely seen it. This was particularly true of the work at MOMA PS1, which benefits from the museum’s smaller, more-intimate rooms and maze-like layout. I would suggest visiting at a time when the gallery is as empty as it possibly gets, because Nauman’s work demands a level of participation from the viewer that might be difficult to achieve in a crowded space. Nevertheless, this is an exhibition that cannot be missed. Disappearing Acts is not merely a brilliant retrospective, but an important and timely one. As new standards of communication and moral behavior are seemingly being set daily, Nauman’s critical eye on shifting ethical structures is an invaluable one. One of the questions his work poses is how complicit are we, the viewers, in what we see? Is there such a thing as a “passive spectator”? Could certain celebrities of disrepute have risen to the offices they have attained without an audience, even an audience opposed to them? Nauman’s work gives no definitive answers, but forces us to open our eyes to the questions and pay attention.
Disappearing Acts is on display at MoMA PS1 until February 2019.