Published  16/11/2004

Bruce Nauman: Raw Materials

Bruce Nauman: Raw Materials

Tate Modern, London
12 October-28 March 2005

The great Turbine Hall at Tate Modern seems to evoke an Aladdin's cave for most artists. However, under Bruce Nauman's control, waves of spoken voices, all carefully positioned and structured, interact with each other and the viewer, who sees only the 16 speakers set out at regular intervals. Some visitors would claim that Nauman has created a cacophony in Tate Modern, but this great collage of sound both contains and cross-references its own harmonies.

Of course, although American, the deeper resonances of Nauman's work invoke Wittgenstein, Samuel Beckett and the migrant, Nabokov. There are also wholly American links with the rhythm and cadence of Sam Shepherd and even of Philip Glass. Johnnie Coltrane and the mostly forgotten (and neglected) jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, play a part much-lauded by Nauman. If one is seeking Nauman's European roots, one is reminded immediately of Aristophanes' 'The Frogs (Ranae)' and their refrain, 'Brekekekex koax koax', as repeated endlessly before the shocked, ancient Athenian audiences sitting in the amphitheatre at Epidaurus. Indeed, Nauman's roots can be truly validated to the very genesis of European art and culture.

Nauman faced a difficult predicament this year at Tate Modern. His last two predecessors in the Unilever Series (Anish Kapoor with his massive 'Marsyas' and Olafur Eliasson’s series 'The Weather Project') raised the stakes in the challenge of how best to address the mega-space in this great emporium of emptiness. For Nauman, the first significant, even brilliant component imposed upon the unwary visitor is the progression down the ramp. The twinned speakers start at the top and gravitate deeper and deeper into the hall. The bands of sound scarcely overlap - it is more a question of the viewer passing from one zone to another. There are 21 individual sound pieces to this collage, disposed with a rigour that is typical of Nauman.

The waves of sound created here do incorporate a retrospective, self-referential sourcing of his past work, but this rigour can prove intolerant. When Nauman first visited Tate Modern, the Turbine Hall was full of Henry Moores and, as a result, he did consider here an installation whereby all the sculptures might be suspended from cranes.
Beckett seems closest in similarity, as evidenced in Nauman's previous piece, 'Clown Torture'. Here, there is a video of men dressed as clowns who stand one-legged, repeating ad infinitum:

'It was a dark and stormy night. Three men were sitting round a campfire. One of the men said, "tell us a story Jack". And so Jack repeats "it was a dark and stormy night…" '

The ending of every sequence comes when the one-legged clown topples over. This Nauman perplexes adults, but amuses any children around.

Nauman seems to have been inspired at Tate Modern to an extent that no other artist has been, by the vaguely perceptible 'thrum' of the still adjacent turbine in operation. The art critic Robert Hughes is not pro-Nauman, for all the shock of this new work. He feels the ruthless alienation of the viewer/visitor in Nauman's thrall. However, there is a host of Nauman followers who welcome this very conflict. On leaving Tate Modern and the Turbine Hall, one is subject, for long after, to a haunting series of dream-like thoughts and memories of this great space - void, but suffused by cacophony.

Michael Spens

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