09. January 2017

Bruce Nauman’s approach to the studio as a place of artistic production.

By Dorothée Brill

Of all the frames, envelopes and limits – usually not perceived and certainly never questioned – which enclose and constitute the work of art […], there is one rarely even mentioned today that remains of primary importance: the artist’s studio.

Daniel Buren, The Function of the Studio, 1970/71

It was with these words that the French concept artist Daniel Buren began his 1970/71 text “The Function of the Studio.” In what follows, he identifies several functions: Firstly the studio is the place of origin of the work of art; secondly it is a private place and thus, in a way, set a little apart from reality; and thirdly it is a fixed place for the production of essentially transportable things. Indeed the studio is defined by the fact that what is created in it, requires to leave this space in order to become public. .

In the sphere of reception

It was this transfer from studio to the exhibition space that Bruce Nauman was focused on when, three years before – i.e. in 1967 – he was asked whether he considered what he did to be art and answered as follows: “The important thing is that someone sees the works.” This answer may seem somewhat evasive. Instead of outlining what he considers to be art, he makes reference to the obvious desire for one’s own creativity to find an audience. This process whereby the art becomes visible generally requires a change of location. The work shifts from the private and enclosed to the public and accessible sphere. It moves from the sphere of production to the place of reception, from the studio to the museum or the gallery.

Daniel Buren’s interest in the functional mechanisms of the studio arose from his desire to analyze all the framework conditions that flow into an artwork and determine it. Yet these conditions are far from historical constants. They are subject particularly to the widespread changes of the 20th century. Here Marcel Duchamp, the great emancipator of art, plays an exceptional role, since by detaching the artwork from its creation by the artist he makes the studio, as a setting and place for artistic creativity, obsolete.

Urinal and urinating

In contrast, the place of exhibition takes an all the more decisive role, because the question of whether a urinal is a functional object or a work of art is resolved merely as a result of the place where it is found. Far more than the intention of the artist, it is therefore the place in which we perceive the object that determines how we perceive it. “The museum,” Buren summarizes in the abovementioned text, “can enhance everything presented in it as required, even that which appears to have no (aesthetic-commercial) value.”

Buren criticizes Marcel Duchamp for having driven the museum’s growth in power under the guise of the emancipation of art from its previous prerequisites. The German Fluxus artist Wolf Vostell, on the other hand, accuses Duchamp of not going far enough in this emancipation. “If the urinal is an artwork, then urinating must also be art,” is his pointed claim. It’s a step that he and others made up for in the 1960s. Yet they too needed the museum to transform something everyday into an artistic action. It is the essential framework that transforms the non-artistic into the artistic.

Walking as art

Bruce Nauman took this step in the 1960s too: He tried out walking, sitting, lying down and drinking coffee for their value and their effect as artistic actions. And in doing so he was by no means alone. What is significant here, however, is that he locates the transformational power that defines the shift from the everyday to the artistic not in the museum, but in the studio. “I had the impression,” he recalled in 1988, “that everything I did when I was in the studio represented art, for example just walking around.” What is done within the studio is therefore of an artistic nature solely because it happens within the studio.

The space, understood in its functional sense here, determines the essence of its content. As the place in which art is produced, it is at the same time the place that produces art. Whether it is the production of an object or the execution of an activity that is involved here is of secondary importance to Nauman. “For me, the correlation lies in the fact that I go into the studio and do something there. Sometimes this activity results in the creation of a product and sometimes the activity itself is the product,” he said, commenting on his creative work in the spring of 1970. To sharpen Nauman’s approach in these early years, one could say that everything that is done in the studio is art simply because it is done in the studio.

The power of the studio

Although Nauman’s artistic experiments in the 1960s are firmly rooted at the heart of the dissolution of artistic boundaries, his conviction of the studio's function strongly counters a weakening or indeed an abolition of the studio as has been established elsewhere and is indeed eponymous in “post-studio practice.” On the contrary, he makes the studio the place that actually facilitates the dissolution of artistic boundaries through the power inherent within it.

In line with this, Nauman would therefore have been able to give a brief and succinct, positive answer to the initial question of whether he sees what he does as art by referring to the studio as the place of origin for such actions. Instead, with his answer he addressed the aspect which – based on this approach – created the greatest difficulty for him at the time,. Although, unlike Duchamp or Buren, he did not consider the museum as a formative instance, it is stil the necessary space in order to show his works to an audience.

The artist is absent

Correspondingly, he saw the need to transfer an activity he had carried out in the studio to the exhibition space. To do so, initially he famously used video technology, then still in its infancy. Later he transferred the activities themselves into the gallery space by providing his so-called "performance corridors" to the visitors so that they could replicate his own doings in the studio.” This transfer of a spatial structure from the studio to the exhibition space can be considered the transfer of the studio's formative power, which turns an everyday activity and experience into an artistic one.

To this extent, Bruce Nauman’s space-filling video work “Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage),” which he created three decades later and which was much discussed (and of which he created another version, both 2011), appears like a return to and a continuation of this transfer of the studio space to the museum. Six wall-sized projections along the walls of the exhibition space show recordings of the empty studio at night lasting several hours. The cameras are static, the artist is absent, the light is out and the images appear by means of infrared technology. None of the recordings shows the studio in full view; rather each camera depicts a segment of space and screens it on the display wall.

The space itself becomes an artwork

We see segments of floor and wall, together with parts of the furniture and things lying around. Every now and again a mouse scurries through the image. The wall-sized projections that reach flush down to the floor reflect the segments of space in their actual size; it seems like we could actually enter the studio. This way the exhibition space literally disappears behind the studio space. One is made invisible by the other.

The work may therefore appear like the overdue counterweight to the generally reversed situation as mentioned by Buren above, namely that the studio as the place of origin of art is entirely forgotten the moment the art reaches the museum. Yet with “Mapping the Studio,” Nauman goes one step further. Unlike the early videos of the activities in his studio or the shifting of his spatial apparatuses to the museum, here it’s not about the transfer of an action from the studio to the exhibition space. The large projections are neither documentation of an activity that takes place in the studio nor are they a stage or setting for an action to be carried out by us. Rather, Nauman transforms the place which for him, in the past, defined that which occurred in it as art and therefore produced art, into an artwork itself. Its transfer to the museum is not necessary for this transformation, but for Naumans wish for someone to see the work.