11 November 2016

Nauman loves wordplay. Whether through titles or in the work itself, it enables him to go beyond just the artwork.

By Tamara Marszalkowski

In the 1960s Nauman created neon signs. Their diverting, dazzling quality is perfectly suited to illustrating Nauman’s Duchamp-esque play on words. Neon signs are a medium that emphasizes the object-like quality of letters and the appearance of the words rather than their function. “I did some pieces that started out just being visual puns. Since these needed body parts in them, I cast parts of a body and assembled them or presented them with a title.” (Bruce Nauman, 1987) The photograph “Bound To Fail” then took its titular phrase literally and shows the artist’s arms bound behind his back.

“None Sing Neon Sign,” made in 1970, is an anagram. Like other of his neon pieces playing with semiotics such as “Raw War” (1970) or “Run from Fear / Fun from Rear” (1972), it visualizes the arbitrary relationship between the definition of a word, its sound and its appearance. One of Nauman’s neon pieces from 1967 features the sentence “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths” in a spiral form. He de-mystifies the art market with a distinct, ironic sense of humor and points out the difference between aesthetic illusion, artistic hype and the meaning an artwork has.

Fundamental philosophical concepts

In an interview with Russell Keziere, the editor of contemporary art magazine “Vanguard,” Nauman himself stated he believed humor was often used to protect people from coming too close to something. Humor was hard to grasp, elusive and multiplied meaning, he maintained. In the interview he also said that during the time he was creating his visual wordplay he was reading Nabokov and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophical inquiries, in which the latter formulated the fundamental concepts of the philosophy of normal language.

Nauman thoroughly pushes for aesthetic experience to supersede the object. Perception itself – and thereby both the physical and mental relationships between the viewer and the object of art – is a pervading topic in Nauman’s oeuvre. Time and again the viewer is forced to confront his/her own experimental boundaries when faced with situations that are physically or intellectually confusing, be it through word games or claustrophobic passageways.

Sit on my face

Yet not all wordplay is witty and humorous, for example the piece “American Violence” from 1981. Here Nauman not only investigated the limitations and blind spots of communication; he also pushed what we initially deem to be humor to the point at which we realize that there is nothing left but confusion. In “American Violence” the sentences “rub it on your chest / put it in your ear / sit on my face” light up in the shape of a swastika.

Nauman is fascinated by the nature of communication, language and the problems they pose. He also probes the role of the artist as a presumed communicator and manipulator of visual symbols. Nauman’s work includes many types of wordplay: puns, palindromes, anagrams, repetitions. He manipulates language up until the point at which meanings shift or multiply and syntax no longer functions.

Abstract ambient noise

“First Poem Piece” (1968) sees the sentence “you may not want to be here” reordered and transformed over 18 lines through combinations of words being omitted and, for example, “here” being replaced by “hear.” Through shifting the individual elements of the sentence Nauman subverts the meaning of individual words in order to point out the limitations of language. Some of the neon signs light up in sequences, causing the letters, words and sentences to change continuously and escape a fixed message. What remains is abstract ambient visual noise.