I had entered the Tate Modern through the North entrance, the one opposite the Millennium Bridge. As I entered the Turbine Hall I could hear a voice shouting somewhere from above "Think think think think think think think think think". It seized me by the throat. For a moment I was frozen in my steps. There was no escaping. It felt as if I was thrown against a wall. Shivers ran down my spine. It doesn’t happen too often that a work of art makes my skin crawl. At Raw Materials, Bruce Nauman’s installation in the Turbine Hall, it happened on several occasions.
Upon descending the staircase, which leads from the bridge down to the main level, the voice disappeared to the background only to be replaced by another voice shouting “OK OK OK OK OK OK OK OK OK OK OK OK OK……” Again I could feel my skin crawl. I felt like running away, but found myself suspended in space. As I moved to the left I stayed within the space defined by the voice making it seem as if I was not moving at all.
Raw Materials is the fifth installment in the Unilever Series, the Tate Modern’s annual commission to an artist to create a site specific work for the immense Turbine Hall. Previous projects had used the size of the space to display a very large sculpture or to create a very big installation, but Bruce Nauman has filled the space with sound, or rather voices. To the sides of the Turbine Hall, running across its entire length, are 18 parallel pairs of speakers, lined up at regular intervals. There’s another one hanging above the bridge. Other than that Nauman has left the space as it is.
One may however wonder whether the space ever was as it is. This may sound like some clever philosophical wordplay, but as I walked through the Turbine Hall I realized that on previous visits I had merely traversed it. I had never been to the far east corners and had never walked on either side from back to front. I became very aware of where I was in relation to the different speakers. I found myself trying out where one text ended and another began and how my position in between a particular pair of speakers altered my experience.
As I’m writing this I realize how Raw Materials fits into Nauman’s other work. Throughout his career Nauman has been interested in space and our perception of space. There’s the corridor, which gets narrower towards the end and the room you cannot enter because the corridors are too narrow, both of which can currently be seen in Berlin at the exhibition of the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection.
Another recurring theme in the work of Bruce Nauman is language. The texts that you can hear in Raw Materials have all been stripped from previous, mostly video works, some of which, such as "The True Artist is an Amazing Luminous Fountain" are themselves reinstalments of earlier works in a different medium. Nauman originally studied mathematics taking a special interest in theoretical mathematics. At university he also took a course in philosophy and it was during this course that he encountered the work of Wittgenstein. Both influences resonate in Nauman’s play with language, as in “You May Not Want To Be Here”. With each iteration of the sentence one word is omitted or reintroduced. The text is delivered by a four year old child, who can read the words, but misses out on part of its meaning. At the point where “here” is replaced by its homonym “hear” you can briefly hear him pause. I found it strangely moving.
The texts for “Pete and Repeat” and “Dark and Stormy Night” were taken from different versions of the video installation Clown Torture (1987) in which a clown is caught in a linguistic trap. “It was a dark and stormy night. Three men were sitting around a campfire. One of the men said, "Tell us a story Jack." And Jack said, "It was a dark and stormy night. Three men were sitting around a campfire. One of the men said, "Tell us a story Jack." And Jack said, "It was a dark and stormy night….” Every time he reaches the end of another cycle you sense his despair at having to start all over again. As the clown gets more and more frustrated he tries to escape from the loop by trying out different deliveries. In the video the clown is standing on one leg as he delivers the text. When he can’t take it any longer, whereby "it" can refer to either or both the text and standing on one leg, he falls to the floor.
I first saw Clown Torture in 1990 at an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. It had a profound effect on me and I was delighted to encounter it again. If you want to see the video, it’s part of “Faces in the Crowd” at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.
In the Tate Modern’s permanent collection you can see another recent work by Bruce Nauman, “Mapping The Studio II (Fat Chance John Cage)” (2001). It consists of 7 DVD’s projected on the walls of a large room. Using an infrared camera Nauman filmed his studio in New Mexico at night at a time when it was invaded by mice. There’s not much happening in the video. Occasionally you can see the artist’s cat and one or a few mice. But don’t expect Tom and Jerry. You hear some ambient noises in the background, an airconditioner, a distant train. Some of the images are upside down. I watched for several minutes and then returned a little later to take another look. The videos were edited from several months of footage. In those months Nauman continued working on other projects. The installation therefore also works as a record of his daily presence. It is not the kind of video you sit down for to watch for hours on end, although you could. I liked it, although I find it hard to explain why. Somehow the installation made me feel at home.
As I walk through the Turbine Hall one more time, trying not to forget to pause at those speakers that I may have moved over too quickly at first, I find it hard to leave. I stop to listen to “Good Boy Bad Boy – Tucker/Joan”, taken from the video of the same title. “I was a good boy, You were a good boy, We were good boys, That was good”, “I’m having fun, You’re having fun, We’re having fun, This is fun.” It is a play on language and the way we learn a foreign language. Towards the end there is a gradual shift in the text’s progression. “I like to sleep, You like to sleep, We like to sleep, Sleep well.” The final series of sentences comes almost as a shock.
I left I could hear voices in my head. One was singing “Eat
me Feed me Anthropology”, another voice belonged to a woman who was
saying things like “I’ll talk. You’ll listen”, “You’ll
talk. They’ll listen” and then there was a man shouting “No
No No No No No No No No No No….” and another man shouting “Think
Think Think Think Think Think Think Think…” and a hissing voice
saying “Get out of my mind. Get out of this room.” I think these
voices will be with me for some time.
Tate Modern, London until March 28, 2005
Some works by Bruce Nauman.
An online version of Raw Materials.