The portentous narration of Bruce Nauman: Make Me Thinkdu jour and see the name of multimedia artist Bruce Nauman. That would be a great pity.
Nauman’s art ranges from neon sculptures of words and puns to two men whose hands and cocks go up and down and up and down in the motion of handshakes and masturbation; from video installations of shrieking clowns getting tortured and wailing “NO! NO! NO!” to individuals performing slapstick with each other (pulling chairs out from underneath each other before kicking each other in the balls and punching each other out). Yet even these basic descriptions of the work don’t quite do justice to the material, which is intense and aggressive and confrontational, but also highly sensory and individual.
So yeah, they’re about “You,” but do we really need a portentous narrator describing our individual place in the art world and our relationship to art that is a shock to the system and a shake-up of our values? I suppose if we really wanted to get deep, we’d also wonder if we really need a film critic reacting to the narration as criticism of an artist whose work speaks for itself. Do we need the review of the narration, or can we just throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater here? God, even thinking about this makes one second-guess oneself into nausea.
Gosh, though, I really do admire the art of Bruce Nauman, and I really do hate the movie about his artwork. I am disgusted when a disembodied narrative voice tells me that I am part of the experience completing the artwork, then tells me exactly how I am meant to feel about the institutionalized violence and societal statements about the work of said artist. What makes it even more ridiculous is that Nauman himself refuses to do interviews or comment on his artwork, so we never really get a sense of him except through the narrator sharing with us what he believes Nauman is trying to say.
The problem is, it’s not always easy to get to see Bruce Nauman’s work, especially since he is given higher regard in Europe than in America. Even the documentary is foreign in origin, directed by one Heinz Peter Schwerfel for Artcore Film Production with the Arts Council, WDF-ARTE, Centre Pompidou, and Delegation aux Arts Plastiques. So we have the choice of potentially not seeing very much of Nauman’s art, or seeing it through the eyes of a documentary film that interweaves commentary and interviews with shots of the work. It’s good to see Nauman’s efforts, but when we go to the museum, sometimes we don’t want to be fed our response.
Nauman’s work “focuses on the essential elements of the human experience,” which means he is genuinely interested in fucking and death. There are 60 works of art within Bruce Nauman: Make Me Think, and at least we have the opportunity to see and hear the work. I’d only heard about the “Clown Torture” video installation, and it is genuinely as disturbing as it sounds, with clowns rolling around and shrieking, and yeah, it seems broadly comical at first until you start listening to the desperate tones of the voices and share in the unpleasant anticipation of a brutal beating that is to come. Then there’s a clown sitting on the john telling a rather boring dirty joke: the sight gag draws on to the point of humiliation and embarrassment.
And yet you don’t walk away from it feeling disgusted with the human race, or feel like Nauman himself is inhumane. Yet there is an awareness of the pain of being who we are, and the malicious nature of certain jokes and stories, and how clowning around can sometimes mask a brutality and an edge, and how, if we really took some of the things people say in jest at face value, we might think they were inflicting psychological murder upon us. This is what we hope art will do: broaden our view of the human experience.
There, now I’ve shared my own interpretation of a Nauman installation as a way of encouraging the reader to check out and appreciate his work. I’ve always believed that criticism can create a window or a door between the reader and a work of art, to muster up some sort of enthusiasm in a potential viewer to check out said work of art. And then we have this narrator of Bruce Nauman: Make Me Think, whose goal may be exactly the same: to get the spectator interested in the artist. So why do I feel so revolted by this disembodied voice, in a way that I am not revolted by Nauman’s aggressive artwork? Maybe because, unlike the title of the movie, I feel like I am being told how to think, how to appreciate, and how to respond. At best, criticism is a nudge in a certain direction, or a way of saying, “This is how I responded. Maybe you’ll feel similar, or otherwise.” Vivre the difference, and tell me if you’re revolted too.
Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.