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"It's about us!"

Susan Cross , curator of the exhibition Bruce Nauman – Theaters of Experience in the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, explains in an interview with Arno Widmann what visitors can learn from Nauman's works: not to be afraid, understanding power struggles, and discovering the absurd of the everyday.

Arno Widmann: When was the first time you saw Bruce Nauman's work?

Susan Cross: I can't remember exactly. I have the impression that I've always known his work, but it was actually probably while I was in college, in the eighties. I think the first thing I saw was the Hanging Carousel from 1988.

Widmann: Are you concentrating on Bruce Nauman's early work in the exhibition Theaters of Experience in the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin?



Bruce Nauman
Art Make-up No. 1: White (Detail), 1967-1968
Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
©VG Bild - Kunst, Bonn 2003 / 2004


Cross: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has a large number – thirty-some – of Bruce Nauman pieces from the late sixties and seventies. Here in Berlin, we're exhibiting a total of thirteen works, including a selection from the Guggenheim collection as well as several loans. The works range in date from 1966 to 1990, beginning with the work Device to Stand In and ending with a video installation entitled Raw Material – BRRR . We begin and end with the artist in his studio. Perhaps at some future date we'll find an opportunity to show even more recent pieces, "Part II" of Theaters of Experience. The current show focuses on the performative aspects of Nauman's practice and follows the development of certain related themes from early works and into later years.

In the work entitled Art Make-Up, Nauman shows himself painting himself with different colors. Here, he himself is the performer, while in other works he forces the visitor to perform. Bruce Nauman doesn't just simply show things to us, he provokes us, makes us act, makes us think. It is not always easy. Given the artist's interest in word play (a large portion of his work playfully addresses the imprecise and sculptural nature of language), it is difficult to dissociate his focus on deliberate activity or actions from the word "action" and its root "to act," the dual meaning of which is often collapsed in Nauman's work. When one "acts" with a level of self-consciousness, one becomes an "actor." Nauman's Art Make-Up (1967-68) emphasizes this point by recording the artist putting on make-up as an actor would. "Painting" himself, Nauman makes a reference to the artist as medium, the performative aspects of "making up" – as well as masking – one's identity.



Bruce Nauman
Art Make-up No. 1: White (Detail), 1967-1968
Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
©VG Bild - Kunst, Bonn 2003 / 2004


Widmann: Do you have favorites in the exhibition?

Cross: It changes every day. I am intrigued by all the works. But perhaps I am especially drawn to the holograms. They are quite unusual. They were extremely experimental, and are indicative of the artist's use of unexpected mediums. We are exhibiting them here with sodium vapor lamps, as they were shown originally (they are often shown now with lasers). It's wonderful to see how viewers need to move around to see everything within the holograms.

Widmann: What did you learn from Bruce Nauman?

Cross: To question absolutely everything. To look at everything from different viewpoints, to search for a view outside of yourself, even if it's uncomfortable.





Bruce Nauman
Art Make-up No. 4: Black (Detail), 1967-1968
Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
©VG Bild - Kunst, Bonn 2003 / 2004


Widmann: You were never afraid of the aggressiveness of some of his works?

Cross: I wouldn't use the word "afraid"; "agitated" would be more appropriate. Nauman's work can be assaulting sometimes. Raw Material, for example, can make you feel quite out of sorts with the relentless sound and the dizzying movements of the artist's head.

Some of Nauman's videos and environments, with their unexpected sights and sounds, have an affinity to Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty. The disturbing, chaotic nature of many of Nauman's environments (which are often loud and have been variously bathed in discomfiting white, yellow, and green fluorescent lights) provokes in the viewer a consciousness of psychological and physiological responses – a certain awareness admidst uncertainty. These environments also suggest an unidentified, exterior force working on the self or selves. In later works, the confrontations played out in Nauman's corridors are translated into an investigation of the power relations and violence enacted on the world stage.

In the eighties, Nauman's work took on a political tone, inspired in part by the writings of V. S. Naipaul, in particular The Return of Eva Peron (1980) as well as Jacobo Timerman's accounts of his imprisonment and torture in Argentina in Prisoner without a name, cell without a number. Nauman has said that his "work comes out of being frustrated with the human condition, and about how people refuse to understand other people. And about how people can be cruel to each other."



Bruce Nauman
Art Make-up No. 2: Pink (Detail), 1967-1968
Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
©VG Bild - Kunst, Bonn 2003 / 2004


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