Tate Modern has reopened with a Bruce Nauman retrospective of his work going back more than 50 years. Artwork that uses the medium of sculpture, sound, film, video and neon, as well as Nauman himself who does not mind being part of the art and the message, writes Michael Holland.
Making your way through the huge pieces in the exhibition creates a feeling of smallness in the viewer; with the overwhelming flashing, blinking lights all around you, huge, cold steel creations, and a cacophony of screeching clowns and screaming heads adding to the incessant buzz of neon signs, you can feel quite insignificant. You walk among the exhibits above and below you. There are screens on the floor, tilted projections, heads on wires – You almost look forward to reaching the exit to escape the madness, while feeling as helpless as the mouse in Nauman’s Mapping The Studio video.
My favourite artwork was ‘Going Round the Corner Piece with Live and Taped Monitors’ (1970). It makes you a participant of the work as well as a viewer. You are immediately intrigued by the blank screen at the corner, which provokes you into turning that corner where you find another screen that is showing you turning the corner. Having worked out the delayed sequence of events, it is interesting to watch others go through the same confusing process.
Bruce Nauman blends laughter and sadness, and joy and pain in his clown films, but the fun is minimal in this show while angst and anguish is the cloud that darkens the exhibition. His neon installation of the children’s game of hangman takes the innocence of words a step further and highlights the reality and indignity of dying. His clown getting soaked by the bowl of water above the door feels like bullying when shown on repeat. Saying that, there is humour, but it is fleeting. Laugh and you miss it.
You don’t leave the Nauman exhibition feeling refreshed and invigorated, but you do leave knowing you have experienced something amazing by someone who inspired many artists who came after.
And not a brushstroke in sight.
Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1 9TG until 21st February 2021. Times: Admission: £13. Phone: 020 7887 8888.
Book time slots here: tate.org.uk