Having written my dissertation on the art of Bruce Nauman, I often find myself fielding questions from confused, even perturbed friends or acquaintances seeking to make sense of his art. By way of consolation, I usually preface my remarks to them by mentioning that since the 1960s, Nauman has produced a dizzyingly eclectic body of work that continues to defy easy categorization or definition. He is an artist who, while broadly acknowledged to be one of the most important living artists, adheres to neither a consistent medium nor style. Despite this, I offer reassuringly, Nauman’s oeuvre can nevertheless be viewed as a sustained, if wide-ranging, meditation on the human condition and an examination of the social and cultural conventions that define our lives.
Depending on the artwork or works that prompt such an inquiry, I might also add that, at its most successful, Nauman’s art not only explores the intersection of the individual and the social, but also effects an intervention into that dynamic — the result of which is often a viewing experience that has, over the years, been variably described by art critics and visitors alike as disorienting, anxiety inducing, and even excruciating and jarring. Indeed, we often find ourselves in a zone of discomfort— psychological, physical, and sometimes both — when standing before or situated in Nauman’s art. It is an experience, I would argue, that proves resistant to our conventional understanding of the world around us and incites, if but for a moment, a sensation of radical difference and estrangement at a moment that should otherwise be an occasion of most intimate familiarity.
By way of providing a concrete example, I would take my inquisitive friend to see Nauman’s sound installation, Days (2009), currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Days was first exhibited at the 2009 Venice Biennale (where Nauman represented the United States — a long overdue honor) and was recently acquired by MoMA. At first blush, Nauman’s latest installation is a beguilingly simple work, consisting of fourteen slender audio speakers suspended from the ceiling by wires. Arranged in two rows of seven in the middle of the museum gallery, these almost impossibly flat speakers form a minimalist aisle, down which visitors are invited to walk. As one approaches the speaker array from across the room, a cacophony of sound begins to emerge which, as one slips into the middle of the installation, transforms into an immersive sound field of chanting voices.
From each set of speakers emanates a different voice. Each voice (seven in total) enumerates the days of the week, but in random order and played in an endless loop. To walk from one set of speakers to the next is to move through bands of sound, with each voice emerging from, and then receding back into the din. One voice is that of a child, who plows through the days of the week as if reciting an overly familiar nursery rhyme; another is that of an older man, who speaks unhurriedly in a warm baritone voice; the next is the voice of a woman whose words are presented in matter-of-fact, though lilting, cadence.
The words emanating from each speaker are of course familiar to us, but the progression is not, as the voices cycle through the days of the week in a manner that defies any discernible pattern. Our conceptual fluency with what should otherwise be a familiar — indeed, one of the most familiar — sequence of words is suddenly thrown into flux. Our comprehension of these words ought to be obvious and intimate; the rhythmic nature of the recitations ought to reinforce the sequential, ordering nature of the words uttered. Yet standing within Days’ envelope of disordered sound and hearing, these words — stripped bare of their regularizing function so as to defy the very order and coherence for which they stand — instead prove unsettling.
Adding to this general sense of estrangement from something so familiar are the voices themselves, since the soundtracks emanating from the audio speakers in each set are not synchronized. The result is that each of Days’ seven voices is effectively doubled, divided, and displaced across two speakers. As such, each authorial voice, already disembodied, is distanced even from itself. Add this to the uncanny sensation produced in and through the cacophony of sound, and to the disordered recitation of those words by which we dutifully and sequentially measure time and mark its passage.
Decades before he made Days, Nauman tried to put into words the sensation visitors often experience in his installations. He likened it then to “going up the stairs in the dark, when you think there is one more step and you take the step, but you are already at the top and have the funny [feeling]…or going down the stairs and expecting there to be another step, but you are already at the bottom. It seems that you always have that jolt and it really throws you off.” Nauman thus compares his art to an experience that has probably happened to most of us at one time or another — a sensation that, while certainly surprising and perhaps momentarily unsettling or disorienting, is readily dismissed and soon forgotten. But what exactly is it about this misstep in the dark that causes such a shock? Perhaps it is not as simple as it first appears. After all, the problem here is not, or not simply, a physical one. Rather, that jolt on the stairs bespeaks a misstep of another, more profound order. Indeed, that strange sensation felt when we imagine one step too many or one too few also marks a sudden divergence between our perception of reality and the way it actually is.
Nauman, in other words, likens the effect produced by his art to that feeling produced when we encounter something radically — if momentarily — at odds with our expectations of the world around us, to a glitch in our conception of reality. And it is this notion of art that opens up a gap in our otherwise orderly and ordered experience, that simultaneously gestures to and destabilizes our mediated engagement with the world around us. It also might allow us to come to terms with our experience within Days — a work that takes as its subject, and renders fundamentally unfamiliar, those words we use to symbolically mark and give coherent form to the passage of time — and appreciate the enduring significance of Nauman’s art in general.
Bruce Nauman’s Days is on view through August 23rd at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.