Bruce Nauman is telling me a narrative from his childhood. “I had a buddy in highschool who was a little bit little bit of a loner,” says the artist, talking by telephone from New York. “If somebody hit him with a snowball once we had been strolling to highschool, he wouldn’t simply throw a snowball again, he’d assault. He’d get ’em down on the bottom and pound on him.”
It’s a story that appears to chime with Nauman’s artwork, the place the road between peaceful interplay and sudden violence typically appears terrifyingly skinny. The artist, about to be the topic of a retrospective at London’s Tate Fashionable, is within the second a social ritual or sport pivots into cruelty. Within the 1986 video work Violent Incident, a well dressed couple are at a desk set for cocktails and dinner – however the date quickly descends right into a vicious brawl. You may really feel pushed away by his work, alienated. “Get out of my thoughts, get out of this room,” urges one sculpture, by way of a disembodied voice that echoes spherical an empty area lit by a single bulb. It’s as in case you’ve been sucked into the artist’s head – and it’s not a cheerful place to be.
The work of this 78-year-old titan of the artwork world, whose affect on youthful artists is inescapable and pervasive, has an uncanny approach of seeming ceaselessly new – and in a darkish time, the work feels darkish, too. The percussive rhythm of Bouncing in a Nook, a 1968 video of the artist repeatedly falling backwards right into a nook of his studio, feels uncomfortably near a metaphor for the monotonous futility of pandemic life. In 1970’s Going Across the Nook Piece, the viewer catches a short but unsettling glimpse of their very own retreating again, caught on CCTV – a premonition of the surveillance age. Then there’s Washing Arms Irregular, his 1996 video of palms being forcefully soaped for almost an hour. In a 12 months when the extraordinary motion of handwashing has change into a loaded ritual, one can’t assist however really feel a jolt. How did he know?
I had been primed for lengthy silences and monosyllables, however Nauman is light and affable, filled with tales a few previous peopled with the greats of postwar US tradition: Jasper Johns, John Cage, Merce Cunningham. It’s true that he’s politely evasive in regards to the artwork: for him, it appears, which means is for the viewer to seek out, not for the artist to supply. Once I ask in regards to the bleakness of his work, he says: “I bear in mind somebody coming to the studio and saying, ‘You have to be very depressed.’ I stated that I didn’t assume so, in any other case I wouldn’t be making work. Quite a lot of issues received labored out by way of the work. Totally different sorts of anger and frustration.”
It isn’t all darkish, although: seeing Nauman’s artwork is to come across a curious, questing thoughts, one which has restlessly experimented, over a four-decade profession, with efficiency, movie, video, sound, music, drawing, textual content and sculpture. A lot of this inventiveness has been based mostly on very slender means, typically the supplies handy within the studio. Describing how a piece would possibly start to take form, he says: “Typically a brand new piece comes from work I’ve completed, perhaps even fairly previous items. I start to see an element that I hadn’t thought of, that turns into extra vital, and that develops into an offshoot.”
A video work of his detritus-filled studio is what guests to Tate Fashionable will see as quickly as they enter the exhibition; the actual factor is on the ranch close to Santa Fe in New Mexico, the place he has lived for over 30 years. The footage for the seven giant projections that represent 2001’s Mapping the Studio was gathered in a single day, the gear set working whereas the artist retreated. All of it appears empty, eventless – however in case you listen, you would possibly see a cat whisk by way of a shot, or a flicker that may be a rat. Nauman calls it “a piece that was being performed whereas I wasn’t there”.
Whereas making it, he was additionally studying the journal of the 1803 expedition – led by Meriweather Lewis and William Clark – to what grew to become the north-western US. “Each morning I might go in and replay the recording of what had been made the night time earlier than after which give it some thought,” he says. “It felt like this was one other tour. I used to be watching the studio at night time and I used to be following Lewis and Clark. One thing attention-grabbing occurred to them each single day, or at the least it appeared that approach to me.” It is a usually indirect story of Nauman’s. What it conveys to me is the thought of the studio as, on the one hand, one thing acquainted and on a regular basis; and on the opposite, an enormous and mysterious territory, filled with potential incident and drama that the artist can’t management.
Prior to now, the studio was for the afternoons, after he’d spent the morning working with the horses he raised and bred professionally. He tells me about his buddy, the coach Ray Hunt, who “was very intuitive with the horses. He actually taught you to allow them to determine issues out on their very own, not attempting to be in management on a regular basis. That adjusted the best way I thought of issues.” Today he doesn’t experience, however heads to the studio every morning after feeding his horses. “Often I’m simply sitting studying in it with my toes up.” Then, after lunch, he says: “If I am going again to the studio, I go to sleep within the chair for some time.”
Based on this account of his routine, Nauman by no means makes any artwork, which in fact isn’t true. He’s nonetheless producing loads of new work, together with Nature Morte, a brand new 3D scan of his studio on present in his New York gallery, Sperone Westwater. Guests can zoom in on it, invert it, examine its corners. I ponder what he reads, although. The reply, considerably surprisingly, is crime and thrillers, John le Carré being a favorite. It was the artist Sol LeWitt who received him on to crime fiction, he says. “The explanation he appreciated them is – and this isn’t all the time the case, however it’s true in Agatha Christie particularly – all the knowledge is used. You might be given all the fabric and in some unspecified time in the future all of it locks collectively. There aren’t free components mendacity round.” Which is in some way good for the minimalist LeWitt.
Nauman’s most simple useful resource – his personal physique within the studio – has typically fashioned materials for his work. Within the late 1960s, he made a gaggle of video items, together with the self-explanatory Strolling in an Exaggerated Method Round a Perimeter of a Sq.. Their sparing type was dictated by necessity as a lot as something. On the time, he was working in a studio he wasn’t allowed to go away a hint on: “No tape on the wall, no thumb tacks, no scratches, no nothing.” So he persuaded Leo Castelli, the New York gallerist, to accumulate a video recorder (“Then Richard Serra used it – it received handed round”).
Lately, he has returned to those early works, rethinking them, increasing them. Within the video Walks In Walks Out (2015), he’s now not the lithe determine of the 1960s however inhabits an ageing physique that has seen a substantial amount of life. He talks in regards to the nice US dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. “As he received older, he couldn’t use his physique as he had performed 20 years beforehand, however he nonetheless understood the best way to make it operate in a extremely attention-grabbing approach – to make use of the perimeters of what he was capable of do, to make use of that stress and make it into an art work. That deep understanding of how his physique labored – that was vital for me.”
This stirs one other previous reminiscence. Jasper Johns, a trailblazer for Nauman’s technology of artists, as soon as invited Nauman and Cunningham spherical to his studio, to debate Nauman designing units, a task Johns had beforehand fulfilled.
“Once I received there, Johns was having lunch with somebody. I’d already had lunch. Being from the west coast, I’d most likely had it at midday, and it was most likely 1.30pm. He poured me a bourbon. Merce was late. Apparently, he poured me fairly a couple of bourbons – as a result of when Merce lastly got here in, I went to face up and my legs simply gave approach from below me. I fell on my knees and hit my chin on the desk. I managed to face myself again up, and it was as if nothing had occurred. All of us sat again down and mentioned what my position may be.”
Slapstick, pranks, slips: these are recurring tropes in Nauman’s artwork. As a part of Falls, Pratfalls + Sleights of Hand, the ultimate work within the present relationship from 1993, a stuntman tumbles to the bottom time and again. It brings to thoughts the very begin of the present: that video of Nauman repeatedly falling into the nook of the studio. However is that this it? Is that this the human situation? Are we condemned endlessly, futilely, to fall? Nauman’s well-known neon sculpture, the one that claims “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths” can be put in on the entrance to the exhibition. As an announcement, it’s hokey, ridiculous – however maybe, on some degree, true. Or is it? “I’ve by no means fairly figured that out,” says Nauman. And he laughs.
• Bruce Nauman is at Tate Fashionable, London, 7 October-21 February.