Midway via the gruelling vaudeville at Tate Fashionable, among the many clamour of shrieking clowns, gagging mouths and tortured violins, you all of the sudden stumble upon your self. Or reasonably, the ghost of your self. A video monitor seems to be recording your approaching footsteps. However up shut, the display is barely displaying the view across the subsequent nook, the place one other monitor irresistibly beckons. Flip that nook and also you glimpse your individual departing again, spectral and black on the display. For a second, you hardly know whether or not you’re coming or going.
Nor ought to you already know. There is no such thing as a consolation within the artwork of Bruce Nauman, no resting place for the confounded mind – not even when his strategies are overtly declared. What might be clearer, for example, than a shiny neon signal? One Hundred Stay and Die is the baldly descriptive title of an epochal work from 1984, a wall of neon directions that flash on and off: Snort and Die, Play and Stay, Converse and Stay, Play and Die. They confront you with all of the inanity of the Stroll/Don’t Stroll indicators on US streets.
However these injunctions aren’t simply opposites, they’re full contradictions; as if there have been no actual decisions on this world. And there’s no freedom for the attention, likewise, on this imaginative and prescient: nothing it might probably do however observe the slogans as they soar randomly backwards and forwards throughout the huge blazing grid.
Born in Indiana in 1941, Nauman has been interested by surveillance, mortality, authority and the prison-house of language for nearly 50 years. However he started, as this lifetime survey additionally begins, alone within the studio along with his lanky self. Grainy 1960s movies present Nauman strolling white strains with exaggerated precision (more durable than you assume); or swaggering down a slim hall with all of the contrapposto torsions of some historical Greek sculpture, arms bent, hips sashaying, in claustrophobic pastiche.
He saws away on a violin, tuned to the notes D, E, A and D, the sound excruciatingly tense. He pinches his mouth and neck till they seem horribly estranged. An odd metallic plaque dangling from the wall resembles the pores and skin of some peatbog man, lengthy useless. It seems to be a solid of the artist’s personal again, arms tied behind him with a rope.
Nobody visiting this present may miss out on Nauman’s prodigious affect over up to date artwork. The metallic sculpture (circa 1967) prefigures the physique casts of Antony Gormley, Marc Quinn and extra. A video of disembodied fingers manipulating balloons into shiny canine seem like conjuring sculptures match for Jeff Koons. Nauman’s neon slogans, phrase video games and caustic utterances have been taken up by artists everywhere in the world. And as for A Solid of the House Below My Chair (1965-8), everybody is aware of which sculptor borrowed from that individual concept.
A cup of espresso tumbles and spills many times, on a two-screen diptych, alongside the balloon-twisting fingers. Between the one about to crash, and the opposite to pop, the strain is sort of insufferable. And that’s so usually the tenor of Nauman’s work. All the things is taken to the sting, ratcheted to the brink – and in each form of medium. Stroll via these galleries, and you retain listening to distant screams and a form of thrumming howl-around. Some appear to derive from primitive CCTV, others from multi-screen installations such because the infamous Clown Torture from 1987.
How prophetic they appear now, these horrendous visions of white-faced clowns in demonic make-up, furiously shouting and shoving, caught on the bathroom, or attempting to steadiness objects on their trademark sweeping brushes. Clowns aren’t humorous; the purpose is burdened over and once more, to a soundtrack of guttural rage. Hear fastidiously, within the vile soup of noises, and you may nearly make out the round joke the clown is pressured to repeat in hysterical frustration: “Pete and Repeat have been sitting on a fence. Pete fell off. Who was left? Repeat” and so forth and on, till your head explodes.
Who’s the extra tortured: clown or viewer? Not like them, now we have the facility to stroll away. Nauman’s artwork is an endurance take a look at by different means. The worst expertise right here, or at the very least the one which exerts essentially the most insufferable strain, is unquestionably Anthro/Socio, that includes the spinning head of a bald actor on quite a few screens, bigger, smaller, the wrong way up, however at all times shouting his head off (so to talk).
“Feed me, eat me, anthropology.” “Assist me, damage me, sociology.” So loud, so aggressive, these primal screams can barely be deciphered. A child, a Caliban, a psycho, an everyman; he received the sport, whoever he was, as a result of I swiftly left.
There may be an terrible power to those escalations, loops and repetitions. Outdoors the present, Nauman’s movie of fingers vigorously washing themselves above a grimy studio sink turns into an OCD spectacle. Inside, Musical Chairs entails a bunch of metallic objects, considerably resembling furnishings, however upon which no human being may ever sit, suspended from the ceiling like hanged males.
It is a considerably reverent account of Nauman’s profession, intent on all of the artwork historical past highlights. I want it had proven a bit extra of his humour (Self-portrait as a Fountain) and his melancholy later works, that are addressed to the center greater than the mind. Among the installations must be proven in far deeper darkness than these plague instances allow; and the soundtracks usually bleed too closely from one room to the subsequent.
However there are moments of quiet absorption. The ultimate gallery is dedicated to a sequence of slow-motion movies, through which magicians carry out their tips with mesmerising grace. An egg seems, then vanishes, like a pale moon in outer darkness. A pack of playing cards is shuffled, after which manipulated with such dexterity that you simply develop into virtually misplaced within the ballet. These movies are in such gradual close-up, with each chance of seeing how every trick was carried out: but you continue to don’t understand how they did it because the movie begins once more.
Nauman as soon as mentioned that he wished the expertise of his artwork to be “like getting hit within the face with a baseball bat … You by no means see it coming”. The punch will be so disabling as to numb all response. Or it might probably amaze. Probably the most profound work on this present is a video set up through which the a lot older Nauman reprises his youthful self, pacing the studio as he used to within the olden days, nonetheless carrying denims and a T-shirt. You see him as soon as, twice, many instances, strolling backwards and forwards; after which, fairly all of the sudden, the true man (because it appears) walks into his personal movie. Nauman returns to his youth, re-entering the previous via artwork – after which vanishing into his personal phantasm.
• At Tate Fashionable till 21 February