Article by Jack Radley // Jan. 11, 2019
For Bruce Nauman, touch is sensual and sexual, prohibitive and encouraged, instinctual and directed. Spanning both the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1, ‘Disappearing Acts’ surveys the artist’s fifty-year career across manifold media. Disappearance, for Nauman, is not a final state, but rather a gradual, incisive process. Nauman has always challenged binary thinking; his haptic work in drawing, sculpture, video and performance probes the simultaneity of touching and being touched. While many have celebrated his inquiry into the instability of vision, this exhibition highlights Nauman’s command of kinesthesia as a means of challenging space, time, language and movement.
In a moment dominated by Minimalism, Nauman focused his practice on the human body and its interactions. His 1969 “slo-mo” film, Bouncing Balls, presents a close-up shot of a penis, shaft suspended and testicles stroked. In the intimate space of a small PS1 gallery, viewers—intrigued and repulsed—watch his gonads in a trance-like state that links the bouncing balls to a beating heart. Through the use of an industrial high-speed camera, Nauman characterizes the caress as both intimate and sterile. Deadpan, the film’s cheeky title may reference one of his earlier films, Bouncing Two Balls Between the Floor and Ceiling with Changing Rhythms.
At the end of the 1960s, Nauman shifted his methodology, noting: “Art became more of an activity and less of a product.” The museums skillfully, frequently re-stage Wall/Floor Positions, a thirty-minute performance that tests the performer’s relationship to the architecture of the gallery by bending, sitting, squatting and lying. The artist prescribes a corporal exploration of interior space in a supple manner that compliments the exhibition downstairs, ‘Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done.’ Nauman atomizes movement into touch, working from the ground-up to score choreography as a tactile interaction between body and space.
By the 1970s, Nauman’s goal was “having somebody else do the performance.” Without depicting a figure, his iconic 1974 Body Pressure leverages text to drive an intimate experience of corporality. “Consider the parts of your back which press against the wall; press hard and feel how the front and back of your body press together,” reads the bright pink poster. The artist transforms an open gallery into an intimate, liberating space for participants, who may also undertake this modular activity at home. Nauman concludes: “This may become a very erotic exercise.”
In his 1974 Double Steel Cage Piece, Nauman tempts audiences to navigate the narrow gap between two compact cages. One must flip his or her body in order to fit, as the artist alters the axis of movement; viewers move left and right instead of forward or backward. Squeezing through a steel corridor (and losing a few shirt threads in the meantime), participants test their stamina in an experience that quickly turns from enticing to frustrating to downright claustrophobic.
Nauman recognizes that although the body is limiting, its actions and applications are boundless. His 1996 All Thumbs presents the plaster cast of a human hand with all its digits replaced by thumbs. He uses casting techniques known for simulacra not to illustrate real life, but rather to serve as a model for a new mode of thinking. If our thumbs distinguish our advancement from other species, Nauman amplifies these attributes to imagine an appendage that is ultimately innocuous. Nauman’s work considers how tactility drives our experience of the world around us, upending functional physique through humor and wit.
‘Disappearing Acts’ documents “withdrawal as an art form,” in the words of the artist whose actual 1979 disappearance from both coasts of the art world—establishing a secluded, self-maintained ranch in New Mexico—is as purposeful as the metaphorical absentia in his work. His oeuvre demonstrates an interest in trial and trial, replacing any notion of error by embracing unanticipated results. These lessons are better learned in the intimate PS1 classrooms than in the open, crowded galleries of MoMA’s 6th floor. Experiencing Nauman’s work forces participants to confront their own corporeality, redirecting their actions on the stage of everyday life. By tracing touch in the exhibition, viewers gain a greater understanding of his hand, mind and attitudes towards contemporary issues throughout his practice.