Friday 15 February 2013

Review of Bruce Nauman / mindfuck at Hauser & Wirth London, Savile Row, North Gallery

Bruce Nauman / mindfuck
Hauser & Wirth London, Savile Row, North Gallery
30 January – 9 March 2013

According to the information accompanying Bruce Nauman’s current London show, its title, ‘Mindfuck’, is a slang term, both verb and noun, which can mean ‘to brainwash or manipulate someone,’ or describe ‘a distressing situation or incomprehensible event.’ A ‘mindfucker’, correspondingly, is ‘anyone who makes a living by playing with the heads of his clientele, be it a guru, a psychoanalyst, a prostitute, or an artist.’ And Nauman (born 1941) is certainly an artist who fits this definition. The exhibition, at Hauser & Wirth, which contains a selection of just five mid-career works, leaves the viewer feeling traumatised, disturbed, and yes, indeed, mindfucked.

The show’s curator, Philip Larratt-Smith, claims that this is the first time the artist’s heterogeneous output has been considered from the point of view of Freudian theory – surprising, perhaps, given its continual concern with the mind-body split, especially from the point of view of not recognising it, and the confusion of the oral and anal aspects – one of Freud’s specialities – in works such as Sex and Death/Double “69” (1985), in which neon figures are inverted and overlaid in a muddle of breasts, penises, cunts and mouths – gender fuck and literal fuck all at once, masquerading as an arcade machine where the visitor might expect to feed a coin into a slot in order to join in the fun. 

Still with the fairground theme, the larger work Carousel (1988) is a motley assortment of dogs and horses, strung up, some mutilated, and some with a grey chalk attached to their trailing limbs, screeching as it draws a circle on the ground beneath as the contraption rotates. The fragmented animal parts, which Larratt-Smith suggests look like ‘undigested fragments disgorged directly from the id,’ are caught up in a Sisyphean loop of suffering, replicating the banality and cruelty of life. Whether the imagery has to be quite so tasteless, however, I remain unconvinced.

The highlight of the show is Untitled (Helman Gallery Parallellogram) (1971), an installation in which the visitor must squeeze down a narrow, dark passageway to emerge into a room filled with bright green light: a parallelogram, or is it a parallel universe? Peaceful and troubling; a haven of disorientation, recalling, as Robert Storr suggests, Nauman’s own empty studio where, left to his own devices, he explored the limits of his consciousness.[1]

With the neon lights flicking on and off, and the continual clonking and scratching sounds from Carousel, the entire experience of being inside the gallery is more than mildly disturbing: it is like being trapped inside a nightmare. Larratt-Smith proposes that the experience of certain works by Nauman approximates a state of trauma, that his art is equivalent to the conversion symptoms of the hysteric, the utterances of the psychotic, and the repetition compulsion tied to the death drive. Excuse me if I remain somewhat sceptical as to how many of these states either man has ever experienced! One thing, however, is certain: these works have an effect at some deep level of the unconscious. Indeed, they leave me confused enough to wonder just who it is that is (being) mindfucked here: Nauman or his viewers? And who is it who is doing this mindfucking: Nauman or those who analyse him and his works? The visitors? The critics? Me? Am I, ultimately, fucker or fucked? Maybe, as in Sex and Death/Double “69”, I am both simultaneously.

[1] R. Storr, ‘Beyond Words.’ In Bruce Nauman, Walker Art Center, 1994


Installation views of Bruce Nauman / mindfuck
Hauser & Wirth London, Savile Row, North Gallery
30 January – 9 March 2013

Copyright © 2013 Hauser & Wirth

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