When you think about it, sex is pretty ridiculous. All that flesh and fumbling, awkward thrusting and atonal moaning. That might not be the most rose-tinted view of fornication, but Bruce Nauman doesn’t do romance. His language-obsessed art reduces our lives to their very basest elements and shows how ludicrous we can often be. It’s difficult, humorous, confrontational and traumatic. Nauman’s impact has been huge, and for four decades he has been at the forefront of American contemporary art, influencing the likes of Matthew Barney, Rachel Whiteread and Damien Hirst.
This smattering of works from throughout his career shows his ability to document the absurd monotony of the human experience. The ceaseless, random neon flashing of ‘Good Boy, Bad Boy’ is a seizure-inducing, retina-burning race through everyday life. The constant and chaotic flickering of phrases such as ‘you don’t want to die’ and ‘I like to drink’ has a dizzying effect.
Nauman is pushing expressions of normal mundane actions to breaking point, making them utterly nonsensical. It’s a reductionist approach to how we live. Our fears are no different to anybody else’s. We all drink, hate, sleep, work. And, in Nauman’s world, none of it matters. It’s all just absurd.
But his work isn’t just psychological, it’s also powerfully physical. The corridors of his untitled 1971 construction narrow aggressively around you as you enter. The claustrophobic tightening of walls makes you so aware of your body and the space it inhabits that you’re left tense with the emotional and physical discomfort of your own form. You suck your stomach in, hold your breath and squeeze through the funnelled opening to find yourself in an empty room that’s vibrating under the harsh green neon glare of four strip lights.
It’s a sculptural joke that Nauman forces you to participate in. A game of self-awareness – a test to see if you can keep pushing through – that then gives you nothing. You become the butt of a joke with no real punchline.
So, dejected, you squeeze back out through the other corridor, only to be confronted by the blow-job bonanza of ‘Sex and Death/Double 69’ (1985). A neon festival of fellatio with four super-imposed male/female bodies, engaged in a unending dance of oral copulation. Again, Nauman repeats a basic human action until it feels utterly ridiculous.
‘Carousel’ (1988), an electric motor dragging fake animal carcasses in a macabre orbit across the floor, doesn’t sit quite so well in the space. It’s a humorously masochistic statement on death, but lacks the buzzing intensity of the other works.
For the most part, Nauman’s work is a disorientating and energising experience. The corridor piece is singularly oppressive. The neon works are so obtrusive, so eye-wateringly confrontational, that they’re almost exhausting. This isn’t easy or subtle art. It’s a total Mindfuck.