In advance of the annual College Art Association conference in New York next week—where a celebratory book event will take place at Sperone Westwater Gallery—authors Dore Bowen and Constance Lewallen discuss their new book Bruce Nauman: Spatial Encounters.
DB: What do you think our book contributes to the scholarship past and present on the work of Bruce Nauman?
CL: Nauman’s corridors, rooms, tunnels, and depressions—what we’re calling architectural installations—have never been written about as a distinct series. However, while we argue for this as a series, the focus on body and space can be found throughout Nauman’s oeuvre. If you look at his videos, neons, photographs, and drawings, you see these topics repeatedly. Yet, in his architectural works, it’s not only thematic but also experiential. In these works, depression, anxiety, and frustration are paramount. The experience is crystalized. One way he does this is by setting up a situation for the participant, which is tightly controlled.
DB: It’s interesting to note some of the elements Nauman integrates into his seemingly sparse installations (such as video, colored light, narrowing corridors that dead-end at the gallery wall, sound damping materials, etc.) to create these strong emotions. And all of these strategies came out of his ongoing investigation on human behavior in space which, as you note, runs throughout his career. What was the genesis of the architectural installations?
CL: Nauman’s initial impetus for creating his first corridor was his 1968 video Walk with Contrapposto, in which Performance Corridor was initially constructed as a prop for the video, but which, with the encouragement of Marcia Tucker (then-curator at the Whitney), he showed as a stand-alone work. Early on, Nauman was concerned with the body, famously stating that the body was a valid a material to work with. He manipulated his body in his first film Thighing, and explored the relationship of his body to architecture in the early performance (later reenacted for video) Wall Floor Positions, and so it was a natural step to create situations in which participants become acutely aware of their own body.
What is the significance of the San Jose Installation?
DB: I use my recent reinstallation of Nauman’s San Jose Installation as a case study in order to examine the experience it produced in 1970 versus 2018. This study challenges the normative art historical narrative that underwrites many of Nauman’s architectural installations, which positions him as a studio artist and his installations as “artworks.” By contrast, I argue that his installations hold a significant relationship to place and infrastructure, and I demonstrate this by showing that, in 1970, the participant’s experience inside San Jose Installation echoed the anti-war protests occurring on the other side of the gallery wall. I also consider how the experience inside this installation has changed now that San José is the center of Silicon Valley. Nauman’s architectural installations clearly can’t be understood as traditional artworks. I hope to provide a fresh lens with which to appreciate this fact.