The Canadian Art Database

Ian Wallace and Russell Keziere

In Conversation with Bruce Nauman

Vanguard, Vol. 8 #1, February 1979
[ 3,664 words ]

Bruce Nauman's most recent sculptural installation at Ace Gallery, Vancouver, during October and November 1978, was indicative of the artist's long-standing concern with maintaining a sense of double entendre. He feels that the tension generated between two separate orders of information, both of which would occasion divergent experiences in the viewer, provides the real interest in this work. The objects are on one hand, to be taken at a prime facie level as material sculpture and, on the other hand, referencing as scale models to fictional and monumental realities. Vancouver artist and teacher Ian Wallace and [Vanguard editor] Russell Keziere discussed the problems intrinsic to his use of equivocal orders of intentionality with Bruce Nauman on October 9, 1978 in Vancouver.

Ian Wallace Your show at Ace in 1973 had a set of instructions telling us to stand next to the wall. That piece required no materials at all; was it generated from the studio? It seemed to me that there was a lot of psychology going into it. What other kinds of input did you see going into it?

Bruce Nauman There was a period once when I did a number of performance pieces with videotape; they required what I guess you could call sets. They were used to control the content, and became important. If you give somebody a set of instructions, then they are obliged to give some kind of interpretation. If I can limit the kinds of things which can be performed then I can control part of the experience. That's where all that came from.

IW What bothers me about the pieces here is the whole question of scale; the pieces are said to be 1/40th of actual size. In terms of a spectator's use of the piece, this allows him an incredible leeway to take off on his own.

BN One of the things that I liked about this series of works is that the models exist without any of that information and function in the room as object sculpture which can be dealt with very directly. But when you add on the information that it is really a model for a huge outdoor work, you get to the point of giving out information and taking it away at the same time.

IW That is what I find contradictory about them.

BN Yeah.

Russell Keziere I talked to a lot of people who have come to this exhibition and there has been a certain amount of delight with the spatial flexibility of the pieces, especially the eye level perimeters. But there has also been the reaction which Ian mentioned: what does he think he is doing telling us it is only 1:40 scale — is he actually going to build this thing or not? I found, however, that this additional order of information worked rather like some of the titles in your earlier pieces which were like tangential orders of information. Those puns and titles were in fact far more tautological than phenomenological. The result was not a univocal statement, but something highly equivocal and not to be taken at face value. I find that the reference to scale in this piece acts in very much the same way.

BN The note about scale gives you two kinds of information: visual and physical information as well as the intellectual information which indicates that the sculpture is only a model. Immediately you begin to imagine what it would be like and how you would respond to it at the proper scale. You have to deal with two orders of information at once, that's what makes it interesting.

IW Where do the shapes come from?

BN The first pieces in this series had to do with shafts that were to go down into the ground about forty feet. You would go down the stairs, circle around the perimeter, the clear sky left visible only through the tops of the shafts. This related to the series of which the simplest turned out to be just a 60-foot square, the top edge of which would be just above eye level. My intention was to deal with the relationship of public space to private space. When you are alone, you accept the space by filling it with your presence, as soon as someone else comes into view, you withdraw and protect yourself. The other poses a threat, you don't want to deal with it. The best example of this is when someone steps out of a crowded street and into a phone booth. On the one hand you go in there to get acoustic privacy and on the other hand you make yourself a public figure. It is a conflicting kind of situation. What I want to do is use the investigative polarity that exists in the tension between the public and private space and use it to create an edge.

RK This notion of a polarity between private and public space seems to tie in with the distinction between the studio and the street.

BN Whenever I give a public presentation of something I did in the studio, I go through an incredible amount of self-exposure which can also function, paradoxically, as a defence. I will tell you about myself by giving a show, but I will only tell you so much. Again, it's like using two orders of information; the tension is intentional.

RK You once said that you mistrusted audience participation, and yet in much of your recent sculpture, even this work which would seem to be much more 'stable' than anything you have done, the notion of enterability (at least in potency) and in involvement has been of paramount importance. Of course when you made that statement audience participation was very much in vogue and you were attempting to vouchsafe a certain amount of privacy.

BN I think at that time there was also a prevalent description of art as game-playing and role-playing, and I really didn't like that. I thought art was too serious to be called game-playing. It is said that art is a matter of life and death; this may be melodramatic but it is also true. If you allow art to become a real political activity, then it does go beyond game-playing or role-playing.

RK Which political matrix do you see yourself as addressing?

BN Art is a means to acquiring an investigative activity. I don't know if you can necessarily change things in a broad sense. You can make yourself aware of the possibilities; it is important to do that. I don't know how, in that sense, it relates to the art community. But my attitude comes from being an artist and not a scientist, which is another way of investigating. When I was in school I started out as a mathematician. I didn't become one, but I think there was a certain thinking process which was very similar and which carried over into the art. This investigative activity is necessary. I think that we trust too much in accepting traditional validations. When you go to a museum or gallery of Greek vases, nobody questions their validation. And now you really don't doubt that this thing is important simply because it was made by Mr. de Kooning. We need to know that the object was made by an artist before it is given its validity. An investigation of this is the activity and the traditional validation is the matrix.

IW What essentially interests me in this work, aside from these extra-aesthetic considerations, is the fabrication. I was wondering, for example, if you were interested in the construction industry? You use plaster, wood, steel, and all the basic components necessary for construction. Does this enter into it at all, or am I looking at something which really doesn't count?

BN These are all things which are available to me and I know about them.

IW But you mean for the plaster pieces to be sunk into the ground; the fabrication won't actually be seen.

BN Yeah.

IW When the plaster pieces are out of the ground you can read them quite well as negative shapes. But if they are sunk into the ground, what good is this feeling for the materials?

BN It's an entirely different feel. They become things that you walk into rather than walk around. If these plaster works were built full-scale and you walked down into the space, you would be inside looking out rather than outside looking in.

IW I was really resisting this reference to scale. What happens is that this additional information actually turns into possible fictions. The piece becomes a platform for a set of possible activities: how far are you willing to carry this through? May one consider one's own fiction as part of your primary intention?

BN At one point all those things which were not impossible but exceedingly unlikely, interested me. I allowed myself to follow through with them, constructing them in a smaller scale.

IW These proposed monumental pieces relate, on another level, to other works you have done such as the peripheral vision and perspective piece that was shown last year at Ace. Every time I got a peg on the unifying structure of that work it began slipping around several points of view. It worked like the performance corridors; when you're inside you are at the one point where you can't see the periphery. When you are down in the sink piece, also, everything else is peripheral.

BN In those instances you were being forced to rely almost entirely on your physical and emotional responses to the situation, rather than standing away from it and having an intellectual experience of it.

IW I saw some drawings in Interfunctione for a video piece of yours which really interested me. It was called Tony Sinking and it involved lying on the floor and concentrating on the peripheral vision.

BN I did two: Tony Sinking and Elka Allowing the Floor to Rise Up Over Her. I think they both did it face down and face up. We used two cameras and changed locations from time to time, slowly faded from one image back to another for a period of an hour.

That was the extent of the main visual texture of it apart from the performances of the individual people. We had discussed the project together, practised it and they were aware of my intentions. They took the whole thing very seriously, which was important. Then Tony came on the first day and we taped him; on this occasion he was lying on his back and after about fifteen minutes he started choking and coughing. He sat up and said: 'I did it too fast and I scared myself.' He didn't want to do it again, but did it anyway. At another time we were watching his hand through the cameras and it was behaving very strangely. We asked him about it later and he said that he was afraid to move his hand because he thought he might lose molecules. The same thing happened to Elka, who had not talked to Tony about it at all. She had a really physical and violent reaction. This was amazing because when we had practised it, none of us had had that kind of response. The only thing they could figure out was that when they had done it in my studio on the wooden floor, they weren't as threatened as they were by the density of the concrete floor in the television studio. I don't know what it is like to see those tapes because it was an incredibly emotional and intense experience for all of us; I doubt if that intensity comes across on the tape. They were really important things for me to do but I have no idea how I feel about them as works.

IW Is work of this nature an ongoing concern for you?

BN No. I am not doing anything that particular. But I do not see what I am doing now as any radical departure from it. What I was investigating at that time was how to examine a purely mental activity as opposed to a purely physical situation that might incur some mental activity.

IW It seems to have a lot to do with how self-images are constructed in space. A lot of your earlier work was easily reproduced in the sense that it was related to photographic images; are you working against that now? Do you share, like other artists who are concerned with space, such as Michael Asher or Robert Irwin, a negative attitude to photographic documentation?

BN I think it is important to be aware that the photograph is a photograph.

IW Which has more importance for you: the whole general notion, with all the different levels of information, or the visual, tactile level, e.g., the plaster dribbling over the edges of these plaster pieces here.

BN I think all those things are important. Dimension is important and how they are made is important.

RK Has the contemporary integration of photography into sculpture been of significance to you? Previously you were known by your photographs and now you are doing something primarily sculptural.

BN I am no longer pursuing those particular ideas. Sometimes those ideas were already worked out in photography, and sometimes they were almost the same intellectual ideas worked out in sculpture. In most cases, however, I find still photography limiting for my interests. I don't know how to get everything I want into a photograph. I am a little more comfortable with film. In general and recently, I have been frustrated in my attempts to do something in two-dimensional media; I can get a certain amount of what I want into it, and then I feel blocked.

RK Would you have preferred an actual performance situation for something like the Studies for Holograms, or do the photographs suffice?

BN I think they worked best as holograms. I don't think I ever had any need to or any intention of doing a performance of them.

RK Would you ever want to dramatize the private / public space tensions that are operative in the sculptural objects?

BN Not particularly.

RK How does humour operate in your work? Many of your titles have involved jokes and puns, and sometimes the conflicting orders of information have a significant and humourous irony.

BN I think humour is used a lot of the time to keep people from getting too close. Humour side-steps and shifts the meaning.

IW Do you relate at all to other artists in the L.A. area like Asher, Irwin, Burden or Norman? And in the past your work has been characterized by a California context; is that still there?

BN I know most of the artists in the area, but not well. I used to see Irwin fairly often, but he travels so much that I see him more often abroad than at home. I don't think there is a 'school' in California, there is a different focus now. I would feel closest to Irwin as someone who has done art for a long time and has made some fairly major changes in his way of working; he has continued to do interesting work. That personal quality is more important to me right now than specific works.

IW Do you do any work in Europe and how do you relate to it?

BN I do some work there, but I haven't seen too much art there that has interested me.

RK How do you presently perceive your role in an expanding art world?

BN When I left school and got a job at the Art Institute in San Francisco, I rented some studio space. I didn't know many people there, and being a beginning instructor I taught the early morning classes and consequently saw very little of my colleagues. I had no support structure for my art then; there was no contact or opportunity to tell people what I was doing every day; there was no chance to talk about my work. And a lot of things I was doing didn't make sense so I quit doing them. That left me alone in the studio; this in turn raised the fundamental question of what an artist does when left alone in the studio. My conclusion was that I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever it was I was doing in the studio must be art. And what I was in fact doing was drinking coffee and pacing the floor. It became a question then of how to structure those activities into being art, or some kind of cohesive unit that could be made available to people. At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product. The product is not important for your own self-awareness. I saw it in terms of what I was going to do each day, and how I was to get from one to another, and beyond that I was concerned with maintaining my interest level over a longer period of time, e.g., a plan of a lifetime. It is easier to consider the possibility of not being an artist. The world doesn't end when you dry up. What you are to do with the everyday is an art problem. And it is broader than just deciding whether to be a sculptor or a painter. It is a problem that everybody has at one time or another. An artist is put in the position of questioning one's lifestyle more than most people. The artist's freedom to do whatever he or she wants includes the necessity of making these fundamental decisions.

RK These speculations on your role and behaviour are not aesthetic but moral.

BN Yeah, right.

RK During this period in your development, when you didn't have a support community, this form of speculation would have been necessary to find any kind of level of expression.

BN But the support community can function both ways: it is a support community but it is also a limiting community. All they can support is what they know. When you do something other than that, you are automatically deprived of support. This is not meant as a criticism, it's a fact. Your activity does become moral and political in the sense that whenever an artist or a philosopher chooses to do original work he threatens the stability of what is known about the discipline, and that is a political situation. Sometimes the innovation is so obscure that nothing is threatened, at other times it is so far gone that it can't threaten anything. When it is right at the edge, however, where it is poking holes in what is known and thought to be art, then it becomes dangerous.

RK Will that evolution always occur within a dialectic, must there be tension?

BN There has to be some conflict between what is already known and the innovation; if there is no relationship or connection, then very little will happen. It won't even be seen.

IW You lacked a support system when you were alone in the studio. But now public interest in your art is pretty fine; have you left the studio and now relate instead to the media and art criticism?

BN Not too much. Where I am living now I don't have too much immediate feedback to my art.

IW Where are you living now?

BN Pasadena. Los Angeles, in general, doesn't offer much in the way of immediate response or a community which can provide that function. The critics in L.A. are not very interesting, and when I show in New York or Europe the media response comes back very slowly. Most of my feedback is from friends who come to the studio to see my work.

IW You must have a fair number of commissions, has this solved your problem of what to do next?

BN There are no commissions. The work for this show, for example, was produced out of that same problem of what to do in the studio. The only difference being that these pieces were done as scale models; I couldn't really make the entire thing in the studio. I haven't really had to work much in response to demand or commissions.

RK Would you ever move back to New York, where you were in the late 60s?

BN One of the things that New York can do is to force you to clean yourself up and define your work. Since so many people do so much work, you're going to overlap no matter what you do; the pressure is to clean it up and find your own area. But this same pressure can also force you to be narrow and in some ways can inhibit real change. I was on an NEA advisory committee recently, for example, and had to look at an awful lot of art. I think the saddest thing was that all the artists were trying to look like they had just come out of an art magazine. It was almost as if they were thinking that if we make it look this way it will be acceptable. The edges had been taken off, there was a total lack of experimentation. No one was willing to make a mistake. I preferred the people who were occasionally completely bad because they had some energy. And that is what is important.

Vanguard, Vol. 8 #1, February 1979.

Text: © Ian Wallace and Russell Keziere. All rights reserved.

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