Art That Leaves a Mark: Bruce Nauman and Roland Barthes

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Abstract

A pioneer in the field of video and installation art, Bruce Nauman’s latest exhibit titled His Mark was recently on view at SITE Santa Fe museum in New Mexico. With a career in the art world spanning more than five decades, Nauman is notorious for working across mediums—ranging from sculpture to performance to neon—and he continues to push the boundaries of his practice with this current collection of 3D video artworks. His Mark (2021), an eight-channel 3D video installation spread out among three separate rooms of the museum, was accompanied by two single-channel video works titled Spider (2021) and Practice (2022). In another part of the museum was Self-Portrait at 80 (2022), which was on display for the first time. Just as a sculpture prompts a different type of engagement between viewer and artwork than a painting does, here Nauman’s hand encroaching into the spectator’s personal space elicits a physical negotiation with the image. In light of Nauman’s background in sculpture—and in terms of the formal mechanisms of Nauman’s artworks that turn sound and light into “materials” that fill the exhibition space—there is a certain physicality to the Nauman video installation. Through the heavy quality of the moving two-dimensional image projected into space that nearly attains a degree of materiality—as a kind of holographic theoretical sculpture—Nauman marks the space of the viewer. In a scene essentially delivered to viewers divorced from any narrative framework whatsoever, the meaning of the action itself remains veiled in ambiguity. Further, the brevity of the video set on loop does nothing to mitigate this uncertainty. Rather, the repetition appears to actually augment that opacity. This is evocative of the French philosopher Roland Barthes’s analysis of the unexpected effects resulting from the extraction of a film still from the flow of its overall narrative context. Nauman’s use of 3D video achieves a Barthesian third meaning by dislodging the depicted sign from its referent. More profoundly, whereas Barthes’s focus was on the still image, here the Nauman video achieves what could be called a moving third meaning in three dimensions, one that is experienced in real-time by the spectator in the exhibition space. The use of 3D allows for the goal of depicting a simultaneity of perspective—with more than one side of an object represented at once—to be achieved in what may be called a type of video cubism. It is in this sense that Barthes’s notion of the power of the image to “wound” viewers offers another compelling lens through which to view the mechanisms of Nauman’s 3D video artworks. The “sting” of Barthes’s punctum finds a parallel in the scoring of spectators’ sensibilities in the Nauman installation, activating a symbiotic engagement with the spectator that represents an expansion of Barthes’s thought into the realm of the performative. Nauman’s recent work continues to contribute to the evolution of the medium of video installation through its innovative demonstration of the seeming materiality of a two-dimensional image that references three-dimensional sculpture.
Original languageEnglish
TypeBruce Nauman's 'His Mark': Review Article
Media of outputArt Magazine
PublisherWhite Hot Magazine of Contemporary Art
Place of PublicationNew York
Publication statusPublished - 28 Sept 2023

Keywords

  • Bruce Nauman
  • Video Art
  • His Mark
  • Chris Doyen
  • Postmodern Sculpture
  • Roland Barthes

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