Phil Collins/Bruce Nauman
17 April–31 May, Tramway, Glasgow
The newsworthy launch of ARTIST ROOMS aside, it is, in itself, a major event to have
a Bruce Nauman solo show in Glasgow for the first time. Six works, covering video, sculpture, and neon text pieces, and spanning 1972 to 1999, filled Tramway 5 and offered a fair survey of the work produced over
that period: from the quasi-mathematical, perceptually-confounding forms of ‘Enforced Perspective’, 1975, to the suspended part- objects of ‘Untitled (Hand Circle)’, 1996, and the deadpan film ‘Setting a Good Corner’, 1999, in which we see the artist, looking every inch the all-American plainsman, at work on the New Mexico ranch where he lives.
In 1967, Nauman produced his first neon text piece, a spiral which read ‘The True Artist Helps The World By Revealing Mystic Truths’. Asked at the time whether he really believed this statement he
replied, ‘I don’t know; I think we should leave that open.’ Nauman’s practice has continually questioned the value of artistic endeavour, the kinds of investigations
art might facilitate, and what truths it might reveal. He has done so by working through negation, by courting failure, and by drawing on the stuff of everyday life
to undermine the artist’s claim to mystic transcendence or the viewer’s to aesthetic consolation. Indeed, Nauman often trades on a refusal of the viewer’s enjoyment or comfort. As Peter Schjeldahl has insightfully suggested, discerning the different ways he frustrates our expectations is one of
the perverse pleasures of the Nauman aficionado. The negative force of the work was somewhat muted here, I felt, perhaps
as a consequence of a representative but small set of works being shown in a rather cheerful, brightly-lit space. Nauman’s art, tough and unpretentious though it is, needs the right setting to maximise its potential for disturbance. In the basement of Dia: Beacon for example, it can come across as the unruly Id of the serene, canonical minimalism above, and when his videos are shown in sufficient number the TV monitors can seem possessed by a Beckett-like, compulsive, mute spirit, refusing narrative or incident in favour of endless, relentless repetition. The two-screen ‘Raw Materials Washing Hands’, 1996, called up this effect but, as it was a solitary example, the viewer was let off the hook before it could really take hold. Nonetheless, to feel a sense of anti-climax from this work, could be a sign that it is still functioning well, and the show offered a welcome chance to reckon with an artist whose questions remain important and whose importance remains unquestionable.
Phil Collins’s Scottish debut coincided with Nauman’s, and presented an impressively nuanced take on contemporary culture. Celebrity iconography, music subcultures and pop fandom as sites of contest were explored in the presentation of silkscreens of Morrissey’s pre-fame letters to the music press, as well as in defaced posters of Britney Spears, which Collins photographed on the New York subway in 2001. Morrissey’s razor-sharp and impassioned missives on the New York Dolls, and others, are indicative of how pop signifiers can matter, and
rather melancholically recall a time whendebates over them were conducted in print, addressed to an imagined community of equally obsessive readers. The Britney photos address a more blatantly commercialised public sphere, figuring the dehumanising effects of the culture industry and the way in which, in what Mark Seltzer has termed our ‘wound culture,’ images of celebrities often serve as screens for the projection of psychic and physical trauma.
Though it’s hard to see many other connections between them, Morrissey, like Bruce Nauman, made his name by pitting
the ordinariness of lived experience against the mystical, mythical pretensions of his chosen medium. He did so in a way that often seemed self-consciously, stubbornly and quintessentially (even controversially) English. However, that his recent musical resurgence was fuelled in part by the support of the Hispanic community in LA indicates that his songs of alienation and despair could slip from their context and be appropriated by others at the social margin. Collins’s wonderful installation ‘The World Won’t Listen’, 2005, in which karaoke performances of that Smiths’ album by young fans in Indonesia, Columbia and Turkey, play back simultaneously across three large screens, investigated the cultural politics of such appropriations. By turns comedic, playful and very moving, the piece reflects the qualities which made the Smiths so important,
but also offers a perceptive commentary
on dynamics of identification, cultural homogenisation, and power in globalised popular culture. The backdrops against
which these fans perform seem drawn from obviously commercial and digitally-enhanced visions of paradise—sometimes exotic, sometimes pastoral.
Yet pop culture, and its cross-linguistic reception, comes to manifest a counter- discourse to such visions. The singers reanimate the music, pulling it into the present, while it lends them both verbal and emotional articulacy. Collins’s considerable achievement in making the piece (a four-year process which begin with recording karaoke versions of the songs in Bogotá) is matched by his achievement in making it both so enjoyable and so subtly political. That Collins has a great knack for such sympathetic readings of cultural exchange is further proven by ‘baghdad screentests’, 2002, which sutures the style of Warhol’s film portraiture and the politics of representation attending the Iraq war, to incredibly poignant effect. These works offer a renewed attempt to reveal important contemporary truths, and to say something to us about our lives.
Dominic Paterson is a lecturer at the University of Glasgow