Breaking the Silence: An Interview with Bruce Nauman

Bruce Nauman: Human Nature/Life Death/Knows Doesn’t Know, 1983, neon tubing with clear-glass-tubing suspension frames, 107 1/2 by 107 by 5 3/4 inches. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Bruce Nauman is notoriously reticent. In the half century of his public career, he has given only a handful of interviews. One of the most extensive was recorded in 1987 by Joan Simon, a critic, curator, and contributing editor at A.i.A. It was conducted for the 1988 documentary Four Artists: Robert Ryman, Eva Hesse, Bruce, Nauman, Susan Rothenberg.  Simon published substantial excerpts from the conversation in our September 1988 issue. They cover a wide range of topics related to the interests Nauman pursued in his sculptures, performances, and videos: casts and impressions, morality and ethics, puns and jokes, and more. The text is the source of some of his best-known quotes, including the lines about his desire to make art “that was just there all at once. Like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat.” We’re putting the interview online to mark the occasion of “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts,” a comprehensive retrospective on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through February 18, 2019, and at MoMA PS1 through February 25. —Eds.


BRUCE NAUMAN  There is a tendency to clutter things up, to try to make sure people know something is art, when all that’s necessary is to present it, to leave it alone. I think the hardest thing to do is to present an idea in the most straightforward way.

What I tend to do is see something, then remake it and remake it and remake it and try every possible way of remaking it. If I’m persistent enough, I get back to where I started. I think it was Jasper Johns who said, “Sometimes it’s necessary to state the obvious.”

Still, how to proceed is always the mystery. I remember at one point thinking that some day I would figure out how you do this, how you do art—like, “What’s the procedure here, folks?”—and then it wouldn’t be such a struggle anymore. Later, I realized it was never going to be like that, it was always going to be a struggle. I realized I would never have a specific process; I would have to re-invent it, over and over again. That was really depressing.

After all, it was hard work; it was a painful struggle and tough. I didn’t want to have to go through all that every time. But of course you do have to continually rediscover and re-decide, and it’s awful. It’s just an awful thing to have to do.

On the other hand, that’s what’s interesting about making art, and why it’s worth doing: it’s never going to be the same, there is no method. If I stop and try to look at how I got the last piece done, it doesn’t help me with the next one.

JOAN SIMON What do you think about when you’re working on a piece?

NAUMAN  I think about Lenny Tristano a lot. Do you know who he was? Lenny Tristano was a blind pianist, one of the original—or maybe second generation—bebop guys. He’s on a lot of the best early bebop records. When Lenny played well, he hit you hard and he kept going until he finished. Then he just quit. You didn’t get any introduction, you didn’t get any tail—you just got full intensity for two minutes or twenty minutes or whatever. It would be like taking the middle out of Coltrane—just the hardest, toughest part of it. That was all you got.

From the beginning I was trying to see if I could make art that did that. Art that was just there all at once. Like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat. Or better, like getting hit in the back of the neck. You never see it coming; it just knocks you down. I like that idea very much: the kind of intensity that doesn’t give you any trace of whether you’re going to like it or not.

SIMON  In trying to capture that sort of intensity over the past twenty or so years you’ve worked in just about every medium: film, video, sound, neon, installation, performance, photography, holography, sculpture, drawing—but not painting. You gave that up very early on. Why?

NAUMAN  When I was in school I was a painter. And I went back and forth a couple of times. But basically I couldn’t function as a painter. Painting is one of those things I never quite made sense of. I just couldn’t see how to proceed as a painter. It seemed that if I didn’t think of myself as a painter, then it would be possible to continue.

It still puzzles me how I made decisions in those days about what was possible and what wasn’t. I ended up drawing on music and dance and literature, using thoughts and ideas from other fields to help me continue to work. In that sense, the early work, which seems to have all kinds of materials and ideas in it, seemed very simple to make because it wasn’t coming from looking at sculpture or painting.

SIMON  That doesn’t sound simple.

NAUMAN  No, I don’t mean that it was simple to do the work. But it was simple in that in the ’60s you didn’t have to pick just one medium. There didn’t seem to be any problem with using different kinds of materials—shifting from photographs to dance to performance to videotapes. It seemed very straightforward to use all those different ways of expressing ideas or presenting material. You could make neon signs, you could make written pieces, you could make jokes about parts of the body or casting things, or whatever.

SIMON  Do you see your work as part of a continuum with other art or other artists?

NAUMAN  Sure there are connections, though not in any direct way. It’s not that there is someone in particular you emulate. But you do see other artists asking the same kinds of questions and responding with some kind of integrity.

There’s a kind of restraint and morality in Johns. It isn’t specific, I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s there, I feel it’s there. It’s less there, but still important, in Duchamp. Or in Man Ray, who also interests me. Maybe the morality I sense in Man Ray has to do with the fact that while he made his living as a fashion photographer, his art works tended to be jokes—stupid jokes. The whole idea of Dada was that you didn’t have to make your living with your art; so that generation could be more provocative with less risk. Then there is the particularly American idea about morality that has to do with the artist as workman. Many artists used to feel all right about making a living with their art because they identified with the working class. Some still do. I mean, I do, and I think Richard Serra does.

SIMON  No matter how jokey or stylistically diverse or visually dazzling your works are, they always have an ethical side, a moral force.

NAUMAN  I do see art that way. Art ought to have a moral value, a moral stance, a position. I’m not sure where that belief comes from. In part it just comes from growing up where I grew up and from my parents and family. And from the time I spent in San Francisco going to the Art Institute, and before that in Wisconsin. From my days at the University of Wisconsin, the teachers I remember were older guys—they wouldn’t let women into teaching easily—and they were all WPA guys. They were socialists and they had points to make that were not only moral and political, but also ethical. Wisconsin was one of the last socialist states, and in the ’50s, when I lived there and went to high school there, Milwaukee still had a socialist mayor. So there were a lot of people who thought art had a function beyond being beautiful—that it had a social reason to exist.


Early Work

SIMON  What David Whitney wrote about your Composite Photo of Two Messes on the Studio Floor (1967)—that “it is a direct statement on how the artist lives, works and thinks”—could apply in general to the variety of works you made in your San Francisco studio from 1966-68.

NAUMAN  I did some pieces that started out just being visual puns. Since these needed body parts in them, I cast parts of a body and assembled them or presented them with a title. There was also the idea that if I was in the studio, whatever I was doing was art. Pacing around, for example. How do you organize that to present it as art? Well, first I filmed it. Then I videotaped it. Then I complicated it by turning the camera upside down or sideways, or organizing my pacing to various sounds.

In a lot of the early work I was concerned with ideas about inside and outside and front and back—how to turn them around and confuse them. Take the Window or Wall Sign—you know, the neon piece that says, “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” That idea occurred to me because of the studio I had in San Francisco at the time. It had been a grocery store, and in the window there was still a beer sign which you read from the outside. From the inside, of course, it was backwards. So when I did the earliest neon pieces, they were intended to be seen through the window one way and from the inside another way, confusing the message by reversing the image.

SIMON  Isn’t your interest in inverting ideas, in showing what’s “not there,” and in solving—or at least revealing—”impossible” problems related in part to your training as a mathematician?

NAUMAN  I was interested in the logic and structure of math and especially how you could turn that logic inside out. I was fascinated by mathematical problems, particularly the one called “squaring the circle.” You know, for hundreds of years mathematicians tried to find a geometrical way of finding a square equal in area to a circle—a formula where you could construct one from the other. At some point in the nineteenth century, a mathematician—I can’t remember his name—proved it can’t be done. His approach was to step outside the problem. Rather than struggling inside the problem, by stepping outside of it, he showed that it was not possible to do it at all.

Standing outside and looking at how something gets done, or doesn’t get done, is really fascinating and curious. If I can manage to get outside of a problem a little bit and watch myself having a hard time, then I can see what I’m going to do—it makes it possible. It works.

SIMON  A number of early pieces specifically capture what’s “not there.” I’m thinking about the casts of “invisible spaces”: the space between two crates on the floor, for example, or the “negative” space under a chair.

NAUMAN  Casting the space under a chair was the sculptural version of de Kooning’s statement: “When you paint a chair, you should paint the space between the rungs, not the chair itself.” I was thinking like that: about leftovers and negative spaces.

SIMON  But your idea of negative space is very different from the sculptor’s traditional problem of locating an object in space or introducing space into a solid form.

NAUMAN  Negative space for me is thinking about the underside and the backside of things. In casting, I always like the parting lines and the seams—things that help to locate the structure of an object, but in the finished sculpture usually get removed. These things help to determine the scale of the work and the weight of the material. Both what’s inside and what’s outside determine our physical, physiological and psychological responses—how we look at an object.

SIMON  The whole idea of the visual puns, works like Henry Moore Bound to Fail and From Hand to Mouth, complicates this notion of how we look at an object. They are similar to readymades. On the one hand, they translate words or phrases into concrete form—in a sense literalizing them. On the other hand, they are essentially linguistic plays, which means abstracting them. I’m curious about the thought process that went into conceiving those works. For instance, how did From Hand to Mouth come about?

NAUMAN  In that case, the cast was of someone else, not of myself as has generally been assumed—but that doesn’t really matter. It was just supposed to be a visual pun, or a picture of a visual pun.

I first made From Hand to Mouth as a drawing—actually there were two or three different drawings—just the idea of drawing “from hand to mouth.” But I couldn’t figure out exactly how to make the drawing. My first idea was to have a hand in the mouth with some kind of connection—a bar, or some kind of mechanical connection. I finally realized that the most straightforward way to present the idea would be to cast that entire section of the body. Since I couldn’t cast myself, I used my wife as the model.

I worked with the most accurate casting material I could find, something called moulage. I found the stuff at some police shop. You know, they used it to cast tire prints and things like that. It’s actually a very delicate casting process; you could pick up fingerprints in the dust with it. The moulage is a kind of gel you heat up. Because it’s warm when you apply it to a body, it opens up all the pores—it picks up all that, even the hairs. But it sets like five-day-old Jell-O. You have to put plaster or something over the back of it to make it hold its shape. Then I made the wax cast, which became very super-realistic—hyper-realistic. You could see things you don’t normally see—or think about—on people’s skin.

SIMON  All your work seems to depend not only on this kind of tactile precision, but also on a kind of incompleteness—a fragmentariness, a sense of becoming. As a result, your pieces accrue all sorts of meaning over time. With From Hand to Mouth—completed over twenty years ago—what other meanings have occurred to you?

NAUMAN  Well, it’s funny you should ask that, because not long ago I read this book in which a character goes to funeral homes or morgues, and puts this moulage stuff on people and makes plaster casts—death masks—for their families. I had no idea that this was a profession. But it turns out that this moulage is a very old, traditional kind of material, and was often used this way. But it just connects up in a strange sort of way with my more recent work, since over the past several years I have been involved with both the idea of death and dying and the idea of masking the figure.


Masks and Games

SIMON  An early example of masking the figure—your figure, to be precise—was your 1969 film Art Makeup.

NAUMAN  That film—which was also later a video­tape—has a rather simple story behind it. About twenty years ago—this was in ‘66 and ‘67—I was living in San Francisco, and I had access to a lot of film equipment. There were a lot of underground filmmakers there at that time and I knew a bunch of those guys. And since everybody was broke, I could rent pretty good 16mm equipment for $5 or $6 a day—essentially the cost of gas to bring it over. So I set up this Art Makeup film.

Of course, you put on makeup before you film in the movies. In my case, putting on the makeup became the activity. I started with four colors. I just put one on over the other, so that by the time the last one went on it was almost black. I started with white. Then red on the white, which came out pink; then green on top of that, which came out gray; then something very black on top of that.

One thing which hadn’t occurred to me when I was making the film was that when you take a solid color of makeup—no matter what color—it flattens the image of the face on film. The flatness itself was another kind of mask.

SIMON  The whole idea of the mask, of abstracting a personality, of simultaneously presenting and denying a self, is a recurring concern in your work.

NAUMAN  I think there is a need to present yourself. To present yourself through your work is obviously part of being an artist. If you don’t want people to see that self, you put on makeup. But artists are always interested in some level of communication. Some artists need lots, some don’t. You spend all of this time in the studio and then when you do present the work, there is a kind of self-exposure that is threatening. It’s a dangerous situation and I think that what I was doing, and what I am going to do and what most of us probably do, is to use the tension between what you tell and what you don’t tell as part of the work. What is given and what is withheld become the work. You could say that if you make a statement it eliminates the options; on the other hand if you’re a logician, the opposite immediately becomes a possibility. I try to make work that leaves options, or is open-ended in some way.

SIMON  The tenor of that withholding—actually controlling the content or subject—changed significantly when you stopped performing and began to allow the viewer to participate in some of your works. I’m thinking of the architectural installations, in particular the very narrow corridor pieces. In one of them, the viewer who could deal with walking down such a long claustrophobic passage would approach a video monitor on which were seen disconcerting and usually “invisible” glimpses of his or her own back.

NAUMAN  The first corridor pieces were about having someone else do the performance. But the problem for me was to find a way to restrict the situation so that the performance turned out to be the one I had in mind. In a way, it was about control. I didn’t want somebody else’s idea of what could be done.

There was a period in American art, in the ’60s, when artists presented parts of works, so that people could arrange them. Bob Morris did some pieces like that, and Öyvind Fahlström did those political-coloring-book-like things with magnets that could be rearranged. But it was very hard for me to give up that much control. The problem with that approach is that it turns art into game playing. In fact, at that time, a number of artists were talking about art as though it were some kind of game you could play. I think I mistrusted that idea.

Of course, there is a kind of logic and structure in art-making that you can see as game playing. But game-playing doesn’t involve any responsibility—any moral responsibility—and I think that being an artist does involve moral responsibility. With a game you just follow the rules. But art is like cheating—it involves inverting the rules or taking the game apart and changing it. In games like football or baseball cheating is allowed to a certain extent. In hockey breaking the rules turns into fighting—you can’t do that in a bar and get away with it. But the rules change. It can only go so far and then real life steps in. This year warrants were issued to arrest hockey players; two minutes in the penalty box wasn’t enough. It’s been taken out of the game situation.

SIMON  Nevertheless, many of your works take as their starting point very specific children’s games.

NAUMAN  When I take the game, I take it out of context and apply it to moral or political situations. Or I load it emotionally in a way that it is not supposed to be loaded. For instance, the Hanged Man neon piece [1985] derives from the children’s spelling game. If you spell the word, you win; if you can’t spell the word in a certain number of tries, then the stick figure of the hanged man is drawn line by line with each wrong guess. You finally lose the game if you complete the figure—if you hang the man.

With my version of the hanged man, first of all, I took away the part about being allowed to participate. In my piece you’re not allowed to participate—the parts of the figure are put into place without you. The neon “lines” flash on and off in a programmed sequence. And then the game doesn’t end. Once the figure is complete, the whole picture starts to be recreated again. Then I added the bit about having an erection or ejaculation when you’re hanged. I really don’t know if it’s a myth or not.

I’ve also used the children’s game “musical chairs” a number of times. The simplest version was Musical Chairs (Studio Piece) in 1983, which has a chair hanging at the outside edge of a circumference of suspended steel Xs. So, when the Xs swing or the chair swings, they bang into each other and actually make noise—make music. But of course it was more than that because musical chairs is also a cruel game. Somebody is always left out. The first one to be excluded always feels terrible. That kid doesn’t get to play anymore, has nothing to do, has to stand in the corner or whatever.


Large-Scale Sculpture

SIMON  There seems to be something particularly ominous about your use of chairs—both in this and other works. Why a chair? What does it mean to you?

NAUMAN  The chair becomes a symbol for a figure—a stand-in for the figure. A chair is used, it is functional; but it is also symbolic. Think of the electric chair, or that chair they put you in when the police shine the lights on you. Because your imagination is left to deal with that isolation, the image becomes more powerful, in the same way that the murder offstage can be more powerful than if it took place right in front of you. The symbol is more powerful.

I first began to work with the idea of a chair with that cast of the space underneath a chair—that was in the ’60s. And I remember, when I think back to that time, a chair Beuys did with a wedge of suet on the seat. I think he may have hung it on the wall. I’m not sure. In any case, it was a chair that was pretending it was a chair—it didn’t work. You couldn’t sit in it because of that wedge of grease or fat or whatever it was—it filled up the space you would sit in. Also, I’m particularly interested in the idea of hanging a chair on the wall. It was a Shaker idea, you know. They had peg boards that ran around the wall, so they could pick up all the furniture and keep the floors clean. The chairs didn’t have to be on the floor to function.

In 1981, when I was making South American Triangle, I had been thinking about having something hanging for quite a long time. The Last Studio Piece, which was made in the late ’70s when I was still living in Pasadena, was made from parts of two other pieces—plaster semicircles that look like a cloverleaf and a large square—and I finally just stuck them together. I just put one on top of the other and a metal plate in between and hung it all from the ceiling. That was the first time I used a hanging element. I was working at the same time on the “underground tunnel pieces.” These models for tunnels I imagined floating underground in the dirt. The same ideas and procedures, the same kind of image, whether something was suspended in water, in earth, in air.

SIMON  South American Triangle in a certain sense continues these ideas of game-playing, suspension, inside and outside, and the chair as a stand-in for the figure. In this case though, we’re talking about a big steel sculpture hanging from the ceiling, with the chair isolated and suspended upside-down in the middle of the steel barrier. This seems considerably more aggressive than the earlier work, though the content is still covert, an extremely private meditation. But the title hints at its subject matter and begins to explicate its intense emotional and political presence. I’m wondering what your thoughts were when you were making this piece?

NAUMAN  When I moved to New Mexico and was in Pecos in ‘79, I was thinking about a piece that had to do with political torture. I was reading V.S. Naipaul’s stories about South America and Central America, including “The Return of Eva Peron” and especially “The Killings in Trinidad”—that’s the one that made the biggest impression on me. Reading the Naipaul clarified things for me and helped me continue. It helped me to name names, to name things. But it didn’t help me to make the piece. It didn’t help me to figure out how the bolts went on. It just gave me encouragement.

At first, I thought of using a chair that would somehow become the figure: torturing a chair and hanging it up or strapping it down, something like that. And then torture has to take place in a room (or at least I was thinking in terms of it taking place in a room), but I couldn’t figure out how to build a room and how to put the chair in it. Well, I’d made a number of works that had to do with triangles, like rooms in different shapes. I find triangles really uncomfortable, disconcerting kinds of spaces. There is no comfortable place to stay inside them or outside them. It’s not like a circle or square that gives you security,

So, in the end, for South American Triangle, I decided that I would just suspend the chair and then hang a triangle around it. My original idea was that the chair would swing and bang into the sides of the triangle and make lots of noise. But then when I built it so that the chair hung low enough to swing into the triangle, it was too low. It didn’t look right, so I ended up raising it. The triangle became a barrier to approaching the chair from the outside.

Again, it becomes something you can’t get to. There is a lot of anger generated when there are things you can’t get to. That’s part of the content of the work—and also the genesis of the piece. Anger and frustration are two very strong feelings of motivation for me. They get me into the studio, get me to do the work.

SIMON  That sense of frustration and anger also becomes the viewer’s problem in approaching and making sense of your work, especially a piece as disturbing as South American Triangle. One critic, Robert Storr, said recently, “Unlike settling into the reassuring ‘armchair’ of Matisse’s painting, to take one’s seat in Nauman’s art is to risk falling on one’s head. . . .”

NAUMAN  I know there are artists who function in relation to beauty—who try to make beautiful things. They are moved by beautiful things and they see that as their role: to provide or make beautiful things for other people. I don’t work that way. Part of it has to do with an idea of beauty. Sunsets, flowers, landscapes: these kinds of things don’t move me to do anything. I just want to leave them alone. My work comes out of being frustrated about the human condition. And about how people refuse to understand other people. And about how people can be cruel to each other. It’s not that I think I can change that, but it’s just such a frustrating part of human history.


Recent Videos

SIMON  Recently, you’ve returned to video for the first time since the late ’60s. In Violent Incident (1986), you not only moved from “silent” to “talkies” but you also used actors for the first time. Nevertheless, the video seems to pick right up on issues you’ve explored from the beginning. The chair is a central element in the action and the whole tape centers on a cruel joke. Again there is this persistent tension between humor and cruelty.

NAUMAN  Violent Incident begins with what is supposed to be a joke—but it’s a mean joke. A chair is pulled out from under someone who is starting to sit down. It intentionally embarrasses someone and triggers the action. But let me describe how it got into its present form. I started with a scenario, a sequence of events which was this: Two people come to a table that’s set for dinner with plates, cocktails, flowers. The man holds the woman’s chair for her as she sits down. But as she sits down, he pulls the chair out from under her and she falls on the floor. He turns around to pick up the chair, and as he bends over, she’s standing up, and she gooses him. He turns around and yells at her—calls her names. She grabs the cocktail glass and throws the drink in his face. He slaps her, she knees him in the groin and, as he’s doubling over, he grabs a knife from the table. They struggle and both of them end up on the floor.

Now this action takes all of about eighteen seconds. But then it’s repeated three more times: the man and woman exchange roles, then the scene is played by two men and then by two women. The images are aggressive, the characters are physically aggressive, the language is abusive. The scripting, having the characters act out these roles and the repetition all build on that aggressive tension.

SIMON  Sound is a medium you’ve explored since your earliest studio performances, films and audiotapes. The hostile overlayering of angry noises contributes enormously to the tension of Violent Incident.

NAUMAN  It’s similar with the neon pieces that have transformers, buzzing and clicking and what not; in some places I’ve installed them, people are disturbed by these sounds. They want them to be completely quiet. There is an immediacy and an intrusiveness about sound that you can’t avoid.

So with Violent Incident, which is shown on twelve monitors at the same time, the sound works differently for each installation. At one museum, when it was in the middle of the show, you heard the sound before you actually got to the piece. And the sound followed you around after you left it. It’s kind of funny the way Violent Incident was installed at the Whitechapel. Because it was in a separate room, the sound was baffled; you only got the higher tones. So the main thing you heard throughout the museum was “Asshole!”

SIMON  That’s sort of the subliminal version of a very aggressive sound piece you used to install invisibly in empty rooms, isn’t it?

NAUMAN  You mean the piece that said, “Get out of the room, get out of my mind”? That piece is still amazingly powerful to me. It’s really stuck in my mind. And it’s really a frightening piece. I haven’t heard it for a few years, but the last time I did I was impressed with how strong it was. And I think that it is one of those pieces that I can go back to. I don’t know where it came from or how I managed to do it because it’s so simple and straightforward.

SIMON  How did that come about?

NAUMAN  Well, I had made a tape of sounds in the studio. And the tape says over and over again, “Get out of the room, get out of my mind.” I said it a lot of different ways: I changed my voice and distorted it, I yelled it and growled it and grunted it. Then, the piece was installed with the speakers built into the walls, so that when you went into this small room—ten feet square or something—you could hear the sound, but there was no one there. You couldn’t see where the sound was coming from. Other times, we just stuck the speakers in the corners of the room and played the tape—like when the walls were too hard to build into. But it seemed to work about as well either way. Either way it was a very powerful piece. It’s like a print I did that says, “Pay attention motherfuckers” [1973). You know, it’s so angry it scares people.

SIMON  Your most recent videotapes feature clowns. I can see a connection to the Art Makeup film we talked about, but why did you use such theatrical clowns?

NAUMAN  I got interested in the idea of the clown first of all because there is a mask, and it becomes an abstracted idea of a person. It’s not anyone in particular, see, it’s just an idea of a person. And for this reason, because clowns are abstract in some sense, they become very disconcerting. You, I, one, we can’t make contact with them. It’s hard to make any contact with an idea or an abstraction. Also, when you think about vaudeville clowns or circus clowns, there is a lot of cruelty and meanness. You couldn’t get away with that without makeup. People wouldn’t put up with it, it’s too mean. But in the circus it’s okay, it’s still funny. Then, there’s the history of the unhappy clown: they’re anonymous, they lead secret lives. There is a fairly high suicide rate among clowns. Did you know that?

SIMON  No, I didn’t. But it seems that rather than alluding to this melancholic or tragic side of the clown persona the video emphasizes the different types of masks, the historically specific genres of clowns or clown costumes.

NAUMAN  With the clown videotape, there are four different clown costumes: one of them is the Emmett Kelly dumb clown; one is the old French Baroque clown (I guess it’s French); one is a sort of traditional polka-dot, red-haired, oversize­shoed clown; and one is a jester. The jester and the Baroque type are the oldest, but they are pretty recognizable types. They were picked because they have a historical reference, but they are still anonymous. They become masks, they don’t become individuals. They don’t become anyone you know, they become clowns.

SIMON  In your tape Clown Torture (1987), the clowns don’t act like clowns. For one thing, they’re not mute. You have the clowns tell stories. Or, I should say, each of the clowns repeats the same story.

NAUMAN  Each clown has to tell a story while supporting himself on one leg with the other leg crossed, in such a way that it looks like he is imitating sitting down. So there is the physical tension of watching someone balance while trying to do something else—in this case, tell a story. The takes vary because at some point the clown gets tired and falls over. Then I would stop the tape. Each of the four clowns starts from the beginning, tells the story about fifteen times or so, falls over and then the next clown starts.

This circular kind of story, for me, goes back to Warhol films that really have no beginning or end. You could walk in at any time, leave, come back again and the figure was still asleep, or whatever. The circularity is also a lot like La Monte Young’s idea about music. The music is always going on. You just happen to come in at the part he’s playing that day. It’s a way of structuring something so that you don’t have to make a story.

SIMON  What’s the story the clowns tell?

NAUMAN  “It was a dark and stormy night. Three men were sitting around a campfire. One of the men said, ‘Tell us a story, Jack.’ And Jack said, ‘It was a dark and stormy night. Three men were sitting around a campfire. One of the men said, “Tell us a story, Jack.” And Jack said, “It was a dark and stormy night …. ” ’ ”