Bruce Nauman’s Contrapposto Studies, I through VII (2015–16) is part of his ongoing search for capaciousness in the particular. This seven-part video installation is split between two galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is kin to his iconic 1968 single-channel video Walk with Contrapposto, owned by the museum and on display in an adjacent room. In Walk, a monitor presents a young Nauman strutting along a narrow corridor with exaggerated shifts of weight, simulating the contrapposto pose of Classical sculpture. Each of the new projections shows Nauman performing his walk against a white wall and comprises multiple video segments organized in horizontal bands. The segments are digitally stitched together imperfectly so that adjacent parts do not join neatly. Though the body is more or less contiguous, in some projections it appears especially faceted.
Like Walk, Contrapposto Studies trains a camera on Nauman, yet the work’s particular significance lies in how the same action performed by the same body takes on different connotations at different times. Contrapposto Studies focuses on the imprecision of repetition, especially if that repetition attempts to reenact one’s former actions. Perhaps the most prominent demonstration of this occurs by way of Nauman’s aging body, which he presents to the viewer in a white T-shirt ridden with small holes—a wry counterpoint to the pristine one he wore in Walk. The artist’s tightly wound and slithering gait also has changed. He appears to roll his weight slowly between his feet and lands haltingly in contrapposto at the end of each step, occasionally faltering. In the more faceted projections, the body’s uneven tread and the disjointedness of the stitched video fragments make for a double destabilization. If Walk swipes at the artifice of contrapposto, Contrapposto Studies thwarts contrapposto’s timeless idealism by manifesting the stance in Nauman’s imperfect figure.
The installation elegantly confounds the passage of time. Because the views of Nauman are composites of several shots and asynchronously looped, the resulting images are unmoored from any specific moment. This sense is corroborated by the way the camera follows Nauman in each segment, zooming in and out and tracking his movement left and right, always keeping his body centered in the frame. Since the videos repeat, the artist never seems to arrive anywhere. Instead, he hovers indefinitely before our eyes, perpetually deferring conclusion.
Is sound a substance? It’s a simple but provocative question that Bruce Nauman convincingly answers in the affirmative in his work. He has used sound as a sculptural material over the years to fill galleries and unconventional spaces, such as an elevator in this recent show, “For Children/For Beginners.” Following well-received exhibitions at the 2009 Venice Biennale and the Museum of Modern Art last year, both of which featured sound works with continuous loops of simple spoken words or numbers, Nauman presented four new pieces (all 2010) in this spare and elegant exhibition—one of the best installations I have seen in this unusual gallery space designed by Norman Foster.
Three of Nauman’s works combine video and audio components. Four Beginners (all the combinations of the thumb and fingers), the most dramatic piece here, consists of two video projections screened high on the soaring, narrow, two-story atrium wall. Each of the two images, one stacked above the other, shows a pair of hands in close-up. (The images correspond to a series of bronze casts of hands the artist produced in the mid-1990s.) In a continuous loop, the scene is confined to the action of the fingers and thumb opening and closing, as if indicating numbers or using sign language. The hands against a white background at the top are almost mirrored in the lower section, which has a dark background. Enveloped by the sound of the artist’s voice delivering simple instructions to direct the performers’ hand movements, the viewer would seem to be watching an instructional video. The random sequences of the hands, however, plus the hypnotic voice-over, serve mainly to heighten the visitor’s awareness of his or her own body and position in space.
In the smaller, second-floor gallery, Nauman is clearly engaged with the perception of space and its relationship to sound. Here, For Children fills the gallery with only the artist’s voice (emanating from hidden speakers) endlessly repeating the words “for children.” The only thing childlike about the piece, perhaps, is its ethereal simplicity; it implies a depth and complexity that reach far beyond its rudimentary means. Not least of these implications is how, in the new work, Nauman cannily sums up—if not resolves—many of his career-long pre-occupations with body art, performance, video, sculpture and installation.
Photo: View of Bruce Nauman’s video installation Four Beginners (all the combinations of the thumb and fingers), 2010; at Sperone Westwater. © Artists Rights Society, New York.