Bruce Nauman revisits Contrapposto at Phildelphia Museum of Art

Video still from Bruce Nauman’s “contrapposto studies, i through vii,” 2016. Credit Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Sperone Westwater, New York

In 1968 American artist Bruce Nauman created an important early video work, Walk with Contrapposto, in which he walked down a corridor while jutting his hip out step by step, in an exaggerated and animated demonstration of the classical Greek sculptural pose contrapposto. In the past two years, Nauman returned to this subject matter in a series of seven works now featured in the exhibition “Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies, I through VII” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum also exhibits the original 1968 video work, and the contrast between the earlier and later works is stark.

Installation shot at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bruce Nauman, Contrapposto Studies, I through VII

Installation shot at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bruce Nauman, Study in Contrapposto, 1968

The original experiment in contrapposto is shown on a TV screen in the center of a small, darkened room. On the tiny screen, a fuzzy black-and-white image of a youthful, lithe body is seen awkwardly and methodically pacing down a tall, narrow white corridor, one hip jut at a time. The viewer observes the figure’s back as Nauman walks to the end of the corridor away from the viewer as well as from the front as he walks toward the viewer. The spectacle is simple and slow, making sculptural conventions ridiculous and exploring how video could be used by an artist to implicate the audience in uneasy relation. The viewer is not confronted as directly as in some works Nauman would make in the following immediate years, such as Live-taped Video Corridor of 1970, but the voyeurship of watching the artist and his body presented in new terms the relationship between the viewer and traditional sculpture. Using the then-new medium of video makes the relationship more circumspect than that of, say, performance. That is especially true today, when such grainy small footage reminds the contemporary viewer more of security cameras than televisions. Overall, the impression is stilted and highly focused. Tension comes from the way the body fills the narrow corridor, which directs him along the only possible path he could walk on. The performance is durational; if you watch carefully, he tires over the course of the hour–the length of video cassette tape at that time. The only sound is that of his footsteps in the otherwise empty space.

In his recent works, Nauman again walks back and forth methodically jutting out an opposing hip, step by step. In both the early and later works, the same person walks in the same way in the same nondescript outfit of white t-shirt and jeans. If his earlier body resembled that of the classical Greek sculpture, his aged body is by comparison less nimble and heavier. But the more arresting difference is the technology used: Nauman has updated to large color digital projections that he manipulates. The simple moving image of 1968 becomes compounded into several similar but competing images in the same field, projecting across from competing images, sliced through horizontally more and more while the sound of footfalls is layered to build into a cacophony. In some of the works, Nauman shows the image in color and its negative. The overall effect is a blurring of action and sounds, complicating the action of a single body in motion as if someone had made video collages from a Muybridge strip of a man walking.

Installation shot at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bruce Nauman, Contrapposto Studies, I through VII

Certainly, the works reflect the technology of their times. One could argue that these new studies as merely translating the original 1968 video into new technologies. However, the meaning of the work itself also splinters under such digital manipulation. Where before the viewer had to wait to watch Nauman pace first down the corridor, and then back, here he approaches the viewer simultaneously, rendering his movements in positive and negative, forward and backward, within a single field of vision. The relationship of the viewer to the artist is easier, somehow, because your vision is free to roam over the many iterations of Nauman’s figure rather than limited to an unending tunnel. The viewer is now immersed in the large-than-life projections, implicated in the scene by the presence of some stools scattered throughout the gallery. The change in setting from the corridor to wide room loosens the sense of constriction; in the newer work, there is a sense of freedom and play. Where the young body became tired, the aged body seems in perpetual motion of recombination. What you gain is a kind of humanity alongside the deadpan, unblinking honesty that characterizes much of Nauman’s work.

Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies, I through VII” is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through April 16, 2017.

Bill Viola: Inverted Birth at James Cohan


Installation view, Inverted Birth, 2014

Inverted Birth, the titular work of Bill Viola’s latest exhibition at James Cohan gallery, features a lone protagonist bathed in a torrent of dark fluid that changes to red, then milky white, then to a clear liquid that dispels into mist. There is gorgeous imagery as liquids stream upward and the vulnerable central figure is dramatic and affecting. The man, projected twice life-size and clad only in pants, takes in the deluge with minimal motion. He raises his head and lifts his hands out slowly, over a course of some ten or fifteen minutes. After the deluge ceases, he lowers his head to look directly out at the viewer. The action is slow, like everything else in the work, and his gaze is inscrutable.


Still, Inverted Birth

The journey from dark to light that the man goes through parallels birth into the world. To make this video, Viola filmed the man standing dry and looking at the camera and then doused him with a stream of liquids from on high, above the camera’s view. The projection plays this footage slowed down and backwards. (You can watch a video of Viola’s studio at work on Inverted Birth if you like). So, there is a literal inversion in the technique behind this piece. Without knowing that, however, the viewer can see the inversion of gravity in the liquid streaming upward. Given the adult male used in the center, Inverted Birth suggests concern not with literal birth as much with the cycles of life, perhaps a more spiritual sense of awakening, and a focus on humanity at its most essential, both typical concerns of the artist.


Installation view, Ancestors

The first work on view, the 2012 video Ancestors, depicts a man and woman walking across a hazy desert landscape. They move so slowly and from such a distance that it almost seems like a mirage. Eventually it becomes clear that they are approaching the viewer. This pair walk through the desert with the heat of the sun radiating up to obscure them, followed by waves of dust, and persist in a feat of endurance and implacability, like a march through time. Rather than narrative, this slow-paced experience suggests the artist’s desire to engage with the viewer on a more emotional level.


Installation view, Wind Martyr (left) and Fire Martyr (right)

Finally, the last room holds four works from Viola’s 2014 “Martyrs” series. Based on a long-term installation in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, each “Martyr” video depicts a body being buffeted or otherwise relentlessly trounced by a natural force. For example, in Fire Martyr, above right, a man sits silently in a chair engulfed in flames; the main motion of the film is the constant churning of the fire. Appropriate to the context of the martyr in Catholicism, these images are intended to convey transcendence.

On view at James Cohan gallery in Chelsea through January 30.

Moving Images in New or Old Formats: A New Curatorial Project Featuring the Work of Lily Sheng

Lily Sheng, Still from Mercurial Matter, 16mm to HD with sound by Michael Sidnam, 2014 - 2015, 6 min.

Lily Sheng, Still from Mercurial Matter, 16mm to HD with sound by Michael Sidnam, 2014 – 2015, 6 min.

As part of a curatorial residency at the AC Institute, a non-profit art organization focused on experimental media and performance, I had the chance to do several studio visits with artists working in video and the digital space last month. Among them was Lily Sheng, a Queens-based artist who makes films, videos, and hybrid moving images in her studio near the International Studio and Curatorial Program in East Williamsburg. Lily showed us a video work, Mercurial Matter, and a film work, Point, Line, Plane. In both, dense, abstract imagery moves quickly, sometimes at odds with the synthetic music that builds to a feeling of dissonance and unease.

Lily Sheng, Still from Point, Line, Plane, a film collaboration with Antonia Kuo, 16mm expanded cinema with live sound by Michael Sidnam, 2015, 11 min.

Lily Sheng, Still from Point, Line, Plane, a film collaboration with Antonia Kuo, 16mm expanded cinema with live sound by Michael Sidnam, 2015, 11 min.

Both the video work and the film projection she showed us were rich, multi-sensory experiences, deeply connected to the history of experimental film, although subsequent discussion revealed a different, purely digital mode she also sometimes works in (as seen in the image below). It was a pleasure discussing the many mediums with which she approaches the moving image and the technical processes behind her work. For example, Point, Line, Plane involved making photograms on the film itself to create a pair of black-and-white images, which she then showed as a dual projection, sometimes coloring the image with gels.


As a result of that studio visit, I am excited to be arranging an exhibition and screening of Lily’s work at the AC Institute. Lily is creating a new series of animated GIFs as an homage to experimental films by deceased female artists, taking advantage of the concept of an online exhibition that the AC Institute proposed as part of my curatorial residency. While animated GIFs are ubiquitous on the web, Lily’s thoughtful consideration of the transfer and degradation of information show how well the format can be adapted to artistic purpose as she creates GIFs that, inherently reductive, highlight the limited, ghostly nature of film on the Internet. Considering the uncertainty of film preservation as we move into a digital era, the exhibition “Lily Sheng: Avant-GIF” will go online November 10 and be complimented by a performative video and film screening of recent works by the artist on November 18.

Lily Sheng, Still from Kabukicho,

Lily Sheng, Still from Kabukichō, 16mm with live sound by Michael Sidnam, 2015, variable duration (5 – 8 min.)