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.

Re-experiencing Bruce Nauman’s Live-Taped Video Corridor (1970)

Across the room, you see a long and tall plywood wall. This plywood wall that confronts you becomes the exterior as soon as you peer around its corner and learn that two such facing, parallel walls delimit a narrow interior space, a 30-foot white hallway. The structure appears as plain and self-evident as the plywood and plaster material the walls were made of, but at the end of the hallway you can see two boxy television monitors. They suggest that this space is something to be entered, that there is something to see at the end. And so, without instructions but at a loss for what else to do, you enter.

Immediately, the space feels closer to your body than you would have imagined. Your peripheral vision is full of blank wall space stretching around and up above you. Moreover your hand inadvertently stretches out and brushes the dry plaster. So too could your hips and shoulder if you wanted them to, but instead you withdraw, sidle, protectively. You feel your feet fall, one after the other, and you can track your movement against the passing surface of the close walls. Your shoulder brushes the wall, and then your hip. It’s inevitable, and you continue forward, the only possible direction.

The physical sensation of passing through does not last long, no more than ten seconds, and even during it you are preoccupied by the glow of the two screens stacked on the floor at the far end. You quickly discover that the cold, bluish light illuminates a scenario uncannily similar to your own current situation. Long tunnel-like spaces are visible on both. But it is hard to understand what you see there, so much so that even though you have been staring at them on this walk down the corridor, when you get to the end you have to bend down to view them better.

Initially you wish to discard the bottom image by your feet; it’s merely an empty hallway, just like the one you saw before you walked down the corridor. But the top image by your knees doesn’t align with anything you saw; it contains a figure. It contains you—your clothed back and hairstyle. You turn; there is a camera on high at the far end of the corridor where you started. You look back at the monitor; there is the back of your head, your crouching form. You turn your head slightly; your head turns. If you turn further, you imagine your face would appear in the monitor, but you could no longer see it if your own gaze looks back down the hallway. How stupid, you think, as your stare at your back. That is indeed all there is to see. Not nearly as rewarding as your image from the front would seem, and strangely disorienting as you see yourself as if you were separate, other. Which of course you are not, as you were reminded by your physical journey down the corridor bumping into yourself at every step. Maybe even worse, as you look down again, you see a video of the empty corridor even as the presence of your feet in the same glance testify to your presence within it.

Bruce Nauman Live-Taped Video Corridor
This strange doubling (tripling?) of space, of a space with which you are so intimately familiar, runs counter to your physical experience of it, echoed by your thighs now urging you to stand up. The bottom because your lived experience of the corridor is of an inhabited one, and the top because your view was one of immersion and movement down the corridor. You thought you were penetrating the space rather than receding in it. There is some trickery afoot. While you now understand how the camera positioned at the beginning must logically film you from behind, there is no sense of discovery, as the illuminated screens promised, but rather a rebuff. The split-perception of the space suggested by the monitors deny the centrality on your viewpoint by not matching your own visual of the space. The upper monitor models a split sense of self, that is, a view of you from the outside in contrast to your own, formerly unselfconscious gaze as you walked down. The lower monitor eliminates you entirely. Instead of you, you see the long perspectival lines of the tunnel converging at the monitors. You recall what you saw when you stood at the entrance. Somehow your viewpoint has become a vanishing point, as what was once empty and distant but now inhabited and present still presents a mirage of emptiness. Despite the elision of these two oppositional points, the perspectival space still stands. Rather than reifying your gaze, this experience of Nauman’s corridor has obliviated it, and with it, something of your own personhood, so central is a viewpoint to one’s conception of self. Naturally, in such a situation, you choose self-preservation, and you begin to exit the disquieting environment.

When you turn your back to the monitors, you know you are turning your face to the camera directed at it, so that an image of your face is now staring at your back. But it is futile to try to turn and see yourself, for you will only disappear. So again, you walk down this narrow path, hemmed in by wall. You try to ignore, not be annoyed with, this live recording camera by reminding yourself that just as you can’t see it, nobody else can, since the corridor only allows for one and, for those who await their turn, your body blocks the view. Its utter futility makes you wonder why a live feed was set up in the first place. Clearly your presence was required to activate the space, and the perverse gazes of it, and there was no other way to experience it. Yet this surveillance is unwatchable by you, the only available watcher. Rather than having become enlightened by exploring the space, you have merely followed a proscribed path. But to what end, as an unhappy game? Or, did you merely became the figurative subject in someone else’s picture?

You step out; the space expands. You have achieved the exterior, normal world. You command the space with your vision, a vision that allows you to take in the other art objects in the room. Those long receding lines of the corridor again present the easy conquest of enterable space and the centrality of your view, as indeed you thought artworks traditionally did. And yet that disorienting experience suggests you were wrong to think you had so clearly apprehended the corridor at a glance. The suggestion of illumination on those glowing blue screens did not materialize. Other factors, of the body and of surveillance, came into play, but in ways that denied knowledge. You look back. Hauntingly, you know that the bottom screen still shows—now correctly—an empty hallway, even though you cannot see it perfectly from this distance. You reason that the other screen must now similarly and correctly display your erasure. A minor gain from the experience is that you have visualized your disappearance, a view that is, in fact, knowable without camera-aided vision or bodily perception, a view that you now possess again as you look back down the corridor. Somehow these technologies, which replicate and increase man’s visual capacities, have shown you not just the limitations of the knowledge they can create. They also show their ability to manufacture and extend blind spots, making you question whether the world as such does not play similar tricks.


Learn more about Live-Taped Video Corridor on the Guggenheim’s website.