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.
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.
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.