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.

Madness & Restraint: Eva Kotátková at ISCP

Eva Koťátková Error 2015-2016 Collage on paper

Installation view from Eva Kotátková: Error, 2015-2016, collage on paper

I was intrigued by the work of Czech artist Eva Kotátková when I saw her small objects and collages arranged across a broad horizontal pedestal in the central pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. More recently, the artist was represented in the New Museum’s Triennial exhibition through an installation of metal restraints, furniture, and collage across a yellow wall. The artist materializes how we are socially and psychically bound, and this remains true of her new work on view in the solo exhibition Error at the International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP) in Brooklyn. The archives of an asylum inspired Kotátková in collages, metal sculptures resembling medical apparatus, and performative objects meant to be worn on the body, all of which display the artist’s recurring concern with constraint and institutional systems.

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Installation view of Eva Kotátková, Anna (from Theatre of Speaking Objects), 2016

Of the works on view, Anna (pictured above) was one of my favorites. This surreal and unwieldy marionette visualizes the psychological barriers that can separate us from others–that muffled sense of isolation that Sylvia Plath referred to as the descent of the bell jar–and is based on a record of the asylum. A psychiatric patient had drawn herself wrapped in a rug, believing that no one could see her inside. Kotátková reinvigorates the pathetic fallacy with new life, as Anna becomes a vehicle for communication rather than isolation. Anna is part of Kotátková’s Theatre of Speaking Objects, a series in which she tries to make objects function as vehicles for communication. Detailed wall text and titles clue the viewer into the historical inspiration. This familiarity is useful when encountering the video on view in the other room, which deals most elaborately with the records left by a past patient.

Eva Koťátková The Judicial Murder of Jakob Mohr 2015-2016 Theater performance and video based on the drawing Justiz Mord (1909-1910) by Jakob Mohr

Installation shot of Eva Kotátková, The Judicial Murder of Jakob Mohr, 2015-2016. Theater performance and video based on the drawing Justiz Mord (1909-1910) by Jakob Mohr.

The artist also used records from the asylum to create The Judicial Murder of Jakob Mohr, a new video work that features an inmate defending himself in a patently artificial setting of cardboard and paper crowns. Filmed at the Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital in Prague, the video presents a staged trial performed in the hospital’s theater with professional actors, staff, and patients. The artist was inspired by a drawing in which a patient had depicted himself as a defendant on trial in a courtroom of masked doctors or fellow patients who are conspiring to betray him. Does such a drawing or video represent the patient’s perception of real events in his life, or does it suggest a personification of his mental struggles?  An alternative is to ask whether such paranoia forms an apt, if Kafakesque, lens for human experience.

Eva Koťátková, The Judicial Murder of Jakob Mohr, 2015-2016

Installation shot of Eva Kotátková, The Judicial Murder of Jakob Mohr, 2015-2016. Theater performance and video based on the drawing Justiz Mord (1909-1910) by Jakob Mohr.

Kotátková creates so many objects that imply the body that it is especially rewarding to see her imagination come to life through the performances in The Judicial Murder of Jakob Mohr. In the video, like all of the works on view, her focus on the relationship between human bodies and the oppressive institutional structures that surround and regulate them is both playful and disconcerting, theatrical and earnest.

Eva Kotátková: Error is on view at ISCP until April 8.

Bill Viola: Inverted Birth at James Cohan

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.