Bruce Nauman

at Donald Young, through June 26

Christopher Furman:

The Janus Machine

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through June 20

By Fred Camper

Bruce Nauman is a protean artist who’s made sculptures, videos, installations, drawings, and neon works for more than three decades, achieving a position near the top of the art-world heap (bolstered by a huge retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art several years ago). And in this case, the artist’s reputation is justified less by art theory than by the peculiar emotional power of his best works. Much contemporary art explicitly makes the viewer a subject, but Nauman’s talent is to put the viewer under an almost indefinable stress. While his work stops far short of sadism, his inspired use of space produces a remarkable discomfort: the viewer feels cramped by an installation or physically confronted by a blinking neon sign. This is especially true of the centerpiece of the show at Donald Young Gallery (just returned to Chicago after seven years in Seattle).

Indoor Outdoor Seating Arrangement is installed in five separate spaces; the largest element consists of two sets of bleachers in their own room at the center of the gallery, one with seven rows and the other ten. Since the bleachers face each other with only about three feet between them, the viewer who sits on one set merely faces another. The implication, even when no one else is present, is that viewers are looking not at some event that takes them out of themselves but at each other. A viewer who climbs around these benches to try different positions feels weirdly constrained, as if imprisoned by the colliding sight lines of imaginary viewers.

Other elements also contribute to the viewer’s discomfort. The unequal size of the bleachers creates a sort of power imbalance, as if one set were stronger or more important than the other. Two additional sets of bleachers in adjacent rooms face the walls that enclose the central room, creating an even more confrontational sense of entrapment. Another set of benches on the sidewalk outside the gallery faces and abuts a brick wall, which prevents one from sitting on the lowest bench. These benches all face the middle of the central room, fixed in the viewer’s mind as the place where imagined sight lines converge. That Nauman intended the bleachers to be seen as a whole, even though the parts cannot be viewed all at once, is suggested by the fifth element of Indoor Outdoor Seating Arrangement, a drawing that shows the placement of the bleachers but without walls.

Sitting on a bench facing a brick wall is even more constraining than sitting on a bench that closely faces another. Give this piece time to do its work, and your body starts to feel under stress. Just as “cutters” hurt themselves to see if they “still feel,” to paraphrase a Nine Inch Nails hit of a few years ago, Nauman makes one uncomfortable as a way of heightening self-awareness–of one’s existence in space and of the things that can impinge on that existence. This is not an insignificant issue to anyone who’s ridden on a crowded train or bus or lived in an apartment that’s too small. Though Nauman raises horses on the spacious New Mexico ranch where he lives, much of his work can be taken as urban.

Viewing Nauman’s work, I found myself thinking of an incident a few days before, when I was at a movie screening interrupted by a fire alarm–a deafening buzzing and an almost painfully bright strobe. Both assaults on my senses made me want to leave, though they also made it more difficult to navigate my way out and gave me a renewed, uncomfortable awareness of my body in space.

Nauman doesn’t cause pain here, but his elegantly balanced arrangements always include disturbing inequalities or oddities. Sitting on a bench facing a brick wall makes one feel not only compressed in space but self-conscious about a rather silly-looking position. Art that provokes self-referential questioning typically underemphasizes the affective dimension; Nauman, by contrast, doesn’t simply combine the two–he conflates them. In his work some peculiar restriction or stress heightens your awareness of the process of art viewing, but this very stress also throws you back on your awareness of your physical self, helping free you from the artwork’s spell.

Five sculptures in the show depict the physical state that the benches seem to foster. Each begins “figure on table,” as in Figure on Table (Red on White) D, and shows a bronze figure lying on a bronze table; the figures are flat, as if cut out of cookie dough, though Nauman has bent their arms and legs, seating them with a knee raised. The same sense of restriction the viewer of the benches experiences is echoed here–these figures are as flat as if they’d been pressed against a wall–yet their poses do create some sense of movement in space.

The show also includes a maquette for some outdoor steps and a number of drawings, many of figures similar to those in the sculptures. Seated Figures Red, One Up One Down is a diptych in which one figure is right side up and limned in red on white while the other is upside down in white on red. This stick figure can be seen in negative or positive, upside down or right side up, a pairing that once again suggests an individual under stress, lacking any stable identity.

Christopher Furman’s entrancing The Janus Machine at the Chicago Cultural Center involves the viewer in a very different way. A huge rectangular box with high walls covered in the synthetic material Tyvek, which Furman chose because of its resemblance to translucent rice paper, contains a winged walking machine with two metal legs that lumbers awkwardly around the perimeter of the box while its wings flap up and down. Each time the machine reaches a new side of the box, new mechanisms are activated; on one side, for example, gears move inside the box (which we see in shadow play) while an arm with a globe on it outside the box swings back and forth. A complete cycle takes four minutes, and then it repeats.

While at first there’s a lot more to look at than in Nauman’s Indoor Outdoor Seating Arrangement, Furman’s piece finally is not as directly engaging: the walls of the box shut the viewer out, fostering a sense of exclusion. Furman, a Chicagoan born in Washington, D.C., in 1965, has been exhibiting elaborate constructions for several years; he told me that this one is “the closest yet to what I’m after–a theater or performance that has no actors but goes on all the time.” He cites Calder as a first influence, followed by Jean Tinguely and Rebecca Horn, both of whom make machinelike works that move; Furman is also familiar with Nauman and impressed by his “humor and belligerent qualities,” but cites Jonathan Borofsky and Christian Boltanski as more important influences. For me The Janus Machine was never as compelling as Nauman’s or Boltanski’s best work, but it’s fascinating for the way it sketches a poetics of failure.

One complex sequence, which we view through the one window in the box’s walls, includes a moving arm that repeatedly writes the word “memory” in block letters on a giant paper scroll, which piles up steadily below. Furman told me he was inspired in part by 19th-century automatons, such as a doll he saw “that writes out three poems and draws four pictures in immaculate detail.” But if the point of such devices was to dazzle the viewer, Furman’s is no big surprise: a huge mechanism that just repeats the same word seems intentionally dumb. On another side, two flashlights in glass jars flail about in space, never seeming to “find” each other; in my favorite sequence, metal castings of an eye, nose, mouth, ear, and finger, each in its own box, make simple repetitive motions. They represent not only the five senses but their failure: enclosed in its box, the rotating finger can no more feel than the nose can smell.

The son of a diplomat, Furman spent his youth in suburban Washington, Haiti, and Rome. Seeing the ruins of “a culture as vast and encompassing as the Roman Empire” gave him an unusual perspective on American hubris: our culture, he says, is ultimately “like a fart in history.” The self-contained flailings of Furman’s piece throw Nauman’s work into sharper relief. Where Indoor Outdoor Seating Arrangement asserts the artist’s presence, his ability to affect the viewer, Furman’s Janus Machine seems the work of an inspired tinkerer who can’t quite get things right; locked away in his own world, he does not pretend to define ours. In this sense Furman critiques the hubris of our artists as well as our culture.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Tropea.