The Scalar Humanism of Bruce Nauman's Corridors and Rooms | Pirelli
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The Scalar Humanism of Bruce Nauman's Corridors and Rooms

Upon entering the cavernous space of Pirelli HangarBicocca, visitors encounter several subtle visual prompts. How should they move through the exhibition “Bruce Nauman: Neons, Corridors and Rooms”? They might be drawn instinctively to the crimsonflorescent glow seeping beyond the crisp edge of a narrow drywall hallway in Dream Passage with Four Corridors (1984). Or they can pivot and head towards its architectural double, an acidic yellow beckoning them to cautiously enter the chamber instead. Either way, as you make your move, the artificial pallor cast by Green-Light Corridor (1970) flickers in your periphery. In many of Nauman's installations, the term “passage” serves as a cruel euphemism. You enter, only to face a series of proverbial dead ends—obstacles, such as the metal chairs hanging from the ceiling and tables blocking your movement in Dream Passage with Four Corridors, and enclosures so tight you cannot turn around or retreat. You have to keep pushing forward to get through, generating a palpable sense of foreboding and anxiousness. Eschewing the ambiance of expansive openness, Nauman's corridors slowly compress both the visitor's body and sense of time through a series of disorienting layouts and darkened viewing conditions. Navigating several rooms and corridors of varying sizes and orientations, one after another, brings the imposing scale of the institutional host down to human size. And itis suggestive of life on an even smaller scale, making us all rats in a maze or creatures scurrying around in the dark — themes directly borne out in the seven projected videos that comprise MAPPING THE STUDIO II with color shift, flip, flop, & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage)(2001), in which the nocturnal activities of Nauman's New Mexico studio were recorded over several weeks, yet appear while standing in Milan almost like live surveillance footage.

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Nauman's neons, corridors, and rooms set into motion a constant play of visibility and exposure by using light and space (or restricting, calibrating, and controlling both) not as aesthetic implements, but as affective triggers that test and condition our responses to our environments and to one another. Nauman has rigorously experimented with these complicated conceptual issues using the most basic materials, mostly what's at hand, which have coalesced into a singular body of work that continues to reveal new truths with each encounter, even after half a century of prolific art making and exhibiting. The Nauman we have known continues to be the Nauman that we revere and who intimidates us in equal measure. The correlation between visibility and exposure is most distinctly and profoundly registered through Nauman's longstanding utilization of the functional qualities of basic architectural structures that regulate the movement of bodies in real time and real space. While each of Nauman's corridors and rooms are built to the specifications of the spaces in which they were initially exhibited, brought together collectively here in the vastness of HangarBicocca, they model a correlative relationship between modes of emancipation and liberation and those concepts' very opposites — mechanisms of control, discipline, and manipulation — dialectics at the core of all humanistic endeavors. Operating between the corporeal and cognitive, Nauman's corridors and rooms capture the various ways we can be both inside and outside, near and far, here and elsewhere. Setting up a series of spatiotemporal disjunctions, Nauman forces visitors to question or even abandon their habitual responses, and instead to make choices, to consider issues of causality and moments of affect, and to enter into the realm of ethics. Or at the very least, Nauman asks us to pay attention — a request he has emphatically made through his neons, corridors, and rooms. His polite entreaty has even morphed into an outright demand: specifically, in the 1973 lithograph Pay Attention, in which he plaintively spells out the command backwards in four measured rows: “Pay Attention Motherfuckers.” By 2022, resistance is futile.

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We follow Nauman's directive before we are cognizant of doing so: the physical act of optically focusing on his work happens often well after we have felt our way through it. The brain has to catch up to what the body intuitively figures out—the visual is not the only form of data gathering. Made expressly to be exhibited, Nauman's corridor works form a compelling tautology that hinges on their very essence of accessibility and publicness. Acts of seeing and being seen, encoding and decoding. This becomes manifest most notably in a series of corridor pieces produced between 1969 and 1974 using ordinary hardware store supplies (wallboards, fluorescent light fixtures, mirrors, colored lights) that incorporate basic consumer electronic equipment, including video cameras, recording playback monitors, audiotapes, microphones, and speakers. This gear is frequently presented in the most straightforward way possible, emphasizing the formalness of its hardware in equal measure as the machinations of its software. The titles of these works often elucidate the entire operation, as in Going Around the Corner Piece with Live and Taped Monitors (1970), in which a single room-length wallboard splits a space in half, while two monitors rest on the floor, one seemingly blank, actually displaying a recording of the empty space, the other showing glimpses of a visitor's body as they round the corner — the image fed from a camera mounted in a corner above the installation.

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The extensive critical consideration given these corridor works, and their concomitant analysis of privacy, voyeurism, and surveillance situate a large portion of Nauman's extensive scholarly bibliography.  Less studied is how these works are reconstructed over and over, often in situ yet based on their initial specifications. Remade each time they are exhibited, these works often draw on different sources of documentation and thus by definition remain iterative, both in their invention and their historicization. Having several of Nauman's early corridor pieces installed in succession at Pirelli HangarBicocca affords the unique opportunity to pay close attention to issues of iteration and scale in a manner that is simply not possible in most other spaces. More specifically, many of these early works served as prototypes for other corridor pieces—pushing against the deeply ingrained modernist trope of the original and the copy that still defines the discourse on visual art in the narrowest of relationships. Instead, within Nauman's corridors, iteration and scalar differentiation operates as a hermeneutic, marking difference while at the same time forging connections between works, as well as foregrounding issues of mediation, displacement, and subjectivity. For example, in his 1970 exhibition at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles, Nauman scaled up the CCTV element in Going Around the Corner Piece with Live and Taped Monitors, mentioned above, bisecting the gallery space into a series of six corridors that ran floor to ceiling, some of them only a few inches apart—less passageway and more like narrow channels. Nauman stacked two monitors at the end of one corridor, one with prerecorded footage of the empty space, the other showing a live feed from a closed-circuit camera mounted at ceiling height near the gallery's entrance, so that as the viewer physically approaches the monitor, their body would appear further away on screen. Additional installations first introduced during the 1970smade use of prerecorded sounds and video footage as well as closed circuits and live feeds that further eschewed the depictive or even representational function of moving images in order to create a destabilizing experience. Nauman would continue to iterate on the concept of using “the closed circuit” throughout his ongoing enterprise in a range of materials, concepts, and locations.

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Other works, including Corridor Installation with Mirror—San Jose Installation (Double Wedge Corridor with Mirror) (1970), two corridors configured as a V, in which two viewers can enter, each taking one side of the V, do not always synch up. You may not appear in the mirror at the apex, but your partner does, ushering in concepts such as dissociation, distortion, and parallax viewing. In 2018, the work was fitted with a VR component when it was reinstalled at San Jose State University, the site of its initial presentation almost five decades prior. Included at Pirelli HangarBicocca along with corridors such as Funnel Piece (1971) and Parallax Piece with Horizontal Barriers (Corridor with a Parallax) (1974), these works foreground iterative processes that are conditioned by degrees of amplitude, force, and duration—a set of external relations as well as internal ones that all have various scalar forces acting upon them. We also see Nauman's scalar logic at work in sculptures including Double Steel Cage Piece (1974), which recreates the narrow passageways from his corridor pieces in unforgiving steel. A low-lying lid exacerbates one's sense of feeling trapped and boxed in. When viewed in conjunction with the tunnel sculptures, Three Dead-End Adjacent Tunnels, Not Connected (1981) and Model for Tunnels: Half Square, Half Triangle, and Half Circle with Double False Perspective (1981), we see further iterations on the corridor pieces, essentially, scale models of passages running underground as shafts and trenches that, like their above-ground corollaries, go nowhere yet remain suggestive of different possibilities. Viewed in relation to Nauman's neon My Name As Though It Were Written on the Surface of the Moon (1968), we see a full scalar spectrum shifting from the subterranean to the astronomical, as part of Nauman's investment in exploring ever expanding and ever compressing forms of radical alterity.

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Given nothing much to look at but themselves, Nauman's viewers are also often the target of speech acts. You can hear the artist's simmering frustration as he repeats the refrain, “Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room” for over six minutes in one of his first sound works. The audio recording is amplified by its presentation in a windowless room, empty except a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling—casting a pall over the space, rather than illuminating it. Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room (1968) drives you to want to do as directed. In this manner, Nauman's corridors and rooms prove to be anti-escapist, anti-immersive. As curator Henriette Huldisch has recently surmised, Nauman “is more likely to startle than to engross” and his use of “technology is always a means rather than an end.” So even in technically complex and layered sound works, such as Raw Materials (2004), or videos produced using sophisticated night-vision digital video cameras with detailed time coding, directional flipping, and color switching, as in MAPPING THE STUDIO II with color shift, flip, flop, & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage), Nauman emphasizes ruptures and splits rather than aiming for the seamlessness of immersion. Moreover, Nauman resists illusion, spectacle, or even the sense of generosity afforded by earlier neons, corridors, and rooms conceived by Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) and reconstructed in these same spaces in 2018.

Seen anew in 2022, the current iterations of Nauman's rooms and corridors should be read against a contemporary sociopolitical backdrop. Online and offline, contemporary art is now directed towards viewing habits accrued through interfacing with more fragmented, provisional, and particularized audiences, reached via the Internet rather than the mass audience of televisual media (broadcast television, film) that shaped spectatorship throughout the twentieth century. The techniques that informed the reception of Nauman's corridors and rooms can now be seen more as furtive mechanisms modeling a computational logic that reshapes the way his works are rendered in complex, embodied ways, rather than simply being captured by cameras. Doing so makes the case that, since the 1960s, algorithmic processing and predictive analysis have continued to play an outsized role in how contemporary life is mediated and experienced. Even if Nauman's works are not discretely digital, they remain computational. The artist has always shown us how codes control the physical world through architecture, the built environment, and form itself, underscoring the ways coordinates create shapes and formulae undergird our encounters with the physical world. Most emphatic (yet under-theorized) is how Nauman's corridors and rooms insist upon a specific scale—the physically palpable sense of ratio or commensurability between an object or space and our own body, which in the digital age has become so amorphous that any measurable relation to its contextual frame is rarely noted, but also rendered irrelevant—seemingly a formatting issue within the era of open-ended variations that are manifest online or offline. Nauman's scalar differentiation within his corridors and rooms helps us apprehend how figures, bodies, and individuals comport themselves at any given moment, how they shrink or take up space, become visible or exposed. This exhibition relays Nauman's own arc from the late 1960s to the present in a manner that maps out what can be thought of as a type of scalar humanism—an orientation that has continued to shift from industrial uniformity towards the decidedly personal and contingent. Here, his techniques make a material argument about the weight and forbearance of history, how it is taught and passed down through mechanisms of repetition and iteration.