Strange—why do Bruce Nauman’s works make me think of the body but feel its geometry? Shouldn’t it be exactly the opposite, with emotions being about the body and thoughts being about the geometry? Yet maybe precisely this reversal of one’s expectations, this crossover of one’s perceptions may take us straight to the heart of the matter: reciprocity as a deeply Naumanesque device in his art and thinking?

Concealed Source of Emotion

A game with two balls acquires an added edge by being confined to a square marked out on the floor. A dancer’s movements and rhythms are prescribed by a segmented rectangle. The right-angled corner of a room becomes the scene of a gravitational exercise in attraction and repulsion. And in the grotesque Slow Angle Walk, inspired by Samuel Beckett, the right angles of the space have taken possession of the body. These performances, without audience, filmed by Nauman in his studio in 1967 and 1968 in fact involved two actors—with one being the body of the artist, the other immutable geometry. The marked-up space is not only an arena, it is also a partner. It sets parameters that the artist works with and against. By the late 1960s there was already something of a history in modern dance of physical space as an “active” element. And the radically different role of the dance audience also impacted on Nauman’s expansion of sculptural issues. Every so often he rotates the video image by 90°; the sudden destabilization of the viewer’s perception is closely related to the performer’s own balancing exercises.

In the studio videos the viewer’s attention is initially concentrated on the moving body of the performer. With its at times contrived movements, the body’s actions and expression appear oddly distant. There is no story being told here, no emotions transmitted, nor is the viewer being directly addressed by a person. Any attempts on the part of the viewer to empathize with the figure founder in face of its “thingness.” For the performance plays out different permutations involving items in the studio space, making no distinction between objects and bodies. The geometry in this game does not provide the key to the action, but is rather part of the unresolved tension between perceiving, experiencing and feeling. In stark contrast to its reputation, the geometry here appears to be a concealed source of emotion.

Between Fascination and Flight

Nauman’s approach to his block sculptures from the 1970s began with a text. First, in Consummate Mask of Rock (1975), he created a seemingly logically structured reflection on the interplay of revealing and concealing. In the same vein as the game of chance, “scissors, paper, stone,” it lists a litany of conflicting human conditions and behaviors. The result is a sense of overwhelming complexity and painful contrariness somewhere between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Samuel Beckett. It was only then that he arrived at a sculpture comprising two groups of eight stone blocks in slightly different sizes; this was later followed by similar works, some in geometric arrangements, some much freer, with the individual elements comprising both cubes and three-dimensional parallelograms. Black Marble Under Yellow Light (1981/1988) is particularly striking for its material and the powerful yellow glow flooding the space and the work. Everything possible was done to prevent the clear geometric forms from being taken in simply, at a single glance. The blocks, close together yet not touching, are arranged in an “X” shape, corner to corner. Thus the calm shapes of the blocks seem to expand outwards into a dynamic rhombus shape. The blocks themselves are alternately very slightly larger and smaller—so that the geometry of the piece palpably seems to vibrate. Placed closed to the walls around it, the unsettling quality of the geometry of the sculpture seems to infect the space around it—distorting planes and angles. However clearly individual elements and their configuration may be described, in the overall effect of the work the geometry of the sculpture and the space seem somehow out of kilter. So what might merely be a restrained game with forms, triggers a disturbing psychological moment. Lingering within the sphere of influence of this work, viewers feel a subtle strain on their inner resources. And this is further compounded by the yellow light. With its industrial harshness, it exposes objects and people to all-round observation; at the same time it also emotionalizes the experience. Even after viewers have left the room, purple and black after-images still swim before their eyes. The rationale of a precisely calculated and fully comprehensible geometric configuration—plus the physical solidity and authority of marble—suddenly flips into the imponderables of a psychophysical experience. Control and loss of control intersect. For all its potential symbolism (as a cross, as an “X”), the geometry appears as disturbing as it is factual, triggering a sense of the space and of oneself that vacillates between fascination and the urge to take flight.

Hand and Word

The hand sets language free, to quote the anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan. And vice versa, one might think, in connection with Nauman’s work. For in his case language sets the hand, the body, the sculpture free. Thus the saying From Hand to Mouth (1967) literally becomes sculpture—a cast of the human body between the hand and the mouth. The result constitutes a continuous, organic connection between touching and speaking, between grasping and articulating, between physis and giving meaning. In his early experiments in spatial perception and self-perception, verbal factors often complement (or contradict) investigations into materials and the mind. In this context hands are  specifically presented as interfaces between the body and the intellect, between perception and structuring, between self-reassurance and communication. “Eloquent” hands hold confusing “soliloquies” on pressure, touch and duplication, or they feature in neon works as “communications tools” of a particularly aggressive kind. In videos they demonstrate magic tricks or work in pairs as hyper-realistic bronze sculptures performing a kind of static sign-ballet. Whereas in 1967 Nauman drew a schematic map of his own hand, in works on paper done in 1994, the focus is on the possible movements of the fingers and their ability to convey expression and signs. Some of these “figures” may be aimless games, others could be setting standards or specifying a form, yet others recall everyday, coded hand signals used at work or in sports. Yet none of these finger games is in any sense cut and dried. Something similar—no less confusing—is seen in the recent video Combinations Described (2011). Two outstretched hands, constantly alternating, play out all the possible combinations of eight fingers and two thumbs; at the same time, a series of voices describe the gestures. In one sense it is an exercise in physical self-discipline, playful control of one’s own physis. In another sense the hands send out silent signals, which others turn into language. As well as this dual, geometric play of hands there is also something of an arithmetical subtext, for the fingers also use gestures (varying from culture to culture) to denote numbers. Thus a sister of geometry also comes into play. And in the finger signs, it is striking to see the geometric framework of these gestures involving a combination of acute and obtuse angles. Although these of course derive from the anatomy of the hand, they also call to mind Nauman’s predilection for non-rectangular, skewed forms, which—not least in his block sculptures—determine the dynamics of the sculptural event. Even in the organic configurations of the hands there is still an (underlying) sense of direction and a game with geometric figures—in the same way that the body of the performer in the video is also tied to the stereometrics of the space.


A reciprocal in mathematics is found by interchanging the numerator and denominator. Placed side by side, the two fractions imply an X-shaped figure, with the digits connecting diagonally across the vinculums. The image of a reciprocal could also be used to describe the relationship of body and geometry in Nauman’s work. Not only that the two mutually influence each other. But even more so, in the sense that where one expects the body, there lurks geometry, and where one looks at geometry, a body is revealed. Unsettling, contradictory, engaging—or Stirrings Still, to quote the title of Beckett’s last text.

Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott