Bruce Nauman’s artistic practice famously began with a simple question—“What to do?”—and developed from his subsequent realization that anything an artist does in his or her studio must be characterized as art. After earning an MFA degree from the University of California, Davis, and then renting a studio space in San Francisco, Nauman embarked on a series of actions that lie at the nexus of performance art and conceptualism. Massaging his thighs, measuring a single side of his body, manipulating objects and furniture, or standing, sitting, and reclining in various positions—each activity represented a philosophical and physical self-examination as well as an investigation into his interaction with, and role within, the space of his studio. The artist’s enactments were documented in photography and video, often using a rough, “deskilled” black-andwhite aesthetic. The resulting images are both archive and art object, and preserve activities that were performative in nature yet intrinsically solitary.
A second strand of Nauman’s work reflects his fascination with language; he often works with puns, double meanings, and idioms. In Eleven Color Photographs (1966–1967), an early photographic series, he physically staged such popular expressions as “Feet of Clay” or “Eating My Words.” Later, Nauman formed fluorescent neon tubing into words. Examples such as RAW-WAR (1971), EAT/DEATH (1972), or LIFE, DEATH, LOVE, HATE, PLEASURE, PAIN (1983) illuminate and overlay each word in alternating colors. The series invites focus on the materiality of the neon tubing (which at that time was more typically used in industrial or commercial applications) as well as the materiality of language itself.
World Peace (Projected) and World Peace (Revealed) (both 1996) continued Nauman’s interest in body language and the codes within speech and gestures. In the former installation, projected videos feature the faces or torsos of several speakers, whose voices provide the soundtrack: “I’ll talk to you. You’ll listen to me. You’ll talk to me. I’ll listen to you.” Using grammatical shifters, the work forces us to consider our own relationship to each speaker and to other viewers in the gallery.