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Bruce Nauman (American, born 1941)

Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer)

Plexiglass maze, closed-circuit video camera, scanner and mount, switcher, two videotape players, 13-inch color monitor, 9-inch back-and-white monitor, video projector, and two videotapes (color, sound)
Dimensions variable
Credit Line:
Acquisition from the Werner Dannheisser Testamentary Trust
MoMA Number:
© 2015 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights since 1980, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p. 93

In this video installation, a low, transparent yellow Plexiglas maze, divided into many chambers, rests on the floor in the center of a darkened gallery. Monitors of different sizes occupy the two ends of the maze. They face the structure, while a video projector placed on a crate beams images onto an adjacent wall. All three video streams alternately display recorded images of a rat trapped within the maze and a teenage boy frantically playing the drums, interspersed with live images fed by a scanning video camera that surveys the now-empty maze. (Depending on the placement of the camera, it may also transmit images of the legs of passing viewers.)

The drums are loud, the equipment is devoid of visual pleasure, the maze is sharp-cornered and sickly yellow, and the signs of frustrated habit in the movements of both the boy and the rat are painfully similar. Nauman culled the title phrase from an article published in Scientific American in 1987 titled "Stressed Out: Learned Helplessness in Rats Sheds Light on Human Depression." Here the artist parodies a laboratory experiment and questions the social and scientific belief that human nature can be improved through controlled environments and behavioral retraining.

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