Bruce Nauman’s exhibition Days, which currently occupies MoMA’s third-floor special exhibition gallery, provokes a reaction, if nothing else. One need wait only a moment in the sun-dappled corridor outside the entrance to witness a gallimaufry of expressions—grins, scowls, exclamations, sighs, guffaws—on the faces of people as they exit. Visitors’ responses may be negative or positive, satisfied or bewildered—and they certainly do run the gamut—but they are anything but neutral.
“It really got me wondering,” said one gentleman, who sauntered through the exit doors smiling smugly to himself, as though privy to some secret, “Is this Nauman guy just using what they call ‘confusional tactics’ to get us all turned around?” I asked him to elaborate. “You know—confusional tactics—smoke and mirrors. He makes us think there is some profound content here, when in fact the whole thing is just a testament to how much artists can get away with these days.” Deemed a “meditative experience” by Rob Sachs, a middle-aged gentleman visiting from Kansas, and “an existential delight” by a Rachel Boledovich, a photographer from upstate New York, Days continues to elicit a miscellany of impressions. “As a sensory experience, it is very satisfying,” a young woman told me. “The movement it requires, the way it makes you listen and look and think—it’s really stimulating.”
Many of those who visit the exhibition admit to seeking a pattern in the chaotic order of the articulated days of the week. They circulate the galleries, slowly, cautiously, heads cocked toward the speaker, eyes lightly shut, repeating the strings of words to themselves, gnawing on fingernails. Only one of those with whom I spoke expressed her opinion about the exhibition in terms of how she understood it: “To take something like the days of the week, like time, something that we see as a linear concept,” she began, “and to reveal how meaningless it actually is by scrambling it up and rearranging it, so that it loses its meaning—that’s brilliant.” Her words echoed my own perceptions about Days—for me, the installation calls to mind Marcel Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages. This recent MoMA acquisition, a masterpiece of Duchamp’s Readymade oeuvre, similarly challenges the constructions upon which we base and measure ourselves and our lives, rendering transparent the tenuous, arbitrary nature of something we conceive of as factual—like a meter—when subjected to an objective physical force such as gravity.
Days demands engagement from its audience in a way that Nauman’s work—often multimedium installations integrating sculpture and video—always does; nothing surprising there. That said, as a single work that occupies an entire MoMA gallery, a gallery that shares a wall with a photography exhibition, of all things, it is provocative in a number of other ways as well. It is safe to guess that Nauman could not have anticipated these particular viewing conditions—and so, in an attempt to smooth (at least a few) furrowed brows, I conducted the following interview with Doryun Chong, an associate curator in the Painting and Sculpture Department, who organized the exhibition.
How do you, as a curator in the Painting and Sculpture Department, begin the process of curating an exhibition? Are you working within any constraints?
Certain exhibitions can happen rather quickly and spontaneously, while others take years of careful thinking and preparation. Bruce Nauman’s Days falls in the former category. The work was created in 2009, for inclusion in the artist’s solo presentation as the U.S. representative at the Venice Biennale, and then was acquired by MoMA (jointly with Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation in Basel, Switzerland). We wanted to make sure that the New York and MoMA audiences were able to experience it—the most recent work by one of the most important living American artists—as soon as possible. Luckily, we had a space available (which turned out to be the perfect space for the work) and organized the exhibition quite quickly.
How does MoMA conceive of this particular sort of exhibition, one that exclusively features a single “piece” by a single artist?
A curator needs to conceive of an exhibition in two ways: conceptually, and spatially. Days is such a complete work—a universe in itself—that we knew that it would be able to stand alone conceptually, not as just a work but also as an exhibition. Next, we addressed the space issue: we looked at the spaces at hand and were confident that our third-floor special exhibition gallery has adequate square footage to accomodate the work. Then there were just a couple of things to figure out: how to arrange the fourteen floating speakers, especially since the gallery isn’t a perfect rectangle, and what to do with walls and concealed windows on both the north and south sides. Those who saw the Tim Burton exhibition will hopefully have noticed what a radical transformation the gallery underwent; in short, it seemed that the most radical and most suitable thing we could do to the space for this exhibition was essentially to do nothing to it, to return it to its original state. If you are working with a piece that has an adequate level of complexity, that’s all you need for an exhibition, I dare say.
When you select a work or works for an exhibition, do you aim for them (or the exhibition) to operate specifically in dialogue with other concurrent museum shows? Do you see Days as specifically engaged with other shows on view now?
Of course, I often think about how different exhibitions relate to one another—I think any museum curator needs to think that way—but at a museum as large and complex at MoMA, many others need to think about this as well. I don’t think it’s entirely possible always to pre-plan. I’m often stimulated by making connections post-installation that were not previously apparent to me. For instance, I cannot not think about Days now without making some connection with Yoko Ono’s Voice Piece for Soprano, installed in the atrium as part of the exhibition Contemporary Art from the Collection. Both works engage sound and voice, but in completely opposite ways. Days is planned, pre-recorded, synched, engineered, etc., to create a “sculptural” work out of the “elements,” out of the supposedly immaterial material of sound; Ono’s piece is a simple set of instructions, and the resulting work is unpredictable, constantly changing, based on viewers/participants’ desires, behaviors, and personalities.
In today’s artistic climate, one driven by the advent of new technologies and media sharing—which increasingly require the blurring of distinctions between media—how do you view your responsibility (or prerogative?) to incorporate the emerging sorts of multilayered artistic categories into your work?
One thing that makes Nauman really remarkable is that he has always engaged with new media and technologies. He was one of the artists who adopted video early on: in the late sixties, when he was very young, he made a series of performative works in his studio, which he recorded with a video camera. This body of work is critical to the history of art as an early example of the artist addressing the use of his or her own body, contemplating how it is engaged in making sculpture and occupying space, and how it might even become sculpture itself. There are a number of examples in another exhibition currently on view—The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1939 to Today.
In many ways, Nauman’s work in the last four decades has been a continuation of this line of inquiry, even when it doesn’t seem to be directly “about” sculpture. I think of Days in that way too; by thinking about the evolutionary trajectory of an artist’s work, we get to expand our own conceptual perimeters of mediums—especially in the case of such “traditional” mediums as painting and sculpture. I suppose “responsibility” is to curate exhibitions that engage both with the current moment in art making, and in artists’ careers, as well with these historically, taking into account continuities as well as disruptions.
How do you feel, personally, about the work, and in what ways do you think it will enrich MoMA’s collection?
A good work of art makes you think of a whole range of things; not to sound too banal about this, but really, it makes you think about life. Days is a work that makes you think of the whole universe—or, more precisely, about the randomness and the ironic logic behind it. The names of the days are a completely human invention, but our lives are entirely structured and determined by them. In this way, Days speaks to the relationship and conflict between the cosmos/nature, both of which are indifferent to us, and humanity, which by definition must wrestle with, alter, conquer, and be defeated by them. What’s amazing about Nauman’s work in general—and Days in particular—is that it really illuminates that truth. As one early piece by Nauman reads: “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” Days does just that.
Thank you, Doryun. No argument there.
The exhibition closes this coming Monday, August 23, so if you have the opportunity please experience this unique installation before then!