Tag Archives: critique

Look. Come. Buy.

Bruce Nauman uses light as a medium because of its interesting paradoxical nature. It’s ephemeral presence is both communicative yet unclear. It has the ability to make the spectator involuntarily submit to it, yet if we were to scrutinize this submission we would realize that it’s emotionally and psychologically driven. This paradox mirrors Nauman’s artwork, in that under superficial glance they appear to be devoid of artistic substance, however under closer inspection we start noticing nuances of critical subversion, particularly in the commercial signage.

These neon installations serve a critical, poetic, and often uncomfortable commentary on the elusive signs within the advertisement industry. Overwhelming, spectacular signs that demand the passive viewer to enter into a commercialized prison of ‘Looking’, ‘Coming’ and ‘Buying’. This device is so powerful because it manipulates what we consider most sacred; our desires, emotions, and inhibitions.

However we are unaware of this manipulation because within this environment of commodified fetishism, a rupture is created within our logical understanding of space and time; everything is immediate. With this immediacy comes the dismissal of authenticity. A ‘decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing’. Therefore if these demanding signs ‘appear’ to offer the spectator an ‘illusion’ of a better life, we will submit to it.

This submission has two possible explanations, the first historical the second poetic. The first is due to the rise of the Industrial Revolution which completely re-shaped the city into a modern capitalist economy. It quickly started becoming a highly commodified society, and with that came the birth of the spectacle. Therefore, our relation to this commodified society is not only ‘visible’ but is ‘all one sees’, in other words its our only choice. However, a poetic reassurance to this submission is that it is not involuntary. Perhaps we acknowledge and accept this illusion of a plugged-in paradise, because of its momentary promise of a ‘better, or at least, a more exciting life’.

This illusion is dissected, subverted, and criticized in Nauman’s installations, such as Eat/Death, The True Artist,and One Hundred Live and Die. All three examples include conceptual word play as the main critical tool. This linguistic manipulation parallels the verbal and visual language of commercial signage. However once its detached from its overly-saturated environment and appropriated within an established museum, it gains an added layer of meaning. This decision to isolate the installations from their conventionalized surrounding destroys their originally demanding presence. The signs no longer command a passive spectator but urge the reader to wake up. This awakening goes hand in hand with the subjects transition from a passive consumer to an active interpreter.

The first example, DEATH/EAT is visually similar to the EAT HERE neon signs that are found on cafes and diners. He deconstructs the word in order to emphasize on the eat within death in order to represent the cyclical routine of eating as a form of survival that is dependent on killing. It could also have a more figurative interpretation where the predator/prey relationship is reversed. In this case, we, the starving consumer prey (EAT) are being literally engulfed within the consumerist predator (DEATH). However, this relationship although hierarchically structured is inter-dependent, which is clear in how the word ‘EAT’ completes the word ‘DEATH’. Another interesting observation is that once this installation is lit, the immediate word we see is EAT followed quickly by DEATH. This shocking transition is then normalized and our eyes shift quickly from one word to the other. This perhaps reflects the way our sight reacts in a highly commercialized urban landscape. In that at first we receive an immediate disorientation from the bombarding visual stimuli, however we quickly adjust to this perceptual intrusion.


The second example called The True Artist creates a tension between the medium and its content. The profundity of the statement ‘The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths’ contradicts its fragile neon representation. A fragility that is both literal and conceptual. Literal in the instability of the medium and conceptual in the readers conditioned association with it as the visual language of advertising and therefore deceit. We are left wondering whether the artist believes this message, or does not, or both believes it and disbelieves it simultaneously. Perhaps the most interesting and startling phrase is ‘mystic truths’ which signifies everything we assume advertising is not. It therefore opens up the possibility that spirituality and consumerist spectacle are not that far apart. Both seem to offer an exalted phantasmagoric impact on the believer or acceptor. An impact that is made possible through the use of light. Whether it is synthetic light that reflects a man-made spectacle or natural light that reflects divinity and spiritual invigoration.


The third example called One Hundred Live and Die consists of four columns of brightly colored neon phrases with statements such as ‘Touch and Die’ juxtaposed with ‘Touch and Live’. At a distance, this installation clearly reflects the overwhelming power of commercial language. The vibrant colors and repetitive arrangement disorients the readers perceptual navigation. It does not have a logical narrative and so all our senses can decipher is a mass of lit shapes. This interesting sensation contradicts Nauman’s earlier work which relied on isolating phrases in order to give them verbal and visual prominence. However, in this case our ability to comprehend and articulate comes much later, after we process and resist its bombardment. This resistance is aided by the simple, yet powerful statements, that begin with ‘Live and Die’ and end with ‘Pay and Live’. It almost foreshadows the inevitable cycle of a person born into a capitalist society. This desensitizing of the human condition reflects the almost robotic impassivity of the common consumer. Therefore, whether intentional or not, this work serves as a slap out of this passivity. However, a slap that is not accompanied by an alternative lifestyle but rather by a poetic awareness of the existing one.

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photography eludes the photographers intent.

A photographic image manifests a “likeness” to the real by bringing into existence an otherwise fleeting moment in time. By the simple release of the shutter speed, time, with all its wonder is captured. Through this instrument, reality is recorded, and with that comes a huge responsibility for authenticity. The camera, as far-fetched as it may sound, validates reality. Therefore, the making of an image, or the re-creation of reality, is not subjected only to the photographer. Photography creates a strange tension, for the first time between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent. This limits the photographer’s intervention to a mere decision on what to frame of reality. However, once this decision is made, the object, which is the photographic image, is freed from the limitations of time and space that govern it. It becomes a creation of an idyllic world that has its own temporal destiny.

In this 2-D flattening of reality, the past is framed. Through this “tangibilizing” of the ephemerally intangible, endless questions arise. Questions that concern the impact of the maker on the object, the way in which the object is received by the viewers, and the objects presence in eternity.

A photographic image is fuelled with endless possibilities. By reincarnating a moment in reality, it creates a world that does not abide by the constraints of time and space. The camera captures the present but promises that moment a place in eternity. Unlike painting, which carries a symbolic resonance to realism, photography exhibits a likeness so profound that it can be legitimately labeled as real. However, with this likeness, the subjectivity of the photographer is compromised. In painting, the artist approaches the canvas at a tangible distance, and with this closeness his personality enters into the process of composition. The painting is literally a part of him; since every line, every brush stroke, every hue is determined by its maker. However, in photography, no matter how close the artist approaches the object, there will always be a machine forbidding tangible closeness. The only thing within the photographer’s control is what to frame of reality and the purpose he has in mind. This poses two limitations, one that deals with the selectivity of the world in question, and the other deals with the subjectivity of the artist. By choosing to frame a fragment of reality, the photographer risks a visual rupture due to the absence of totality. What he selected may be visually disturbing, incomprehensible, or even offensive to the viewer. This may be compared to any form of art, where the artist makes a conscious decision to frame a part of totality. However, unlike painting or drawing, photography has the irrational power of bearing away our faith. It promises us realism for our conviction. Therefore if a painting is visually disturbing, our feelings of condemnation are aimed at its maker, while in photography we cannot direct these feelings at the photographer because he is not the maker of reality. Therefore we are left dissatisfied with reality. An example is the world press photos that embody suffering and trauma. Looking at and through the faces of sorrow, we feel disgusted at humanity, rarely do we associate these feelings with the photographer. This is because, although there is a selection of reality, this selection usually aims at depicting the general. Although this decision is made by the photographer, there is clearly a lack in subjectivity. In capturing time and space, two elements that are beyond manipulation, the photographer always absorbs but rarely gives.

The lens of a camera is manufactured. As banal as it may sound, it is stripped away from sentiment and subjectivity, all that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it. It presents the world with all its virginal beauty; however once it is associated with the photographer’s touch the camera loses its “virginity” by giving birth to a photograph. And with the birth of this photograph, like the birth of a child, its starts to pile up preconceptions. These labels are then interpreted differently once they encounter an audience. This ability of the photograph to accommodate to the wishes of a universal audience is a powerful component of photography. It can be perceived by anyone, and through its perception it is made visually legible no matter how obscure it may be. This is because, as humans, we have a tendency when faced with realism, to decipher all possible codes in order to rationalize our vision.

In surrealist photography, the photographer’s presence is more apparent in the photograph. This movement tore down the boundaries of expectation by merging reality with the imagination. Its power lies within its ability to daunt the viewers with the possibility of another reality; a reality that trivializes time and space by opening up a doorway to endless interpretations. This reality can more or less be attributed to the making of the photographer. It is through the investment of imagination and manipulation through techniques like solarization and multiple exposure that such an image is created. These aspects, imagination and technical manipulation are pre-determined by the maker. However one can also argue that the initial moment captured is independent of the photographer, therefore is only partially the making of the artist. Since there is no real distinction between fantasy and reality, surrealism tends to destroy reason for an unreasoned order. In other words, surrealist images can be perceived as an amalgamation of the photographer’s intent and reality as it presents itself. It is this fusion of the artists whimsical subconscious desires with the unyielding nature of time and space that creates an “absolute reality, a surreality”.

The making of a photographic image preserves eternity through a moment’s spiritual rebirth. This world, which is captured by the impartial lens, presents reality, it does not re-present it. This notion is more interactive when a person is captured. Encountering a frozen face preserved for infinity is both sorrowful and thrilling.  You start to wonder whether the person is looking at the lens or through the lens, but it is rarely assumed that the person is looking at the photographer. This demonstrates the limitations of the artist, in that his “creation” has less to do with him and more to do with the relationship between the image and the person encountering the image. The faces in the photograph are gazing into the future, awaiting reciprocation from the anticipated viewer.  This fact, coupled with the degree of realism  is what makes the viewer wonder about the faces identities. Whenever we encounter an image we have a deep yearning to know who those people are, but rarely on who took their picture. This is because, as humans, we are more prone to invest in the visibly concrete, the “reachable”, rather than in the “unreachable” abstract. It is for that reason that a photograph, a synthetic product made up of chemicals, ironically, has an uncomfortably power ability to manipulate what we consider most sacred, our emotions.

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