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.