One might expect to find that the viewers promenading the Turbine Hall occasionally taking a look at the closest half-smiling face were part of Bruce Nauman’s latest work, Raw Materials. This is, after all, the first non-visual installation to be mounted in the vast space, so one could be wondering “where the art is”. It is in 22 recordings of texts, in an audio composition of fragments emitted from speakers sealed into the glass and steel skeleton walls that interact with the museum space, and the public.
In October 2002, the third commissioned artist of The Unilever Series, Anish Kapoor, filled the former power station, in width and in length, with a red malleable sculpture stretching across it. In October 2003, Olafur Eliasson’s spectacular Weather Project transformed the entire space, but more importantly, the artificial mist permeating the air and the yolk sun rising out of the haze to illuminate the refigured ceilings, altered the room’s temperature and the viewer’s perception.
Nauman had to do it differently. We have, since the sixties, seen countless videos in which he records himself performing in his New Mexico studio, and we have watched how his physical body is stifled by his polyphonic mastery. But we had yet to see Nauman dismantle works that bridge 40 years of his career, and present these disembodied voices in a symphony of cacophony and rhythms.
As the loyal viewer pauses to rub her/his ear against a speaker hoping to isolate each text, voices from the centre of the hall are discharged. Nauman’s shrilling voice anxiously recites a children’s tale in various tones: at first he is flippant, then, didactic; he becomes angry and later frustrated. This recording welcomes endless play, suggesting how repetition may beget meaning by one capturing the echoes of words. ‘Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence and Pete fell off who was left? Repeat!’ Each time it is sung in a characteristic style, inviting us to respond to every tone for different interpretations of the same words. However, the speed of this tale accelerates as the recording continues, and this hastiness, the kind that computer images make us aware of, challenges us to keep up with its tempo if we care to make “sense” of it.
‘OK OK OK’, Nauman repeats these words until they become blurry and appear to take on another sound, another signifier. Like Samuel Beckett’s Krapp, Nauman’s insistence on repetition verges on the absurd, the compulsive, and the revealing. If Krapp (re)listens incessantly to fragments recorded from his remote past, Nauman (re)forms these once polished texts from different contexts – some from prints, others from sculptures – to suggest new meanings.
Unlike Bourgeois, Muñoz, Kapoor, and Eliasson, Nauman employs the absence of the visual and the aura of the empty raw hall, to create a work that borders on language, sound and installation. Raw Materials is an archival piece that saturates the Turbine with a mass of voices chiming the written word, reassuring the viewer–listener that ambiguity is a virtue and disjointedness a reality.
Winner of prize for the Writing Review competition of University College, London
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