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Bruce Nauman at Tate Modern, by Fabienne Jenny Jacquet – Tainted Glory

In the 1960s American artist Bruce Nauman began exploring and redefining what an artwork could be. He is now considered one of the most influential contemporary artists with a diverse, hard to pin down practice that includes video, sculpture, sounds, photography and text and hovers somewhere between performance and conceptual art. The Tate Modern exhibition is a retrospective of sort and his first major show in the UK for 20 years. The artist is notoriously economical with giving interviews and often reluctant to attribute a detailed meaning to his works, preferring instead for the viewers to come up with their own interpretation.

This is the perfect show for our fraught Covid times. A visit to the Tate has been turned from a leisurely wander in the heart of a pagan temple dedicated to the worship of contemporary art into a dehumanising experience where you are scanned, checked, herded through one-way systems, asked to follow often confusing and contradictory floor signage and to rigidly stick to allocated viewing time slots.

We are disoriented rats obediently negotiating an endless concrete maze, still desperately hungry for a mouthful of art, frivolity and showmanship. When I get to the ‘cheese’ and finally enter the Nauman show, I am bristling with annoyance and twitching with frustration. This is no safe harbour though, instead I step into a chaotic world that weaves feelings of alienation and fear into an art form. Screams echo throughout the rooms, neon lights give only cold comfort to this weary traveller and on various screens and in photographs bodies are twisted, moulded into uncomfortable shapes or thrown against walls. 

In one room a bald man’s head spins endlessly while he shouts what sounds like an incomprehensible litany of existential angst (“Feed me, help me, eat me, hurt me”). In another a female mime artist is ordered by the dispassionate voice of a man who we cannot see to perform various meaningless tasks. She obeys just like we obey when we are told ‘’wear a mask’’, ‘’follow social distancing guidelines’’ and ‘’wash your hands’’. We might not wear Marcel Marceau ghostly white make-up but we are also puppets in the hands of our remote leaders.

A metal cage, a tortured clown, CCTV that sneakily films us as we go around one of the exhibits making us a fleeting part of the installation, a hanged-man who finds his climax in death, children’s game and slight of hands. This show is an uncomfortable, claustrophobic but ultimately brilliant reflection of our eternal struggle in the face of control, death, pain and the absurdity of life.

Nauman is a genius ring master who created worlds over the decades that mirrors the current circuses of our own. He is a neon Nostradamus, a video prophet with a wicked sense of humour, quietly laughing and crying for us and with us. This exhibition is pure theatre and an unflinching parallel to our all too Kafkaesque reality.

I exit Nauman’s tortured worlds and shuffle back into the Orwellian maze that will bring me obediently towards the Tate exits. I finally step outside and still it feels like I have never left and the entire world is now a Nauman exhibition.

The Bruce Nauman exhibition at Tate Modern is on until 21st February 2021.