This seems to be the summer of Bruce Nauman, at least at the the Venice Biennale, where he won the Golden Lion, and to some extent here at the Walker, where his work in The Quick and the Dead is garnering particular attention from Walker staff. One of our installation technicians, the multimedia whiz Peter Murphy, wrote on the complexities of setting up Nauman’s 1971 Microphone/Tree PieceMurphy, and now several staff from our visitor services department have written on Body as a Sphere, a 1969 performance work situated near the beginning of the exhibition.
Joey Heinen gives a thorough overview of performing this deceptively demanding piece, while Eric Jones offers a concise yet searing take on what it means to become an object of stranger’s gaze. Kaitin Kelly recounts her truly visceral response to it; and Emily Rohrabaugh puts her experience in a broader context with Nauman works at the Walker and the artist’s overall career, including his early training as a physicist. Finally, the pugnacious Joseph Rizzo gives his own irreverent account of Body as a Sphere. Just as Rohrabaugh says that performing it “has set a new standard for me as I look at conceptual art,” after reading these accounts, you will never look at a person curled up in a corner in the same way again.
== JOEY HEINEN ==
“If a viewer announces that I am not real but in fact a piece of sculpture, I get the urge to clear my throat to prove my humanity, which seems like such an absurd thing to prove that I change my mind and allow them to think what they want to.”
Approximately once a week, I get paid to curl up in the corner of a gallery for up to two hours. Nice work if you can get it, right? To some extent, yes, but there is much more to it than what may meet the average gallery patron’s eye. The Visitor Services team accumulates all sorts of interesting odd jobs across the Walker that simply do not fit in many administrative employee’s job descriptions. Usually within the realm of performance art, we have recited news headlines after completing transactions at the box office, dug lemons from a sometimes rain-drenched “garden,” and now we bring Bruce Nauman’s Body as a Sphere, a “selection from untitled performance” (1969), to life (albeit very still and motionless life) in Gallery 4 of The Quick and the Dead exhibition, during select hours.
The basic instructions for this performance read “curl your body into the corner of a room. Imagine a point at the center of your curled body and concentrate on pulling your body in around that point. Then attempt to press that down into the corner of the room.” It goes on to describe the ideal time length of the exercise and explains that it is both a mental and physical activity. These instructions were pretty vague, but that actually helps since there are so many of us employed in Visitor Services, and obviously so many different bodies that require different positions and postures for comfort and performability. Some performers, for instance, keep their eyes wide open, directed out at the viewer, whereas I channel my vulnerable side and keep my face mostly hidden. The fetal position is popular, as is fitting oneself directly in the corner or kneeling and tucking oneself inward, though that last one can prove to be most uncomfortable.
After clocking in about 9 hours with this piece (during multiple performances), I have abandoned a sense of experimentation and now hold the same position every time. I press my face and shoulders against the ground so as to equally distribute weight, with one bent arm somewhat covering my face and completing a circular motion with my legs, which are resting on top of each other. According to Nauman’s instructions, the performer should be able to hold the same position for a longer amount of time with each successive performance, probably as a result of the performer discovering a position best suited for his or her body. After many attempts at positions that would inevitably cut off blood flow or pinch nerves (thus creating temporary muscle paralysis), I think I’ve settled on the position that’s best for me.
A Nauman “shift” begins as innocuously as any other work shift, by punching the ol’ time clock—and maybe doing some brief calisthenics before assuming the position. It’s always humorous to see a coworker come in all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, marching briskly up the gallery stairs and making a bee-line for the appointed corner, whose walls are now covered with shoe scuff marks from restless repositioning, only to return two hours later with a glazed-over facial expression and a few hair cowlicks. All in a day’s work, I guess.
But at least there is always a guaranteed take-away at the end of a shift—the eavesdropping. Maybe it’s because an astounding number of patrons believe that you are a wax sculpture (maybe they’re thinking of Duane Hanson?), but many of them make statements so unguarded and ridiculous you can’t help but feel like more of an earless art “object” than a performer. My favorite story involves a woman who, seeing one of my co-workers performing Body as a Sphere, responded “Oh, yes, they have one of these in Denver.”
Of course, many patrons confuse this piece with the work of Tino Sehgal, whose work was both prominently and covertly on view at the Walker in the winter of 07/08. Close, but no cigar—though you do get a gold star for seeing this connection, since one of Sehgal’s pieces referenced Nauman by name: Instead of allowing some things to rise up to your face, dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000). I can certainly see the connection between these two works, not just because a person is rolled up in an empty corner, but also because the ambiguity forces the viewer to piece together what is happening.
Much in the same way that some little children have asked me while I’m performing if I’m hurt, the childlike curiosity of the viewer is also coupled with a very human sense of isolation and a projection of his or her reality. My reality while performing this piece is about altering my perception in order to possibly alter my form. Sometimes I imagine myself filling an impossibly small space or withdrawing into myself like a trapdoor spider. If a viewer announces that I am not real but in fact a piece of sculpture, I get the urge to clear my throat to prove my humanity, which seems like such an absurd thing to prove that I change my mind and allow them to think what they want to.
In many ways, I see the duality between myself and the viewer in this piece to be similar to the social mores in an elevator as people avert their eyes from each other. They see what is familiar, whether that be a famous realist work of sculpture or something absurd and inhuman, and ignore what might be too confrontational. One thing I love about Body as a Sphere, and especially performing it, is its uncanny presence in a gallery. This piece creates a sort of electric charge as stranger after stranger passes over me like the time that measures my two-hour shift, each visitor with his or her own observation or comment. What’s even more interesting is what I cannot see or hear but simply what I sense, to put it nebulously. The feeling I get when an entire family is huddled around me or when I can tell that someone has stopped dead in his tracks from across the gallery to stare at me is almost enough to give me a visible shudder, which of course would give me away instantly.
Granted, Nauman’s piece is simple enough that one could gather a number of conclusions that could speak about human beings and how we perceive our surroundings. For me, it is about the palpable discomfort between viewer and object. Then again, that might just be my legs cramping up.
== ERIC JONES ==
Is that art, a gay guy laying on the floor? —Walker patron on Target Free Thursday Night
In my experience observing audiences observing other performers of Bruce Nauman’s Body as a Sphere, I am convinced their gaze is largely dependent on desire. The body of a young blonde woman performing this piece changes the length of the heterosexual male gaze, changes the distance of his proximity, and certainly inhibits his reading of the didactic label on the wall nearby. Regardless of a viewer’s openness to observing meditation as an art display, the subjective encounter with Body as a Sphere is always distracted by the marked body. Young artist envy, reverence, absurdity, or obscenity—these belong to the viewer. However, if the viewer wishes to communicate something about the piece—or worse, the performer—they do: standing closer, leaning over me, loudly questioning “Is that a boy or a girl?” Yet in the piece, this marked encounter, a shared shock dissolves as my energies float inward, closer toward the corner of the room.
== KAITIN KELLY ==
“I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder blade and my hip from the floor. My face was flushed and I was having a little bit of difficulty taking full breaths … although I was not enclosed in a confining space here at the Walker, the idea of Nauman’s piece and my physical body was now enclosing me and causing my breath to constrict even more …”
I consider myself familiar with the practices of meditation and movement studies. Although I suffer from the typical struggles of meditation like many others, I still have some days when I feel quite accomplished and refreshed after completing a session. So, when I decided to cover a shift for one of my co-workers at the Walker and ended up in the corner of a gallery unmoving for an hour in the name of art, it seemed like an interesting concept that I was ready to experience.
As I was shown the location of the Nauman piece, I was quite calm and plopped right down into my desired pose to settle in to Body as a Sphere. I admittedly tried a few poses in the first couple minutes to decide which one seemed to be comfortable enough to hold for the long haul. I chose one that I often find myself sleeping in. Curled in the corner, my body had a slight twist and I focused my eyes on the ceiling so that I could gather what was going on around me without having to look directly at the people ogling me. The ground was cold and hard and the sounds in the gallery were not conducive to a meditative environment. A pulsating noise similar to a clock and the occasional thunder-type sound seemed to suspend time and space.
Listening to people decide whether or not I was in fact a real person and not a mannequin was amusing. One French couple speaking very close to my head in their native tongue joked that I came to the museum by myself and ended up “ici” in the corner. A girl commented that I couldn’t be real since my hair looked fake (humorous because I had died my hair with an $8 box of color the night before).
Throughout this observance of sound, the cold floor, and my concentration of breath, I started to have the strange sensations that one has from not moving from one position for an hour. Granted, I could have gotten up and slowly moved to a new position, but that seemed like cheating. I got myself into that position and I was going to keep it! My arm went numb; I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder blade and my hip from the floor. My face was flushed and I was having a little bit of difficulty taking full breaths in the twist that I had placed myself in. The idea of not moving morphed itself into not being able to move. I wondered if I could get myself out of the position I had purposefully chosen to be in. A few months back, I had discovered on a boat in an enclosed cabin space that I am in fact claustrophobic. And although I was not enclosed in a confining space here at the Walker, the idea of Nauman’s piece and my physical body was now enclosing me and causing my breath to constrict even more than it had before.
Through meditative breaths and some yoga and dance-training techniques, I managed to combat a full-blown panic attack, which would have been admittedly very embarrassing (but, I’m sure, an interesting development in the work of art as a whole, especially for viewers who kept streaming by on what seemed like a busy Saturday at the Walker). I became calm again and soon I saw a face and heard a voice saying “hi……..I’m here to relieve you.” I felt like I was underwater and this person was fuzzy. But I busted out with a “Thank God!” and clumsily climbed to my feet, asa Visitor’s Services staff person asked if I needed help.
I stumbled from the gallery and had to stop outside and hold onto the railing, for my vision was narrowing in with blackness and my eyes were starting to water. I managed to gather myself long enough to have a conversation with someone about my “interesting pose” and then stumbled to the employee kitchen. Feeling worse by the minute, I ended up in the bathroom getting sick and seeing blackness for what seemed like a good two minutes. I felt as if I had consumed much too much vodka or as if I had had the flu for the third day in a row. Luckily, my supervisor recognized the fact that I looked a little under the weather and bravely volunteered to do the second hour of my Body as a Sphere shift. He is my hero. I learned a lot about myself and experienced art more than I have in awhile. I don’t think that an exhibit or a shift at the Walker has ever made me vomit before. I guess that is a new and courageous place for art to go … ?
== EMILY ROHRABAUGH ==
“I am not just sculptural material; I actively work to manipulate the viewer’s experience. … For the hour that I am in the gallery corner, I fill the room with my energy and slow down my actions to 1 task/hour.”
My method of performing the Bruce Nauman piece Body As Sphere from untitled performance (1969) is informed by my study of the three Bruce Nauman pieces in the Walker’s collection that are currently installed in Gallery 2 of The Shape of Time. In these pieces the artist filmed himself performing what appear to be simple physical tasks described by their titles, which are shown on small televisions on the far side of the gallery. One piece in particular, Bouncing in a Corner No. 1 (1968), was useful in assessing how to interpret Nauman’s instructions. Here Nauman is performing a simple motion; the artist begins at a standing position and lets his body fall into the corner of the room, the television emits the sound of his body hitting the wall, “BOOM,” and then Nauman bounces back to standing. The film is looped so that as soon as he gets to standing he begins falling back again, making him appear locked in a repetitive, meditative cycle, his actions stretching time in that corner of gallery 2.
This work is not only helpful in that I can see Nauman’s performance style and the discipline of his actions while performing the piece, but also because Nauman manipulated the film, showing that the viewer’s experience is an important part of performing. He also rotated the film and manipulated the speed of the tape, making his body appear sideways and fall slower than a person would fall in real time. As Nauman was trained as a physicist, there can be no doubt that he understood the way an object would fall due to the effects of gravity. Instead of making his body into a sculpture in action, bouncing against the wall, Nauman’s body appears to defy gravity.
I see the way that Nauman manipulated the viewer’s experience of his motion as a cue for my own performance of Body As a Sphere. I am not just sculptural material; I actively work to manipulate the viewer’s experience. My goal is to remain focused on the meditation of finding the center of my body and pressing that point into the corner of the room, for one hour, as specified in Nauman’s instructions. For the hour that I am in the gallery corner, I fill the room with my energy and slow down my actions to 1 task/hour. By slowing down my actions, I blend in with the other objects in the gallery—yet I am separate enough to be out of place, and thus engage the viewer.
I was drawn to focus on the time element on this piece because of another performance in The Quick and the Dead that requires performer input. In John Cage’s Organ²/ASLSP (“ASLSP” being Cage’s own acronym for “as slow as possible”), Cage specified that the performer determines the length of the performance. In both Body as a Sphere and Organ²/ASLSP (performed nearby in Saint Mary’s Basilica on Thursday nights), the performer has instructions: a musical score in the Cage piece and (like the George Brecht pieces that are also part of The Quick and the Dead) a written set of instructions for the Nauman piece. By giving the performer control, the success of the piece becomes contingent on the openness of both the performer and the audience.
Body as a Sphere actively changes the space around it and invites the viewers to imagine a space being created by the performance. It is not a traditional sculpture, in that it is not an object in empty space to be examined; nor is it about the way a body looks when performing a set of instructions. When performing, I focus on a conceptual point within space, a point that a person viewing me could never see, and would never experience without the invitation. This kind of thought experiment was a necessity in Nauman’s math and science studies—visualizing concepts about physical matter that cannot be simply identified using our senses; he is using Body as a Sphere to share something very fundamental about how he saw reality.
In 1967, Nauman made a neon sign explicitly spelling out the function of art as a vehicle to reveal new experiences: “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.” This piece, selected as one of the Nauman works representing the U.S. at this year’s Venice Biennale (click here for a video walkthrough of his installation there), explicitly informs us how to view the rest of his work.
I’ve always liked Bouncing in a Corner No. 1, but only after performing Body as a Sphere was I able to see that both pieces were working on the same goals of revealing basic mystic truths. The works are simple, concise, full of meaning and aimed at transparency, which has set a new standard for me as I look at conceptual art.
== JOE RIZZO ==
“I positioned myself in such a way where I could see the visitors reading the didactic panel on the wall. They would read the panel, look at me, see that I was staring at them blankly, and hurry away. It was great fun, until this heartbreaking scene …”
First off, I should say that whenever Bruce Nauman comes to mind I have a recurring fantasy of knocking his stupid cowboy hat off his head with a satisfying smack. I’m not quite sure what fuels my hatred of all things Nauman. Perhaps my bullshit detector is a little too sensitive. To me, Nauman personifies all the bad stereotypes of contemporary art—pretentious, aloof, inaccessible, irrelevant. Anyway, as much as I genuinely enjoy The Quick and the Dead, which includes several works by this artist, I respectfully asked to be excused from “performing” Body as a Sphere. Twice, though, I volunteered when my brothers and sisters from the Visitor Services department were in a jam: once when performing the piece made my colleague physically sick, and once when another colleague called in sick, presumably ill in anticipation of performing this piece.
At first, the experience of performing Body as a Sphere was exactly as I expected. Cold, painful, boring, humiliating. As I settled into a state of semi-consciousness, I found the reactions of Walker visitors to be pretty interesting. Some people seemed unsettled by the sight of a curled-up person in the gallery. Conversations ceased when they came near. Some, in hushed tones, discussed whether or not I was real. I heard one man say to his companion, “Look, there’s a taxidermy dog over there, so there’s a taxidermy man here. Taxidermy dog, taxidermy man.” Taxidermy man?
The second time I performed this piece, I positioned myself in such a way where I could see the visitors reading the didactic panel on the wall. They would read the panel, look at me, see that I was staring at them blankly, and hurry away. It was great fun, until this heartbreaking scene: a small girl, about 5 or 6, tugged on her father’s sleeve while he was reading the didactic panel. She said, “Daddy, that’s a real man on the floor.” He said, “You know what’s interesting, Honey? He looks like a real man, but he’s actually a statue.” “No,” she said sternly, “He’s breathing and he’s staring at me. He’s a real man.” Daddy replied, “Yes, Honey, he does look very real.” He took her hand and led her away.
Also interesting is the feeling I had after I was done with the piece. My mind was in a thick cloud. My body, bruised and stiff from the cold gallery floor, was lethargic and uncoordinated. I had to sit and stare for quite some time before I was ready to talk to anyone. I honestly did not think this piece would affect me at all. My experience and the reactions I witnessed to Body as a Sphere were pretty unexpected. I must admit that. It’s just as well, because in a fight with Bruce Nauman, I would probably go down. I could take a big piece of him down with me, though.