Bruce Nauman. Driven Man, Driven Snow

Plug In #23
16/03/2007 - 28/05/2007

In this room, a number of cast iron blocks are spread across the floor in groups of three or four. Not everybody can instantly see whether they all...

It depends on where you are standing and your spatial awareness whether you discover that there are two different kinds immediately or only at second glance. One kind has a square top, the other a diamond shaped one. But because of the perspective distortion of the blocks that are farther away, it is difficult to determine
the actual shape from a distance. Both types of blocks have slanted sides and the opposing sides are always parallel to each other. The fact that not all blocks are facing the same direction easily creates the illusion that there are more than two different types. During the 1970s, Nauman created a number of works in which he used cubes of different sizes or cube-derived forms to create hall-filling installations. Because there are few differences in the sizes or shapes of the elements, visitors will start doubting their perception. Are they really different sizes, or is this an illusion created by the fact that some blocks are farther away? Do the blocks really have slanted sides or do we think they do as a result of perspective distortion? Nauman deliberately chooses shape combinations that create this kind of confusion.

Bruce Nauman is an artist who uses many different materials, techniques and media to give form to his ideas. In the sixties he carried out performances. Since 1965 he has been using neon, aluminium and wax as well as other materials to create his sculptures. He also creates drawings, photographs, videos, graphic art, holograms and books. Language has frequently been part of his works. Nauman regards his work as research into what can be regarded as art where physical experience and sensory perception play an important role. Nauman’s work is often playful, but it can also have a disturbing feel to it. He explores new roads and possibilities, but also points out limitations and the possibility of manipulation, like how the character of a work can be influenced by small changes. In the work ‘Eat/Death’ for instance, which consists of neon letters forming the word ‘death’, all five letters or just the three in the middle alternately light up.

The work ‘Driven Man, Driven Snow’ (1976) is more detached. It can be associated with minimal art, an art form that was developed in the 1960s. In minimal art, the basis of a work is a certain element that is repeated in a certain way or in a logical sequence. Human emotion has no part in it. The elements are usually industrially manufactured. They are aligned in such a way that they form a direct and defining relation with the space that surrounds them. Nauman uses similar principles here. However, he chooses not one, but two basic elements and, what is more, he arranges them in different ways. A certain system can be detected in the groups consisting of three elements, but the groups of four are not constructed according to the same principle. One can even wonder whether there is any system in these groups at all. ‘Driven Man, Driven Snow’ takes on the form of minimal art, as it were, but is – all things considered – no part of it. In a sense, it is even an assault on it. In addition to the work on the floor, a drawing is on view that provides information on how the elements should be aligned. The exhibition area must be rectangular and measure at least six by ten meters. The outermost component of each group must be a metre away from the wall. This implies that the distance between the groups depends on the size of the hall in which the work is exhibited and can vary every time the work is set up. The drawing acts as the work’s manual or concept. That is why ‘Driven Man, Driven Snow’ can also be regarded as an example of conceptual art.

Despite the fact that Nauman is clearly a representative of his time, his work cannot be pigeonholed. His oeuvre is whimsical and each individual work can be interpreted in different ways. In ‘Driven Man, Driven Snow’ you can try to figure out the system but will come to the conclusion that there is none. Or, at least, that there is no single, defining system. The lack thereof and the misleading shape of the components can cause the viewer to feel disoriented. But at the same time, the components are like stepping stones that give you footing on rough terrain. With this installation, Nauman offers the visitor structure and at the same time undermines it. The work’s title leaves room for interpretation. ‘Driven Man’ could point at the ‘inhuman’ character of the austere components or at the exclusion of human emotions in minimal art. But it could also point at the possibility of viewing the work as a route which determines a person’s course. ‘Driven Snow’ seems to allude to better times. When the snow has disappeared, the underlying ground reappears and one has a clear view once again, even though a layer of snow that covers everything has its charm and many will regret it when it has gone. Depending on your own disposition and insight, you will experience this work as simple or complicated, systematic or playful, structured or complex, rational or poetic.

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