Is sound a substance? It’s a simple but provocative question that Bruce Nauman convincingly answers in the affirmative in his work. He has used sound as a sculptural material over the years to fill galleries and unconventional spaces, such as an elevator in this recent show, “For Children/For Beginners.” Following well-received exhibitions at the 2009 Venice Biennale and the Museum of Modern Art last year, both of which featured sound works with continuous loops of simple spoken words or numbers, Nauman presented four new pieces (all 2010) in this spare and elegant exhibition—one of the best installations I have seen in this unusual gallery space designed by Norman Foster.
Three of Nauman’s works combine video and audio components. Four Beginners (all the combinations of the thumb and fingers), the most dramatic piece here, consists of two video projections screened high on the soaring, narrow, two-story atrium wall. Each of the two images, one stacked above the other, shows a pair of hands in close-up. (The images correspond to a series of bronze casts of hands the artist produced in the mid-1990s.) In a continuous loop, the scene is confined to the action of the fingers and thumb opening and closing, as if indicating numbers or using sign language. The hands against a white background at the top are almost mirrored in the lower section, which has a dark background. Enveloped by the sound of the artist’s voice delivering simple instructions to direct the performers’ hand movements, the viewer would seem to be watching an instructional video. The random sequences of the hands, however, plus the hypnotic voice-over, serve mainly to heighten the visitor’s awareness of his or her own body and position in space.
In the smaller, second-floor gallery, Nauman is clearly engaged with the perception of space and its relationship to sound. Here, For Children fills the gallery with only the artist’s voice (emanating from hidden speakers) endlessly repeating the words “for children.” The only thing childlike about the piece, perhaps, is its ethereal simplicity; it implies a depth and complexity that reach far beyond its rudimentary means. Not least of these implications is how, in the new work, Nauman cannily sums up—if not resolves—many of his career-long pre-occupations with body art, performance, video, sculpture and installation.
Photo: View of Bruce Nauman’s video installation Four Beginners (all the combinations of the thumb and fingers), 2010; at Sperone Westwater. © Artists Rights Society, New York.