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Nauman’s “Clown Torture”

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2620335218_fd00c56e75One of the wonderful things about installations with sound is that they call to you from across the gallery.  They demand your attention.  In the Art Institute’s new modern wing, manic screams from Bruce Nauman’s “Clown Torture” beckon tourists and art students away from whichever minimalist painting they may be contemplating, toward a dark room.  If they are brave enough to enter, they find themselves in the midst of a neurotic carnival of sight and sound.

 Two stacks of monitors sit against the far wall and large projections are on the walls on either side.  One of the monitors is upside-down, another on its side, giving a disorienting, funhouse feeling.  In one, a clown dances around.  In another, which is on a tight loop, he walks into a room, shrieking when a bucket of water is dumped on his head upon opening the door. The other two videos show clowns trying balance objects – goldfish bowls and more buckets of water – with little success.  In the projection on the right, he spouts off an elliptical story, “Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence.  Pete fell off.  Who was left? Repeat.”  He repeats the story with various moods and facial expressions, as if trying to make the story end by telling it in a different voice.  The projection on the opposite wall voyeuristically and comparatively placidly shows the clown sitting on a toilet, reading a newspaper, as if seen through the lens of a surveillance camera.

 As much of Nauman’s work does, “Clown Torture” speaks to our neurosis, the insomniac moments at four in the morning when we cannot sleep due to stress and too much coffee. The caked makeup on the clown’s face and his clowny overacting imply a sense of artifice.  We are reminded of the Guantanamo torture scandals, though the piece was made over a decade prior.  The work speaks of apathy by making the viewer a self-conscious participant.  Are we amused, disgusted, or just there for the spectacle?  Do we enjoy watching others suffer? The dark room in which “Clown Torture” is installed is not a pleasant place, yet most of us are compelled to linger and see if the patterns of yells and crashes are ever broken.  Some of us laugh, some grimace, most of us nervously smile while we look around the room to gage other’s reactions.  Nauman cunningly makes us participants in this bizarre spectacle, whether we like it or not.

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Written by Kelly Reaves

October 25, 2009 at 10:36 pm

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