Confining participation. Installation art of Bruce Nauman between 1969 – 1974

What is art without audience? What is the role of the beholder in the realisation of an art work? A book exists without the reader, as the object called by the name, but the substance that constitutes it, that makes it that special something that you call  ‘a book’ has to be processed by a conscious mind. Or: a story is told, but who exactly is telling it? The voice that sounds in your head when you read the story, is it the voice of the author? Or is it rather that the words are sourced by the author and the sounds you hear consist of your own voice?

What does it mean when you posit: ‘the spectator, the public, has an indispensable role  in the making, in finishing the art work by re/creating it in its mind via experiencing it? 

There is a range of possible answers. The answers a lot of artists started to give in the 1960’s investigated the question anew following up to the ideas and manifestations of conceptualist and minimalist art. Conceptualist and minimalist art demand active reflection and contemplation from their spectators, but do so in a rather cool and detached way. The art often functions as a kind of silent object that by its obstruction to easy narrative or meaningful interpretation, forces the intrigued spectator to engage and investigate possible interpretation via reflection on its effects on the spectator themselves. As (arbitrarily chosen) example may serve the work of Soll LeWitt, see fig. 1 for one of his wall drawings.
Fig. 1.  Wall drawing, Soll LeWitt
Source:] The black-and-white pattern with different stripe orientations in varying quadrangular geometric figures disorients the sense of space, in spite of its obvious being very much on the surface via the gaudy zebra-ish kindergarten bold type of striping.

The 1960’s saw the idea of the involvement of the audience taken to a next new stage: that of performing a role in making the art work happen, coined participation art.

This idea of participation can dualistically be approached from two sides, in analogy with how you would take it to be an inhabitant of the Panopticon of Jeremy Bentham[1]. Will the situation you find yourself submitted to secure you with more controls and options, of will you ultimately find yourself even more surrendered and at the mercy of others?

In the installations Bruce Naumann built between 1969 and 1974, the artist leaves no doubt as to what the role of the participating audience is to his art: a subjugated subject, that by its presence and actions and self conscious processing, puts the art workings in motion along a narrowly defined path. No escape. As he says: ‘I mistrust audience participation. That’s why I try to make these works as limiting as possible’[2]. And: ‘I don’t like to leave things open so that people feel that they are in a situation they can play games with’[3].

Janet Kraynak puts it this way: ‘In the process (of taking in the art work) the viewer becomes almost an object – a sculptural element – while external space itself seems to assume agency’[4]. The structure is the actor, the active viewer its object.

Because of the important aspect of the bodily encounter with the installation, of moving in the structure it provides, a picture of an installation can give only a shallow impression. I’ll therefore give two examples, that together can constitute a reasonable illustration to this point. The ‘external space’ assuming agency of Kraynak, can best be illustrated by the installation Going Around the Corner Piece (fig 2). It consists of a white cube the size of a small room. On the four outer corner video camera’s are hung. They surveil the walls , the footage is shown, with a short time delay, on four monitors placed round the corners. There is no entry point to the room. The visitor can only walk around it, and will find that on each monitor she encounters she will be confronted with a glimpse of herself, probably her back, as she turns around the corner. The space that the visitor moves in, as she circles around, is in a way external to the piece. But the visitor is included, is part of the installation, and made an object by it.

The kind of confining experience Nauman’s installations have in store for the visitor can be made visible by Double Steel Cage Piece, see fig. 3. It consists of a steel fenced cage within a cage.  The visitor is invited to enter but can only move sideways round in the narrow space between the two fences. It seems a precarious position, confined and exposed at the same time.

De bronafbeelding bekijken
Fig. 2.  Bruce Nauman. Going Around the Corner Piece. 1970
Source:  (accessed 24-5-2020)
De bronafbeelding bekijken
Fig. 3. Bruce Nauman. Double Steel Cage Piece. 1974
Source:  (accessed 24-5-2020)

[1] Thought out as a cost-cutting moral reform of prison institutions, maximizing the happiness of all involved, the architecture was designed to let all prisoners have fresh air and light and private cells (as opposed to dark and closed multiple inhabitant cells), and constitute a safe environment for all as the central overview position of the guards optimised surveillance (one guard could see all, always).

[2] Janet Kraynak, ‘Dependent Participation: Bruce Nauman’s environments’, Grey Room 10 (MIT Massachusetts, 2003), 23-45, p. 26.

[3] Kraynak, ‘Dependent Participation’, p. 26.

[4]  Ibid., p. 24.

Type je zoekwoorden hierboven en druk op Enter om te zoeken. Druk ESC om te annuleren.

Terug naar boven