Bruce Nauman: ‘Artist Rooms On Tour’, at York St. Mary’s

By Emily Watkins

Bruce Nauman
York St Marys
July 26 – November 10 2013

York St. Mary’s is a contemporary gallery housed in a medieval church and I paid a quick visit to this show en-route to Whitby. It was a real treat to encounter an artist I like so much in  such a beautiful and dramatic space.

The exhibition was a selective retrospective of Nauman’s work, focusing largely on his use of light and text. Over the course of his 30 year career Nauman has explored both the use of language and methods of communication.

Bruce Nauman, La Brea/Art Tips/Rat Spit/Tar Pits, 1972
Bruce Nauman, La Brea/Art Tips/Rat Spit/Tar Pits, 1972, © 2013 Bruce Nauman/ Artist Rights Society (ARS) , New York and DACS London.

Frequently working in neon, (as well as sculpture and film) Nauman plays with language by pairing words with similar sounds and different meanings in light sculptures.

Nauman’s seminal video work “Good, boy, Bad boy‘ was also included, a piece composed of two video monitors which feature separate individuals uttering conflicting statements at the camera. As the subjects’ speeches are presented separately, they appear disconnected aiming their statements at the audience– rather than at each other.

Other works by Nauman explore language through hand gestures and body language. And the show selects a handful of them that fit into each of these categories.

This all adds to the creation of a general overview of Nauman’s work, which would be an excellent introduction for those not already familiar with the artist. However, for those who are aware of Nauman, this show adds a certain something to the work because its setting is very different to the usual white cube galleries. An exciting dialogue was created between the pieces and the medieval church space which allowed the viewer to see Nauman’s sculpture in a new light.

The dialogue between the work and the space was one of the strongest parts of the show and extremely successful. It was used to great effect with the siting of ‘Violins, Violence, Science’ which was arranged so that it filled a large church window at the front of the space, allowing its neon lights to echo the absent stained glass and the architecture.

Violins Violence Silence, 1981-2
Violins Violence Silence, 1981-2 © ARS, NY and DACS London 2013

Adjacent to this was “Untitled Hand Circle” which in this setting seemed reminiscent of a crown of thorns. In a religious setting, the work became loaded with new meanings, influenced not only by the art work but also be the viewers experience of similar spaces.

Another piece, ‘Partial Truth’  blended into the space so well it would have been easy to miss it– a granite sculpture placed on the floor next to an existing grave. The piece both questioned truth (by playing with the concept of something being set in stone) but also bridged the gap between modernity (text based art) and traditional craft (stone carving).

For me as a viewer experiencing Nauman’s work in this different setting had a dramatic effect on me, perhaps a more personal one that the cold confines of a gallery. I was led to consider my own human interactions; (particularly ‘Good boy, Bad boy’) contemplating how often when in a heated conversation with someone, I might be speaking ‘at’ them, not ‘to’ them. The show also pushed me to consider not only the choices we make in the words that we use, but also the importance of gesture in communication.

Nauman’s work shows him to be a great observer of people. Experiencing the work in this setting added a spiritual dimension to it. It made made me consider the role of spirituality and religion in our culture, and what encourages us to act and communicate in certain ways. Whether for example, making the judgement that someone is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or even the tendency to allow rituals to build up within our every day life. Placing contemporary art in a religious building can remind us that art can inspire contemplation, whether it’s our own existence– or even our role in society.

A version of this review first appeared on and is reproduced here with kind permission.

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