• People
  • Jun 25, 2024

Sound, Body, Studio: Pi Li on Bruce Nauman

Installation views of BRUCE NAUMAN’s The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), 1967, neon tubing with clear glass tubing suspension frame, 149.9 × 139.7 × 5.1 cm, in "Bruce Nauman" at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, 2024. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary.

“The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths,” reads a spiraling neon sign mounted in the glass-fronted lobby of Tai Kwun Contemporary in Hong Kong. The eponymous 1967 artwork by Bruce Nauman opened the first solo survey of the pioneering American artist in the city. Featuring 35 artworks from across six decades of his practice, the exhibition is co-curated by Carlos Basualdo, deputy director and chief curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Caroline Bourgeois, chief curator at the Pinault Collection; and Pi Li, head of art at Tai Kwun, and builds on the exhibition “Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies” presented by the Pinault Collection at Palazzo Grassi and Punta Della Dogana  in Venice in 2021–22. In this conversation, Pi Li reveals more about the ambitions for the exhibition as well as why the co-curators chose particular works by Nauman in order to trace his distinct innovations in conceptual art as well as his relationship to performance and video artists in Asia.

Portrait of PI LI, head of art at Tai Kwun Contemporary and co-curator of the Bruce Nauman survey. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary.

Alex Yiu: What made you decide to bring Bruce Nauman to Hong Kong?

Pi Li: Holding an exhibition of Bruce Nauman’s works is quite challenging because it differs from the previous exhibitions in Tai Kwun, such as the solo exhibitions by Takashi Murakami, Pipilotti Rist, and Patricia Piccinini, whose works are visually compelling. This exhibition, however, is more conceptual and visually minimal, so I am curious how the local audience will respond.

Bruce Nauman is as important as Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp in Western art history. He introduced conceptual art into modern art and later reintroduced various media, such as sound and performance, back into conceptual art, making it more interesting. This exhibition allows the audience in Hong Kong to survey the origin of contemporary art through Nauman’s works.

Moreover, in parallel to Nauman, we can understand the artists in our region from another perspective, such as Ellen Pau, Samson Young, Zhang Peili, and Paul Pfeiffer. That’s why we decided to bring to Hong Kong this exhibition that cannot be seen elsewhere.

Installation view of (left to right) BRUCE NAUMAN’s Having Fun/Good Life — Symptom, 1984, graphite, acrylic, and collage on three sheets of paper, 174 × 332.7 cm; Violins + Silence = Violence, 1981, graphite, charcoal, and pastel on paper, 134 × 154.3 cm; Caned Dance, 1973, graphite and presstype on paper, 19.7 × 20.6 cm, in "Bruce Nauman" at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, 2024. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary.

Some of the artworks in this exhibition were shown in a retrospective organized in Basel [“Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts” at the Schaulager] and at the Museum of Modern Art and PS1 in New York  in 2018 and 2019. Why did you decide to bring these particular works to Asia? In this context of Hong Kong, what is the role of this survey?

I worked with Carlos Basualdo, chief curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who was previously the curator of the US Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale, where their exhibition of Nauman’s works [“Topological Gardens”] won the Golden Lion, and Caroline Bourgeois, curator of the Pinault Collection, which has commissioned and collected Nauman’s works. The exhibition originated from the joint commission of Contrapposto Studies (2015/16) by the Pinault Collection and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. During the pandemic, I was inspired by the exhibition in Venice and decided to bring a survey of Nauman to Hong Kong. The exhibition differs from the retrospective organized by the Schaulager and MoMA.

Since many works were created for specific sites, we must consider their relationship with the space of Tai Kwun Contemporary and Hong Kong. There is a big difference between the earlier Pinault Collection exhibition and this one. In addition to Contrapposto, we added extra artworks, including neon light installations. Our biggest alteration is to include the 21-channel sound installation Raw Materials (2004) from the collection of Tate Modern.

What is your unique perspectives on Nauman’s practice that you wanted to emphasize in co-curating this exhibition?

One chapter of my doctoral thesis was about Bruce Nauman. He is an artist who defies categorization, incorporating elements of semiotics, conceptual art, Fluxus, and minimalism. His two key themes are repetition and the exploration of mundane ugliness, which frequently feature in his works.

He repeatedly performs daily actions and extends their duration, causing the meaning of the actions to change. This was very innovative at the time. He and Nam June Paik started making video art almost at the same time [in the 1960s], but their styles diverged. Nauman’s works have interesting confluences with many Asian artists, such as Zhang Peili and Li Yongbin from China, both of whose works are currently exhibited at M+.

These relationships are very interesting because the contemporary art my generation first encountered in China was video art. Although this art form can be dull, it has profound meanings. Nauman’s works showcase the cruel and ugly aspects of life. One of my favorite works is Walking a Line (2019). This work reminds me of the image of Jesus’s passion and displays the pain in life.

Installation view of (left to right) BRUCE NAUMAN’s Bouncing in the Corner, No. 1, 1968, video (black and white, sound) displayed on 20-inch CRT monitor on pedestal: 60 min; Walk with Contrapposto, 1968, video (black and white, sound) displayed on 20-inch CRT monitor on pedestal: 60 min, in "Bruce Nauman" at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, 2024. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary.

Can you talk about how you presented Bruce Nauman’s works from the 1960s onwards in this exhibition?

We discussed it many times, and finally, with Carlos, we decided to make the first exhibition hall particularly lively by putting all of his performance works starting from the ’60s at the front, such as Walk with Contrapposto (1968), Bouncing in the Corner, No. 1 (1968), and Lip Sync (1969). Clown Torture (I’m Sorry and No, No, No) (1987) and Washing Hands Normal (1996) are also included there. Our idea was to turn this exhibition hall into a space filled with noise—full of sounds from everyday life, including screaming, collisions, the washing of hands, and various strange sound effects—creating a chaotic, symphony-like atmosphere. This cacophony contrasts starkly with works like Walking a Line, which features a highly symmetrical video aspect with minimal sounds. Furthermore, as you walk towards the 3 Heads Fountain (Juliet, Andrew, Rinde) (2005), the ambiance shifts abruptly to almost silence. The fluctuating soundscape between exhibition halls is our focal point.

Installation view of BRUCE NAUMAN’s 3 Heads Foundation (Juliet, Andrew, Rinde), 2005, epoxy resin, fibreglass, wire, plastic tubes, water pump, wood basin, and rubber pond liner, 365.8 × 213.4 × 243.8 cm in "Bruce Nauman" at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, 2024. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary.

Entering the exhibition from Tai Kwun’s Prison Yard into the gallery, the audience will realize that the character of the sound installation Raw Materials is very similar to Hong Kong because the space in Hong Kong is very narrow, and the sound constantly echoes, making people feel very compressed. The character of this rendition of Raw Materials has also changed from a horizontal expression from its original setting to a vertical one, which is very much in line with the spatial characteristics of Hong Kong. The sense of distance through sound has also become closer, and this intimacy and oppressiveness make the work more vivid. This made us rethink the core concept of the exhibition as sound.

The second keyword is: studio. This exhibition reconstructs Nauman’s studio concept, where many of his early performance art pieces were completed in the studio, including Walking with Contrapposto and Bouncing in the Corner, No. 1. These works show his state while working and were often completed alone. The concept of the studio is well embodied in this exhibition.

The third keyword is: body. Nauman’s works often involve the concept of the body, whether it is the actual body or the absence of the body. We showcase three of his large-scale sculptural works closely related to the body. The entire exhibition can be seen as an investigation covering the three main elements of Contrapposto: the studio, sound, and body.

Installation view of (left to right) BRUCE NAUMAN’s Contrapposto Studies, I through VII (III, IV, V, VI, VII), 2015/16, seven-channel video (color, sound, continuous duration); III: 62 mins, IV: 7 mins 5 sec, V: 63 min 21 sec, VI: 7 min 5 sec, VII: 62 min 19 sec, in "Bruce Nauman" at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, 2024. Photo by Jimmy Ho. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary.

Rather than show more of his large-scale installations, the exhibition’s focus is on the video installations of Contrapposto Studies.  How did you make those choices and strike a balance between physical, projected, and sound works?

If we want to display the Contrapposto Studies works according to his requirements, they need to be life-size, like a real person. Contrapposto Studies, I through VII (III, IV, V, VI, VII) has two stacked screens. The bottom of the screens needs to be raised from the floor, and allow for the audience to walk between the screens. Due to their sheer size and these requirements, they can only be displayed on the third floor of Tai Kwun Contemporary—they can’t even fit on the first floor, so we had to carefully consider the space’s limitations when deciding which works to display.

Installation view of BRUCE NAUMAN’s Animal Pyramid, 1989, polyurethane foam, threaded rods, wire, paint, hot glue, and hardware, 365.8 × 213.4 × 243.8 cm, at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, 2024. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary.

Installation view of BRUCE NAUMAN’s South America Circle, 1981, steel, cast iron, and wire cable, 91.4 × 43.4 × 43.4 cm (chair); 12.7 × 426.7 × 426.7 cm (ring), in "Bruce Nauman" at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, 2024. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary.

Why were these three installations, Animal Pyramid (1989), South America Circle (1981), and 3 Heads Fountain (Juliet, Andrew, Rinde) (2005), chosen for the exhibition?

First, while his Animal Pyramid is one of his most famous works, all three are his most representative sculptures. There are several versions of South America Circle, but this version is the most iconic one. When we exhibited Animal Pyramid, Hong Kong artist Kurt Chan was pleasantly surprised to see the original work during a visit. Lastly, 3 Heads Fountain has always been a subject he focuses on.

Secondly, these three works imply an exploration of the body and violence. One is the animal body, the second represents the artist’s body and self-harm, and the third is about the absence of the body, expressing political corruption and violence. So, the entire exhibition hall is exploring the body and systemic violence.

BRUCE NAUMAN, Raw War, 1970, neon tubing with clear glass tubing suspension frame, 46  x 63 cm. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary.

I read that Nauman is very precise about exhibition requirements, and many details need to be carefully considered. How do you communicate with him in organizing the survey?

We mainly communicated with his studio. First, all decisions about whether an exhibition will take place need to be approved by the studio. They will select the works and determine the list of works. Then, once the overall layout model and renderings of the exhibition are completed, they also need to be reviewed by them. Then, strict requirements are followed for specific details, such as the placement of video works and the position of speakers. For example, for Raw Materials, Nauman requested that the speakers be directional and that the sound comes at ear level.

In addition, they have specific requirements for installing neon works, such as: the height of Raw War (1970–72), which must be consistent with other works that are positioned higher than elsewhere. Nauman thinks very meticulously, including about the height and size of displays in each exhibition, and he has his own considerations and reasons. So, in this regard, he shares much in common with minimalist artists.

We fully adhere to their requirements and secure their consent for all the work. These meticulous requirements make the entire exhibition more consistent and complete.

Additional views of Contrapposto Studies, I through VII. Photos by Jimmy Ho.

After seeing the exhibition, especially his video works from the 1960s, I noticed that he was influenced by many of his contemporaries, particularly in music, like the works of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Post-1980s, he seems to show more inspiration from theater, such as Samuel Beckett and the “Theater of theAbsurd,” where characters repeat the same lines, rendering this state both significant and nonsensical. Then, I sense a return to music in Contrapposto Studies.

You are right. Another source is modern dancers and choreographers, such Merce Cunningham. Then there is [Ludwig] Wittgenstein (1889–1951), a very important thinker for artists in that era, who believed language is not a completely transparent communication tool and has many mis-readings; he saw language as a game, which evidently Nauman does as well.

Installation view of (left to right) BRUCE NAUMAN’s Contrapposto Studies, I through VII (III, IV, V, VI, VII), 2015/16, seven-channel video (color, sound, continuous duration); III: 62 mins, IV: 7 mins 5 sec, V: 63 min 21 sec, VI: 7 min 5 sec, VII: 62 min 19 sec, in "Bruce Nauman" at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, 2024. Photo by Jimmy Ho. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary.

In Contrapposto Studies, Nauman uses the serial forms of music composition techniques to take a simple movement or image and interweave it repeatedly. He divides the movement of the video into several parts, cuts it in the middle, then reverses it, and these two parts are played synchronously or asynchronously many times. This reflects a musical background, although the context is not always given.

I see it this way, too. Yes, like turning a theme into a counterpoint, extending an action into a long whole. Also, this exhibition’s most difficult part is to explain the framework behind Contrapposto Studies, as the entire work is linked to musical form from the chapters I to VII, showing his interest in music that started with John Cage in the early days. The details you mentioned are visible to only a few people, making them arduous to explain. It is very intricate. Instead, we wrote the exhibition wall text concisely because we wanted our audience, including children under 12, to comprehend it.

How do you perceive Nauman’s influence on artists from Asia?

It’s not necessarily an influence. Sometimes, two people pay attention to the same things in parallel. If we were to interview Zhang Peili, he would tell you that he didn’t see Bruce Nauman’s work until the 1990s. When Zhang Peili made his first video work, 30 x 30 (1988), he shattered pieces of glass, repaired them, and then shattered them again. After completing this piece, someone told him his work resembled Nauman’s. However, in reality, at the time Zhang did not have the chance to view Nauman’s work because he couldn’t leave China until the 1990s. Yet both of their practices have a level of resemblance. These similarities include the repetition of daily actions; dual or multiple cameras shooting a month of daily life, all of which make the audience feel bored, through these repetitive and irrational actions. Zhang asks, why would two artists with completely different educational and artistic backgrounds, living in two separate countries, arrive at this place at the same time? This question is very interesting and is the kind of thought we hope to provoke with this exhibition.

Bruce Nauman is on view at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong, until August 18, 2024.

Alex Yiu is ArtAsiaPacific’s associate editor.

Subscribe to ArtAsiaPacific’s free weekly newsletter with all the latest news, reviews, and perspectives, directly to your inbox each Monday.

Related Articles