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Plenty of Future

When the portable video camera came onto the market in 1967, artists such as Nam June Paik, Richard Serra, Vito Acconcia and Bruce Nauman immediately grasped the possibilities of this new technical medium: video gave them an uncomplicated way to produce images with a direct connection to reality. Bruce Nauman expanded the image and projection potential of video technology into comprehensive installations, some including objects and sculptures. Uwe M. Schneede describes the beginnings of video art and recalls his first encounters with the American artist.

Video Corridor for San Francisco (Come Piece), 1969, (92.4169)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Panza Collection, Schenkung, 1992
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003

When Bruce Nauman's works first began appearing in Europe in the late sixties and throughout the seventies – in Konrad Fischer's Düsseldorf gallery, for example – they posed a riddle for the viewer. Each individual work had something unique, striking, radical, but how did a sculpture made of neon letters, a floor installation made of iron, wax imprints of knees, plans for corridors and peculiar latex forms on the wall come together to make a whole? They could have been the work of completely different artists. Where was the center, or the tendency, or even: the author, the artist? And at some point the videos were discovered, the artist's obscure gymnastic exercises in an otherwise bare room. What was the meaning of it all?

Now, I must add: anyone who followed the avant-garde events of the time, such as the presentation of international galleries at the Cologne art market or at the "Prospekt" series (founded 1968) at the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle, was constantly confronted with riddles. It was a time of new beginnings and the artistic discovery of virgin territory. A wing sewn into felt by Joseph Beuys, a clay igloo by Mario Merz, striped wallpaper by Daniel Buren, a heap of ashes by Reiner Ruthenbeck, a room full of dirt by Walter De Maria, a chocolate-coated garden gnome by Dieter Roth, a car embedded in cement by Wolf Vostell – at first glance, none of this had anything to do with art in the usual sense of the word. Very exciting, though, even if you didn't quite understand it.

The "departure from the picture", as Laszlo Glozer later called it, was in full swing. A strange artistic language of the material had to be learned. Departures and new beginnings. You were swept away, becoming part of the adventure, and your curiosity grew and grew.

In certain cases the artist's presence was an aid to understanding. For instance, Beuys' works were made accessible to some extent by his performances, by his impressive actions in the sixties and his public speeches in the seventies. But Bruce Nauman, a generation younger than Beuys, always remained distant as a person, offering no further assistance. Once, two decades later, I met him and found him exactly as reserved, indeed shy, as he has often been described. A quiet, pleasant American from the Southwest in a rancher's outfit – and then his grand, often aggressive, even grotesque, but always radical works! One more riddle.

Lighted Center Piece, 1967-68, (92.4161)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Panza Collection
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003

Today, now that we have a better perspective on Nauman's oeuvre and concomitant artistic developments, we know a bit more. At the end of the nineties, exhibition curators and directors of contemporary art museums from around the world came together to reflect on the artists of the 21st century. There were many things they disagreed about, but there was one point of absolute consensus, among young and old alike: the artist of the dawning century was Bruce Nauman.

Why? Ever since the sixties – and in ever-new ways – he has captured our time and its problems as no one else has, through constant experimentation with forms, media, thoughts and feelings, in a way that is often startlingly simple, but also consciously artless, with no beating around the bush. At this same time, his work is far from being exhaustively explored and still has plenty of future.

Though Bruce Nauman moves in all artistic genres (apart from painting), there is one medium which he has used and ultimately influenced as no one else has: the video image on the monitor and, later on in the nineties, when the technology came into existence, the video projection and its complex, room-filling derivation, the video installation.

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