The Infinite Body: The Meaning of the Body in Bruce Nauman’s MAPPING THE STUDIO II

After the major lockdown, the coalition of personal and public spaces rapidly entered our lives as a "New Normal". In the middle of lockdown, private spaces, such as a living room or bedroom, are intentionally divided into working or social spaces based on the schedule. It is far different from how many sci-fi films and novels imagined it as an expanded human body or decentred space. The infinite inversion between public and personal spaces has been discussed and explored by many moving image artists concerning real-time technology. Accelerated technology gently invades daily. It atomises the individual body with radical capitalism by doubling up individuality in physical space and on the screen. Now, this old question of between the outside and inside is generated in a new context of how it is reconnecting multiple spaces as a new identity.

When television spread to households, Bruce Nauman immediately saw the advantage of using real-time televisual technology to show how it doubles reference both in the physical and on the monitor and creates a new identity in the postmodern era. In his early works, Audio-Video Underground Chamber (1972-74), he used an instant feedback device that allowed him to create an infinite loop video between the original reference and the mediated image on the screen. He recorded real-time footage of a fully sealed concrete chamber buried eight feet underground and placed the transmitted video in the gallery. In this way, the viewer is aware of eight feet under, the recreated chamber on the monitor with a new environment, and invisible negative space between those underneath and in the gallery. The general meaning of the negative space is a space between two figures that shows the distinct outline of two or multiple forms. This space is removed after it has finished its role. However, for Nauman, the negative space can be identified as the artist’s role, which can open the depth and determine the scale and location of aesthetic practice.

Nauman attempted further expansion in his later work by inverting three different spaces into a solid form: the artist’s studio, architectural space, and negative space. Especially MAPPING THE STUDIO II with colour shift, flip, flop & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage) (2001) displayed in the multiplied video screens covered all four walls of the gallery with different colours. This work not only physically violates the boundaries of the video frame but also generates an infinite expansion of the studio’s spacetime in the gallery. In the repeating visually different videos, he became both an invisible reference for artwork (studio) and a determinant behind artwork (projection). He believed artwork faces exhibition space either absorb the architecture into the piece or build his own architecture."[1] He explains in the interview with Michael Auping that his first idea was to let the animals create a space, the mice and the cat. The trace of the animals makes a new map of his studio.[2] The viewer can observe tracks and signs of the artist's existence in the empty studio as if they touch his visage.

Depicting the artist’s empty studio has been a long tradition in fine art as a self-portrait, with a number of varieties within this genre,[3] including occupied space, devoid of human presence, or depiction of personal possessions. The very absence of the artist in the studio painting posits different values on identity and autonomy than the artist depicts himself directly. Emptied room, personal belongings, and indirect indication of use connote the artist as an intimate connection between the physical studio and the displayed space. In this process, the artist’s body becomes an invisible negative structure that embraces both studio and gallery spaces. Simultaneously, the projected studio is alive by replacing its own author.[4]

Although his work is a prerecorded video, the studio is alive in the gallery. Nauman does not intend his architectural installations to be unique art objects, nor does he consider them bound to a particular site. Instead, they are approximations of a concept. Many of his artworks are closely related to the artist himself, one’s identity of being. Therefore, any of his installations is not the original but only the first instantiation of the work. MAPPING THE STUDIO II (2001) subverts the two spaces of studio and exhibition space as an early cinematic experience. As first Lumiére’s train film was screened, it gave viewers the sensation that it was trespassing the traditional frame into the theatre, Nauman’s work also transformed the borders of the filmed space and filming place. His practice of doubling a figure pushes us to see the possibility of negative space being a new identity and how we can rule or perform within it. Each trespass between two spaces in different places defines one specific moment of subjectivity. Thereby, it generates new boundaries between two spaces where the artist’s invisible figure is approximated to the negative space in the infinite expansion of the loop. A far richer and more nuanced gap between two identical spaces in one’s subjectivity hovers.

Nauman's work cannot be understood only within one genre, as human subjectivity can be identified in various ways depending on the contexts, situations, and self-identification. Nauman was concerned with the role of the artist. In an interview, Nauman explains his moral or ethical position in the artwork: "How do you append your life being an artist?"[5] and how his artworks point to what an artist is in different directions. He placed the artist's studio as a portrait of himself in the gallery and conjugated the framed artist's studio into the gallery's architectural space. By presenting the empty studio as a form of self-portraiture, he questions identity and subjectivity. With animals and artists’ traces, the studio on the screen becomes a living habitat for invisible subjects. At the same time, it transforms space into “the locus of a series of performative or discursive events.”[6] He interrupts the expansion of the space and traps it within his own body by making himself a rule. This reflective video not only delivers the consideration of the performance and the artist's body but also interrupts the continuous expansion of doubling through the sudden trespass of the artist's body.

Following the radical expansion of our society, the centre, our body, left behind our attention. I believe it is a crucial ethical question we should raise when an identity crisis is chasing us on social media and online meeting software. How should we rethink the new becoming of ourselves in perceptual space? What are the connections in this new space where we create infinite expansion between screens and videos in real life? Nauman’s video works approach the installation of space concerning the body as a negative space. He explored a new relationship between two physical and virtual spaces and how the human being bounds those spaces. In the post-pandemic era, our bodies are conceptually omnivorous within the physical and virtual worlds. Our individual “home” does not belong behind the scenes but is placed in front of the monitor to be connected to the outside, to virtual space as a "somewhere else". Therefore, Nauman’s work shows a new possibility of networking visual and behavioural bodies and the role of the human body as a negative space, which shapes a form between spaces.

[1]         Michael Auping (2011) ‘Stealth Architecture: The Rooms of Light and Space’, in R. Clark (ed.) Phenomenal: California light, space, surface. Pacific Standard Time (Exhibition), Berkeley: University of California Press : Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, p. 81.

[2]         Bruce Nauman and Michael Auping (2003) ‘Bruce Nauman Interview, 2001’, in J. Kraynak (ed.) Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words: Writings and Interviews. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, p. 398.

[3]         Rachel Esner (2011) ‘Presence in Absence The Empty Studio as Self-Portrait’, Zeitschrift für Ästhetik Und Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, 56(2), pp. 241–262.

[4]         Rachel Esner (2013) ‘Forms and Functions of the Studio from the Twentieth Century to Today’, in S. Kisters and A.-S. Lehmann (eds) Hiding Making, Showing Creation: The Studio from Turner to Tacita Dean. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, p. 132.

[5]         Bruce Nauman and Janet Kraynak (2003) Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words: Writings and Interviews. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, p. 376.

[6]         Eric De Bruyn (2013) ‘The Empty Studio: Bruce Nauman’s Studio Films’, in R. Esner, S. Kisters, and A.-S. Lehmann (eds) Hiding Making, Showing Creation: The Studio from Turner to Tacita Dean. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, p. 194.