“Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts” at Schaulager Basel

Eerie, irreverent and at times uncomfortable, a career-spanning exhibition on the artist

“Get out of my mind, get out of this room,” Bruce Nauman’s recorded voice quietly, maddeningly implores over and over again. These words also function as the name of Nauman’s piece which is nothing more than a room, the aforementioned recording and a flickering lightbulb. It’s deeply unsettling and powerful—a restrained explosion of solitude. This installation is one of 170 pieces from Nauman’s extraordinary catalogue on display now in Basel, Switzerland’s Schaulager. Spanning five decades worth of creation, “Disappearing Acts” features artworks both iconic and obscure, large-scale and intangible. Video work gets tucked in rooms beside sculpture. Paintings hang beside photography. A sense of the perverse underscores true, joyful exploration of craft and form. Organized by the Laurenz Foundation in collaboration with The Museum of Modern Art, New York (where it will appear next at PS1), the exhibition captures everything one needs to understand Nauman’s complex vision.

Curator Kathy Halbreich was no stranger to assembling Nauman’s work. In fact, she co-curated his last major retrospective 25 years ago. As she explains of this curation, “What surprised—really sideswiped—me was a pattern that presented a slightly oxymoronic alternative to the prevailing narrative: the manifold appearances of disappearance in his work actually offer a continuous thread of emotional, intellectual, and formal attentiveness that began when Nauman was a graduate student and continues to this day.” Across medium and material, the idea of disappearance and emergence is pinned. On a grander scale, visitors themselves disappear within the space, twisting around corners and off-shoots and alleys of art. It’s disorienting by choice.

Nauman’s work also has a way of winning over critics of specific types of art. Contemporary light art, crafted from neon tubes of glowing gas, really feels like a novelty item than museum-quality work—in most instances. Nauman doesn’t cater to the craft, he bends it to his will. The same can be said of works involving words, today often appearing cliched or sassy or simply trashy. Nauman overwhelms, contradicts and distorts. It’s for these reasons and more that his pieces have become icons, replicated time and again.

And with all the treats for one’s eyes, the exhibition also plays upon one’s ears. Whether it’s the horrific laughter of a clown in the four-channel video installation “Clown Torture” (1987) or the pounding of water inside of “Venice Fountains” (2007), there’s captivating binaural stimulation. A true standout, “Contrapposto Studies, i through vii” (2015/16) unites seven simultaneous video projections, chopped in half, working for and against one another. It’s great victory lies in the fact that it feels tame in a retrospective that genuinely shocks—but spending real time with the work sends a shiver up the spine for its exquisite splice of the human form.

“Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts” runs now through 26 August at Schaulager, before transferring to NYC’s MoMA PS1.

Installation images courtesy of Schaulager, all other images © Bruce Nauman and courtesy of respective galleries