Wild Kingdom


Bruce Nauman is so good he can make art in his sleep. At least that’s what he seems to have done in Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), his poetically literal, epically contemplative video installation at Dia.

The piece was made at night, while Nauman presumably slept. But before turning in (or getting out of the room), he outfitted his New Mexico studio with microphones and seven surveillance cameras loaded with infrared tape. This apparatus recorded the events of the evening—in this case, the ambient sounds and nocturnal activities of a bevy of animals, domesticated and not.

In the darkened, otherwise empty space at Dia, you can scoot around on wheeled chairs, surrounded by seven large, hazy projections of the studio from different angles. We see remnants of older sculptures lying around—casts of heads and taxidermy forms. The effect is eerie and exciting—like spying, or uncovering someone’s hideout, or arriving way too early for a visit.

Initially, nothing appears to be happening. The action, however, is nonstop. The studio is a veritable wild kingdom. Mice scurry about. A cat rambles in, tries hunting, gets distracted, and saunters out. Moths flit through like effervescent Tinkerbells. A lizard perches on a window screen. You can hear horses quietly snorting in a nearby corral, a coyote’s cry, train whistles, thunder, rain, flies, and “things that go bump in the night.” Nauman walks through, probably checking up to see if things are going smoothly. Objects suddenly flip from floor to wall or disappear altogether—telling you these tapes were made over a period of time. The results are mesmerizing, mysterious, absurd, and profound. I was riveted by this five-hour-and-45-minute floor show—this rural version of Warhol’s Sleep.

Mapping asks fundamental questions, like “What happens when I’m not here?” and “Where does my art come from?” It’s equal parts paranoid fantasy, philosophical inquiry, scientific experiment, haunted-house story, nature film, and self-parody. I remember a film of a cartoonist who dozes off while at work. He spills some ink, out of which emerge creatures who make an animated cartoon of their own. These creatures, of course, are descended from all the helpful or mischievous after-hours gremlins and elves who populate fairy tales.

A log, recording the video’s sights and sounds, is posted in the anteroom to the installation. It’s a comically entertaining control freak’s dream, and could pass for the score for John Cage’s famous 4’33” or the obsessive notations of a basket case. Hundreds of flat-footed phrases like “Noise and moth,” “Cat lower center,” and “Bruce noise exit” describe the action and echo directives flashed by Nauman’s 1984 neon-sign piece, One Hundred Live and Die (e.g., “Eat and Live,” “Kiss and Die”). Mapping‘s aggressive subtitle, (Fat Chance John Cage), suggests that Nauman now sees randomness as less arbitrary and more interconnected. A twist on his 1967 neon spiral, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, Mapping implies that the world reveals truths to the artist. If Rauschenberg labored in “the gap between art and life,” then Nauman is lord of the one between the paranoid and the paranormal.

Mapping is evidence that Nauman is really cooking again. He’s back in the kitchen, by which I mean the studio. For 22 years, he has been out of the house, so to speak, and home on the range—living in New Mexico since 1979, and on his Galisteo ranch since 1989. In that time, he’s made art about hunting and skinning animals, taming horses, and setting fences. Much of this work is great. Some of it is arcane.

Mapping shows Nauman following a basic artistic homing instinct: returning to the studio, the site of some of his first triumphs. One need only review a bit of Nauman’s early career to see that good things happen when he makes art about making art or about being alone in the studio. He tried to levitate in the studio, arranged flour on the floor there, bounced balls, and—in his bid for art-world Minister of Silly Walks—videotaped himself pacing in an exaggerated manner around the room. These works get to the heart of what Nauman once said kept him in the studio: “the not-knowing part.”

Mapping takes that “not-knowing part” to new heights. It combines the urgency and eccentricity of the early inquiries with several other career-long tendencies. The most obvious of these is Nauman’s proclivity to work with animals—dead or alive. In the past, we’ve seen carp, deer, rats, horses, and, if you want to count them, balloon dogs being tied into knots by demented clowns. His other tendencies are just as pronounced. Among them is his obsession with surveillance and voyeurism. In Mapping, everyone is both a voyeur and under surveillance, which touches on his interest in violence. Here, the cat-and-mouse game is literal and metaphoric—although it’s never clear whether Nauman’s the cat and we’re the mouse, or vice versa. Finally, there is his shamanistic feel for negative or empty space. Previously, Nauman made casts of the space beneath his chair, neon templates to fit his absent body, and an outdoor sculpture titled Room With My Soul Left Out. Here, the emptiness is as absorbing as it is soulful. Not only does Mapping combine all of Nauman’s tendencies, but it also brings you to the very heart of the creative process.