LONDON — It’s not every day that a curator ventures an entirely new interpretation of a body of work as central as Bruce Nauman’s. But New York and Buenos Aires-based curator Philip Larratt-Smith has done exactly that in his new London show “mindfuck,” which looks at some of the American giant’s key pieces, such as “Carousel” (1988) and “Sex and Death/Double ’69’” (1985), through a psychological lens.
“My point of departure was the mind/body split in Nauman’s work,” Larratt-Smith told ARTINFO UK. “It struck me as very strange that up until now no one has really written about it. Generally speaking, the emphasis has been on the empirical, the conceptual, which really reflects the moment in which Nauman emerged in the 1960s, when there was a turn away from Freudian psychoanalysis and towards behaviourism.”
In the catalogue for the exhibition, which opens tonight at Hauser & Wirth, Larratt-Smith has compares the experience of some of Nauman’s pieces to “a state of trauma.” “[Trauma] produces a state of uncertainty and doubt, which in itself can be a very fertile way of dislocating us from our normal way of looking at the world and can open up new perceptions of reality, but there’s also something dangerous about it,” he explained.
“Nauman’s work has this quality because it deliberately manipulates our perceptions in order to replicate or approximate these states,” he added. “That’s where the title comes from, ‘mindfuck,’ because to some extent Nauman is fucking with our minds in order to enable us to experience things that we normally wouldn’t experience.”
One of the most (literally) disorientating pieces on display is “Untitled (Helman Gallery Parallelogram)” (1971), a free-standing structure one can only access through two green-lit, tightly narrowing corridors. “He treats us like guinea pigs,” says Larratt-Smith. “We are meant to walk through this claustrophobic environment and have a perceptual experience that he’s totally choreographed.”
“Untitled (Helman Gallery Parallelogram)” and “Carousel,” with its animal casts dragged on the floor, crystallize for the curator the “mind/body split” at play in Nauman’s production — the latter piece also exemplifying another “repressed” aspect of the artist’s work, namely its symbolic quality. “There’s a dimension of fear and horror in the contemplation [of “Carousel”] because it has a symbolic relation to the human condition,” says Larratt-Smith. “The carousel is a powerful metaphor for a distressed, degraded, and almost hopeless human condition. We see ourselves in these tragic part-objects that are forced to continue dragging around in a circle.”
As with most of his commercial gallery shows, Nauman himself didn’t get involved with the project, which was devised by Larratt-Smith and Hauser & Wirth, in collaboration with the artist’s New York dealer Sperone Westwater. “I’m not sure how engaged he is with the reception of his work,” muses the curator. “I’d be very curious to know what he thinks of it.”