THE IMAGE IN HIS MARK, 2021, should be familiar to observers of Bruce Nauman’s work: the artist’s disembodied hands performing a mechanical task. We have encountered it in several multichannel-video installations over the past twelve years, including For Beginners (all the combinations of thumb and fingers), 2010, in which each hand individually demonstrates finger positions for the performance of a series of piano exercises by Béla Bartók, and Thumb Start, 2013, with fingers, now on both hands at once, extended in combinations that represent a set of basic counting procedures. In turn, these images of hands correspond in character to videos depicting the artist in full, including the monumental Contrapposto Studies, i through vii, 2015–16, and Walking a Line, 2019. Like the hands, the body fills the screen; actions remain incremental, tentative but deliberate. In works of this kind, physical limitations are either self-imposed (the position of the arms and exaggerated movement of the hips in Contrapposto Studies, i through vii) or imposed by the trials of age and illness, which left Nauman for a time struggling to walk and keep his balance.
The actions of the hand are always rudimentary—literally so in For Beginners, with its reference to learning. In His Mark, Nauman’s hands trace a large X across the surface of an old table (salvaged from a defunct post office). The X is drawn in a variety of ways (as crossed lines, for example, or as separately drawn vectors meeting at the center). The artist’s movements are slow, with no apparent reason why they must be; the gestures, while halting, possess a certain quality of ritual or ceremony. On display at New York’s Sperone Westwater gallery, the work consists of six projections in three rooms. Shown two by two, they are displayed in arrangements that change from one space to the next: stacked on a single wall, adjacent to one another on two walls that form a corner, and face-to-face from opposite sides. Across the six projections, the image is subjected to multiple shifts—inverted and flopped or reversed as well as shown in both color and black-and-white. The position of the camera continuously changes, arcing slowly over and around Nauman’s hands, its floating vantage making the tabletop appear to rotate within the frame. This effect is heightened by the fact that the footage—shot by Bruce Hamilton using two iPhone cameras and joined to create a single digital file—was made to be viewed in 3D, for which special glasses are required. Nauman has had recourse to 3D technology in several recent works, including Walking a Line and Nature Morte, 2020, in which viewers use iPads to “move” through his studio, viewing objects that were previously recorded with a 3D scanner. (Nauman has had a long, if intermittent, interest in technologies of illusion, having produced two groups of astonishing holograms in 1968 that show him in the act of contorting his face and body.) Despite the impression of added dimensionality, 3D representation is prosthetic. The glasses are a distancing device (as are the glass panes through which one views a hologram), the presumption of heightened “reality” contradicted by the perceptual isolation of the beholder—and the physical isolation of the projected image—from the actual space of the room.
It is often observed that the devices and motifs of Nauman’s new work can be traced back through six decades of practice, even as an emphasis on continuity and coherence is at odds with the work’s varieties of fragmentation—discrete body parts and whole bodies that, thanks to the technology of shooting and showing digital footage, are multiplied, inverted, reversed, and segmented or split apart. The relation to the past practice is clear, but the gravity of Nauman’s recent works draws from factors that set them apart. Most are imposing multichannel installations in which actions that are deliberate and slow are accompanied by an amplified real-time audio track—a monotonous din of scraping and shuffling and an ominous electronic hum. The setting is usually some corner of the artist’s studio. Indeed, Nauman introduced this combination of elements roughly twenty years ago in Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), 2001, a seven-channel night-vision-video installation, although in that case actions—the prowling of a cat, the scurrying of mice, and the flitting of moths, as well as the fleeting performance of tasks by the artist himself—were seldom glimpsed. Then as now, the overarching sensation is deeply unnerving, even eerie, yet somehow matter-of-fact.
Though we speak of the medium of video as time-based, Nauman’s multichannel installations are static objects. The technical and formal means of His Mark are anathema to any real or implied progression from beginning to end: slowness and repetition of action and image (from one projection to the next); reversals and inversions of image, with no projection privileged over the others; the endless loop; and openness of encounter, in which visitors come and go knowing the work was running before they got there and will keep going after they leave. The work’s temporality amounts to a locked concurrence of stasis and change. It’s a haunting paradox—even a haunted one, in that image and means are merged irreducibly, with mortal implications.
According to the artist, the actions in His Mark derive from a specific source: the catalogue for “Reservation X: The Power of Place,” a traveling exhibition that originated at the First People’s Hall of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, in 1998. The book was given to Nauman by his grandson. In it, he found a document relating to a massive surrender of land during the late nineteenth century by bands of Indigenous people of Canada and the northern United States, including the Siksika, or Blackfoot, band. The document in question was signed by Isapo-Muxika, the Siksika’s chief, with an inscribed X. The X appears next to the English spelling of the chief’s name and is identified there as “his mark.” The land surrender was established by Treaty 7, an agreement negotiated by Isapo-Muxika (also known as Crowfoot) between the Canadian government (representing the Queen of England) and several Indigenous groups. The treaty is famously controversial, since it now seems clear that the terms and conditions of the surrender of land were deliberately misleading, with dire consequences for the way of life, and even the long-term survival, of the Blackfoot and others. With historical circumstances in mind, the conceptual significance of a personal signature may seem secondary, but speaking in both real and symbolic terms, it is not.
The convention of the X as a means of signature in cases of illiteracy dates to the Middle Ages, although importantly, with Isapo-Muxika, we are speaking not of illiteracy but of cultural difference, which in the case of signed legal documents conferred a grave disadvantage. Visually, Nauman’s appropriation of the historical source is all but undetectable, but the work’s title places undeniable emphasis there. In His Mark, the repeating formation of the figure of the X can be said to represent an act of both marking and erasure. (Something similar could be said of the surface of the artist’s table, a rutted palimpsest of past business—signing, scribbling, tabulating, crossing out.) The searching, hypnotic choreography of hand gestures enacts the mark but leaves behind no visible trace. Given the implications of personal inscription, this ambiguity is meaningful, corresponding as it does to a conspicuous theme of identity in Nauman’s practice, often expressed through a simultaneity of presence and absence: almost illegible signatures of his name in neon; impressions of his body in soft materials; videos and films of him performing absurdist, almost dehumanizing exercises in the studio; corridor installations fitted with surveillance monitors in which the participant (Nauman or the beholder) can glimpse himself disappearing around a corner—an out-of-body encounter with the self. With Mapping the Studio and subsequent works, Nauman has again become his own primary object of scrutiny, and the role of identity has acquired pronounced weight. Interiority is reduced to primal if undeniably symbolic factors: mobility, balance, and now touch. In this context, the X of His Mark is an ambiguous cipher, available to anyone as a generic sign, yet once inscribed specific to the individual who made it. In this way, it represents a double status—identity born of anonymity. Indeed, this factor is perpetuated by the Sperone Westwater press release, in which Isapo-Muxika goes unnamed, a tacit oversight that proves the point. After all, in the context of persecution, selfhood can possess tragic collective freight, since the nullification of individual identity is always central to historical narratives of state-sponsored oppression. While, needless to say, the primary content of His Mark is not programmatic in this sense, the X as a historically sanctioned mark signifies personal identity writ large.
The hand in Nauman’s work has most recently been associated with learning—exercises, drills, the rudiments of knowledge. His Mark is no exception. But by extension, the recurring motif of the hand also directs our attention to studio practice—to making. The new emphasis on repetition and physical limitation or constraint recalls the early films of Richard Serra, especially Hands Scraping and Hands Tied, both 1968, in which hands perform acts of physical labor. In Serra’s case, these acts (scraping together a pile of wood shavings in one film, untying a cord that binds two hands at the wrists in the other) are at once pointless and urgent. The implication is always mindless frustration. Speaking of the films, Serra referred to his hand as a “device”; the term—tracing back to the work of Jasper Johns—recurs throughout the period, when it was used by artists (including Nauman) to indicate any simple tool directly applied to a malleable medium, a form of artmaking that was understood to put raw process before conventions of composition or craft. The body could serve as either medium or device or both, substituting for the cliché of the artist’s hand, a signifier of authorship as a demonstration of skill. The difference is that while His Mark is also process-based, Nauman’s return to the actions of the hand is a late-career reflection on making in relation to the self. Serra’s films deprive hand and task of their connection to an internal state, the life of the mind. Nauman’s hands are instead a metonym of agency. Marking is a threefold act of signing, drawing, and locating, the tentative designation—against the rotating tabletop, a continually unstable plane—of place.
Jeffrey Weiss is a curator and critic living in Brooklyn, New York.