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The Human Touch 

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Bruce Nauman: Eleven Color Photographs Portfolio, 1966-'67

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through July 7

Bruce Nauman's Self-Portrait as a Fountain shows the artist spouting a stream of water. Drill Team is a photograph of five erect auger bits partially drilled into a block of wood. Feet of Clay is an image of feet covered with clay. Bound to Fail shows a person from behind with arms bound. In these 4 photos of 11 on display as part of the Museum of Contemporary Art's permanent collection, the play between image and word is ludicrously obvious.

Finger Touch With Mirrors and Finger Touch Number 1 are something different. Like the other titles, these describe the image fairly accurately. Like the other photographs, these are high-production-value shots, in this case of fingers touching a mirror and thus touching images of fingers in mirrors. But both also hint at the difficulties, dangers, and pleasures bound up in human touch, whether we touch another person or ourselves. The mirrors both intervene and make touch possible. Insolent, impotent, impossible, imperative? Yes, Nauman implies--touch is all that. To say, as many critics have, that his work is sometimes disorienting in its simplicity is an understatement.

In a 1994 article from Art in America entitled "The Trouble With Nauman," critic and longtime Nauman supporter Peter Schjeldahl describes the quandary he confronts with the prolific Nauman, who works in many media. There is so much of his work. There is so much in it. It seems to say so much. And yet it seems to say only that we have an overabundance of communication without communion. Writers on Nauman frequently refer to Wittgenstein and Beckett as well as to Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Jasper Johns. Existentialism, language games, and the absurd dominate discussions of his art. From his early self-portrait to the later films, videos, sculptures, installations, holograms, and drawings, he thrusts art and language into a battle of wits revealing how poorly language and reason resolve human conundrums. Art and language alike necessarily embody and confound the human subject.

Rarely discussed, however, are these two photographs of fingertips on mirrors, which link language and isolation while suggesting the ethical underpinnings of phenomenology and existentialism. This is not a systematic morality governing actions. Rather it involves accepting the other, in the form of an open and vulnerable hand touching and being touched rather than grasping for knowledge or possession. Being ethical is opening to the difference of the other, even the other within ourselves, prior to understanding the other's intentions and without assimilating that unknown. Giving and exposure are linked. This ethic, though, is not prescriptive.

Finger Touch With Mirrors and Finger Touch Number 1 emphasize a touch that multiplies, as reflections bounce into other reflections in other mirrored surfaces. Repetition is multiplied as well by the viewer's own reflection in the glass covering the photograph, making the spectator part of the work, as happens so often in Nauman's art. There's even a hint of the breakdown of neat boundaries in the flattened fingertips of Nauman's left hand in Self-Portrait as a Fountain: he must have been pressing his fingers against a sheet of glass we can't see, so they seem to press against the glass of the frame.

Discussions of Nauman's ethics most often revolve around later works that address discipline and torture. Videos such as Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer) (1988), Clown Torture: I'm Sorry (1987), and Shit in Your Hat--Head on a Chair (1990) focus on mindless repetition and the mundane violence of socialization in modern human existence. Similarly, the hanging-chair South American sculptures of the early 80s allegorize political prisons and torture. Inspired by Nauman's reading of Argentinean Jacobo Timerman's firsthand account of official torture in Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number (1981), these have been called some of the strongest images of torture in modern art.

But Nauman has produced "ethically urgent" images, as Schjeldahl calls them, in less obvious ways in works like these two photographs, responding on more subtle levels to the ethical imperative and its risks. Like his corridor installations--which squeezed viewers into ever smaller areas and forced them to negotiate for space with one another--these photographs highlight the fundamental difficulty of living among other human beings.


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