Bruce Nauman: His Mark at SITE Santa Fe—Nauman’s first-ever solo exhibition in New Mexico—features never-before-shown work by the internationally celebrated artist.
ALBUQUERQUE—The hand in visual culture is something like the moon in poetry: a persistent preoccupation and challenge, notoriously difficult to capture and put on paper. The hand is the artist’s tool of creation, and for that reason, perhaps, is often the focus of representation. There is something enduring about the subject, evidenced in the caves at Sulawesi, Indonesia, and Santa Cruz, Argentina, where some of the first known artistic impulses of human beings are representations of hands dating as far back as 40,000 years ago.
There is something enduring about Bruce Nauman’s hands, too, and how he uses them to explore the past. Nauman, one of the most prominent living artists, has long used his body as an art medium. A centerpiece and the namesake of his newest exhibition—his first solo show in New Mexico even though he’s been a resident since the late 1970s—is His Mark, a 3-D video installation of Nauman’s hands tracing an “X” over a weathered table.
“It’s very intimate, very close,” says Brandee Caoba, who curated the SITE Santa Fe exhibition. “It really speaks to time itself.”
Caoba, a curator at SITE, says that Nauman discovered eight different ways to make the symbol. The piece has its origins in a book Nauman’s grandson gave him that featured a reproduction of Treaty 7, a document that the Canadian government used to annex the lands of the Sisika people, and a document that Siksika Chief Isapo-Muxika signed with an “X.” Underneath is noted “his mark.”
“Each gesture,” Caoba describes of His Mark, “is rooted in this profound sense of loss. No mark is ever actually being made. There’s really poignancy in the work. You can feel it.”
The exhibition also features a never-before-shown piece, Self Portrait at 80, which revisits Nauman’s Walking a Line (2019), though the work really has a genealogy that goes back to the 1960s, Caoba notes, to Walk with Contrapposto. “I really think that was the first seed of this self-portrait,” she says.
In Walk with Contrapposto (1968), Nauman repeatedly strolls down a corridor he built just twenty inches in width, enacting versions of the classical contrapposto—or “counterpoise”—pose, where weight is shifted on one foot and the shoulders twist off-axis with the hips. Walking a Line, however, is a more direct antecedent of the work, because Self Portrait at 80 takes footage of that piece and inverts it. “Everything has been reversed,” Caoba describes. “The color has been removed, the parameters flipped. There’s an interesting playfulness to it.”
Self Portrait at 80 and His Mark are shown alongside two other video works, one a single-channel 3-D piece (Spider), and the other a single-channel video (Practice), to create an experience that begs for total immersion.
“What he is doing in the work—and what he has done for decades,” Caoba says, “is challenge the viewers to get into their bodies as well. That is a dialogue that is often overlooked. But it is an invitation. Bruce uses his body, and you can use yours as well.”
It is a full circle event for an artist who first came to prominence for “using the body as a tool, an object to manipulate,” as he once said in an interview, that he now makes art out of the viewers’ body. We are invited to follow his lead, explore our ability to manipulate the work with our own gestures, and to put our own hands to work.
Caoba describes her way of doing this, where she puts on 3-D glasses, walks to the edge of the projection of His Mark, and presses an eye against the wall to look along the piece. “You suddenly feel like you could fall into the table.”
The exhibition offers viewers an opportunity to step inside, and to be part of a duet as old as the human impulse to create. A duet between the physical object and our most basic tools—our bodies, our hands.