The spirit and the damage done: On Bruce Nauman’s 100 Live and Die by Paul Chan

The art of dehumanization.

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Pau Chan1

Bruce Nauman, Fist in Mouth, 1990. Cut-and-pasted printed paper and paper with watercolor and pencil on paper. 20 1/4 × 23 3/4 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchased with funds given by Edward R. Broida. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by John Wronn.

Theory + Practice is a series supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.

“I am that

I am”


into bits,

each one accusing,

“You’ve completely lost it!”

—Rae Armantrout

What I call the spirit of dehumanization manifests wherever a part of living is mistaken as the essence of a life.An earlier version of this text was delivered on January 27, 2019, at MoMA PS1 on the occasion of Bruce Nauman’s retrospective, Disappearing Acts. The author wishes to thank Kathy Halbreich, Magnus Schaefer, and Taylor Walsh for their invitation to speak on Nauman’s work. A life dehumanized begins when select traits or capacities are emblematized and treated as the essence of that life. This “essence” is valued above and beyond the vast array of qualities of which every life consists. It is valued because it is exploitable. And it is exploitable because it is considered valuable.

One way to describe dehumanization is how it is a kind of separating of what does not allow separating without distortion.This characterization is derived from the concept of alienation as described by Bertell Ollman in his magnificent book, Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (Cambridge University Press, 1971). A life measured merely by select traits or capacities becomes distorted to the person living it. What feels coherent and whole is no longer so. The whole is separated into parts to the point that interrelation within the whole cannot be assured, or is lost. One feels—literally—less of oneself.

What is most pernicious about dehumanization is how it works from the outside in, and then out again. For in defending ourselves against these large-scale structural defects, we adopt ways of coping that may ultimately end up dehumanizing us further. We take on the guise of what hurts us most to get the most out of not getting hurt. Identifying with the aggressor is one way to put it. Progress as regression is another.

I consider Bruce Nauman one of the poet laureates of dehumanization. I don’t mean this pejoratively. He’s no monster. He’s not Pennywise the clown. But the questioning nature of how we become dehumanized is so consistent in his work that it seems self-evident, as close to a matter of fact as how these are words.

Nauman did not invent dehumanization. He found it—in his own time and arguably in himself. This is, perhaps, the same as how we find it today, living in the wake of large-scale structural defects that bring such arbitrary and meaningless suffering and pain to those we know, and the many, many others we don’t.

Nauman’s work is riddled with parts of bodies: hands, shoulders, imprints of knees, balls, disembodied voices, heads floating and adrift. They all act as signposts in his unforgiving aesthetic landscape. When an entire body does appear in his work, it tends to be reduced to an outline or essentialized into a repetitive gesture.

Nauman’s celebrated use of emerging technologies over the course of his long career can be understood, I think, as an expression of his abiding interest in making work out of ever more novel forms of dehumanization, if technology can be grasped in general as the extension of our power to define and dominate all aspects of our reality at the price of separating us from ourselves. 

Paul Chan2

Bruce Nauman. Contrapposto Studies, i through vii. 2015/16. Seven-channel video (color, sound, continuous duration). Dimensions variable. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Jointly owned by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired in part through the generosity of Agnes Gund and Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder; and Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, on permanent loan to Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy of the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York.

Nauman’s preferred video shot is the close-up: heads cropped from the rest of the body; torsos isolated in the frame. Even when he employs a medium or wide shot, he cuts the body into pieces. The newest work in his vast and admirable retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 uses the latest commercially available 3-D video technology and consists of a large projection of Nauman walking to and fro in his studio. The projected image is split in half horizontally, and the upper half of the video is out of sync with the bottom half. The effect is a starkly illuminated relief of Nauman’s body cut in two.

Separation. Distortion. Parts fetishized as essences. If it can be agreed that no corner of our shared reality has been untouched by this spirit, then I think it’s possible to imagine that Nauman’s retrospective is a grand and singular account of his trying to come to grips with what is dehumanizing in himself and in the times in which he lived, and continues to live, all on his own terms.

The art in Nauman’s work consists in how he wrings expression out of what he inflicts upon himself. He metastasizes what dehumanizes as a formal principle and lets it grow in the work, to see what is capable of surviving the process.

The poetry, then, is what remains. Oscar Wilde once wrote, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Moments of grace, dignity, and fellow-feeling appear fleetingly in Nauman’s aesthetic landscape. But they are there, like so many blemishes or stains, or aberrations from an ill-conceived mechanical process gone wrong.

The wrongness is what imprints in experience as the most evocative and salient aspect of the work, and I am tempted to think of it as a kind of signature. Doing it wrong is how Nauman truly signs his work. And like any signature, what it authenticates most clearly is Nauman telling us, “I’m still here.”

Paul Chan3

Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts. Installation view. MoMA PS1, New York (October 21, 2018–February 25, 2019, at MoMA and MoMA PS1). © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Martin Seck.

The wrongness is also what makes the work funny—sometimes. The humor that seeps out of Nauman’s art tends to teeter on the brink of turning sour. This was not the case when I first encountered the piece Clown Torture (1987) years ago. I was totally dying, asthmatic with laughter. I hate clowns, so the sheer pleasure may have more to do with seeing something I detest get their just deserts. (Is this the spirit in me?)

Paul Chan4

Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts. Installation view. MoMA PS1, New York (October 21, 2018–February 25, 2019, at MoMA and MoMA PS1). © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Martin Seck.

I think laughter is the most philosophical of our bodily reactions: it is what we do in the face of contradictions. Nauman’s drawing One Hundred Live And Die (1984) is composed of nothing but contradictions, and I find it is a riot to look at.

There are one hundred phrases. One hundred is a base ten number. In other words, it is divisible by the number ten. This is in itself an unremarkable fact. We use base ten, or the decimal number system, in our lives everyday. And the reason why we use base ten, as opposed to, say, base three or base sixteen, is, as Aristotle speculated, because of our bodies: we have ten fingers and ten toes, which made it easier to count in base ten. So it’s worth noting that the motifs Nauman returns to over and again—namely, what happens when we are abstracted and reduced into orders of our own making—is very present here.

In the One Hundred Live And Die drawing, each phrase is composed of three words and anchored at the end with either the words “live” or “die.” The first term repeats in separate phrases, so that, for instance, there is “laugh and live” as well as “laugh and die.” There is also another kind of pairing at work. Some, but not all, of the first terms can be paired thematically, as dichotomies. So there is “love” and “hate,” “shit” and “piss,” “black” and “white,” and so on.  The terms that to my eyes have no corresponding pairs and are singular, or monadic, are, interestingly, the words “fear,” “kill,” “think,” and “pay.”

The drawing is presumably the prototype for the neon work from 1984 with the same title at MoMA that can be seen in the retrospective. One of the major differences between the two works is that in the piece at MoMA the phrases are in four columns, with twenty-five phrases per column. In the drawing there are only two columns with fifty phrases each. I appreciate both works. But when I saw the drawing firsthand, something occurred to me that I probably would not have thought of if One Hundred Live and Die existed solely as a neon work.

It’s more of a hallucination than a thought. The drawing looks to me like a parody of the Ten Commandments. When I saw it the first time, I laughed out loud as an image slowly formed in my mind: Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, carrying these on his shoulders instead of those two supernaturally published stone tablets. I loved imagining how radically different the world would be if that actually happened. I enjoyed recasting Moses not as a bringer of divine laws but as a man brave (or foolish) enough to give us some “real talk” about what to expect while we’re here on this heap we call Earth.

If it is true that nothing is funnier than unhappiness, then I think what triggered the hallucination may be the realization that standing before the work made me profoundly, painfully unhappy.

What Nauman distills here—as perhaps only he can—belongs to an argument or claim with a very long tradition that I recognized. Qoheleth, the mad preacher, better known as Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, makes a similar claim. “All is vanity,” he said. What does he mean? “Then I saw that wisdom excels over folly as light excels over darkness. The wise have eyes in their heads, but the fools walk in darkness. But then I remembered that the same fate befalls us all, wise and foolish alike. And I said to myself, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also.’ Why then have I been so very wise? [my emphasis] And I come to see that the wisdom is also vanity. [The] wise die just like the fools. So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 2:12–17).

Smile and live. Smile and die. Try and live. Try and die. Fail and live. Fail and die. The echo seems to me unmistakable. Smile or not smile. Try or not try. The same fate awaits. Death takes us, just the same.

Is there anything more depressing than the feeling that nothing we do matters in the end? Perhaps only the further thought that if indeed this is the case, and the so-called virtues offer nothing by way of protection for us from that great leveler known as death, doesn’t this enable—perhaps even encourage—the spread of what I have called the spirit of dehumanization? Doesn’t this serve to justify the right of those who want to separate, distort, and exploit others for their own gain, simply because they can, and because in the very end it won’t matter?For an account of how it can matter without recourse to New Age spiritualism, supernaturalisms of any kind (including God or divine or mythical beings that clearly break with the established scientific understanding of our natural world), religious dogma, technological promises to extend life indefinitely through cryogenics, personality transference by way of artificial intelligence and the like, and short-sighted and ultimately unsatisfying forms of Epicureanism, see Surviving Death by Mark Johnston (Princeton University Press, 2010).

But like I said, Nauman didn’t invent it; he found it, and gave it form. A kind of testament to the primitive in us.

The question that comes to mind is whether or not there is any more to us than that.

Paul Chan5

Bruce Nauman, One Hundred Live and Die, 1984. Neon tubing with clear glass tubing on metal monolith. 118 × 132 1/4 × 21 inches. Collection of Benesse Holdings, Inc./Benesse House Museum, Naoshima. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Dorothy Zeidman. Courtesy of the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York. 

Every self-respecting work tries to persuade us that what appears within its composition is all there needs to be. A work is entrancing when it is a world unto itself. Nauman uses the repetitive nature of the typography to conjure that effect. If you don’t linger too long in front of it, One Hundred Live and Die might seem like enough, maybe even a few too many, if you’re not into being reminded of all the things you do or don’t do as you do that living and dying. The myriad color combinations and the hypnotic blinking of each phrase in the neon work add to the sense of a manifold. It is as if all that appears is effectively, necessarily, whole.

But this is only a part of the story. Nauman has separated and essentialized one old plotline in this understanding of how we live and die and has made it as ridiculous and barbaric as it in fact is. What remains is whether we accept what is ridiculous and barbaric as being all there is. Or whether there is enough cunning and fellow-feeling to imagine there is more to praise in us than what is outsized, flashy, aggressive, and unyielding.

It is a curious artistic ambition, to say the least: create works of art with the worst in mind to help us outgrow our madness. They dehumanize in bad faith. They beckon us to see them as semblances of what we are perpetually in danger of becoming. Someone wise once told me that making masterpieces is too low of an ambition for a true artist. I agree. Commonplace qualities that art is typically revered for—like beauty or import—pale in comparison to what Nauman’s best works offer: a chance to move on. 

Paul Chan 1C36h4iWsFpZgTy8WZoh9HyqPMHZ8ZHT5r

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