Bruce Nauman defies the traditional notion that an artist should have one signature style and a visually unified oeuvre. Since the mid-1960s the artist has created an open-ended body of work that includes fiberglass sculptures, abstract body casts, performances, films, neon wall reliefs, interactive environments, videos, and motorized carousels displaying cast-aluminum animal carcasses. If anything links such diverse endeavors, it is Nauman’s insistence that aesthetic experience supersedes the actual object in importance. Perception itself—the viewer’s encounter with his or her body and mind in relation to the art object—can be interpreted as the subject matter of Nauman’s work. Using puns, claustrophobic passageways with surveillance cameras, and videotaped recitations of bad jokes, he has created situations that are physically or intellectually disorienting, forcing viewers to confront their own experiential thresholds.
Nauman adopted neon signage during the 1960s (perhaps in response to Pop art) to illustrate his Duchampian word plays. None Sing Neon Sign (1970) is an anagram that, like Nauman’s other semiotically playful neon pieces—Raw War (1970) and Run from Fear/Fun from Rear (1972), for example—underscores the arbitrary relationship between a word’s definition, what it sounds like, and what it looks like. A circular sign from 1967 of the spiraling neon phrase THE TRUE ARTIST HELPS THE WORLD BY REVEALING MYSTIC TRUTHS suggests, in retrospect and with irony, that these truths may be nothing more than the subtle distinctions between aesthetic illusion, artistic hype, and meaning.
Nauman enforces the contrast between the perceptual and physical experience of space in his sculptures and installations. Looking at the brilliant color emanating from Green Light Corridor (1970) prompts quite a different phenomenological experience than does maneuvering through its narrow confines. Lighted Performance Box (1969) provokes another experiential situation. As a rectangular column, it resembles the quintessential unitary Minimalist sculpture, yet the square of light cast on the ceiling from the lamp encased inside alters one’s reading of the piece: the sense of a hidden, unattainable space, one that can only be experienced vicariously, is evoked. Thus, the performance alluded to in the title is only a private, conceptual act, initiated when viewers attempt to mentally project their own bodies into this implied interior place.