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From "World Peace,"
1996, five-channel
video projection.
At Sperone

From "World Peace."

Untitled, 1996,
white bronze.
Edition of two.
At Castelli.
All photos this
series by Dan

Signing, in
"World Peace."

Untitled, 1996,
white bronze.

From "World Peace."

Untitled, 1996,
white bronze.

"End of the World" with Lloyd Maines, 1996, installation detail.

 Untitled, 1996, 
white bronze.

bruce nauman
at leo castelli and 
sperone westwater

by Donald Kuspit
Bruce Nauman plays a conceptual game, and 

to understand it one must follow his game 

plan--the narrative pattern of the 

exhibition. In the current one, the 

starting place seems to be the front room 

of Sperone Westwater, where, seated on a 

bench, one can watch, on five projectors , 

huge images of four women and one man 

jabbering about world peace in a work 

titled, appropriately, "World Peace." (Is 

this sexism, that is, is Nauman saying that 

women talk more than men, especially about 

unrealistic things?) Listening carefully 

to the loudspeakers, one begins to decipher 

what their overlapping voices are saying: 

"I'll talk, you'll listen to me", "You'll 

talk, I'll listen to you", They'll talk, 

we'll listen to them", and so on, until all 

the possibilities of singular and plural 

are exhausted. And then the whole thing 

repeats. It is a kind of prosaic chamber 

music, with the difference being that the 

"melodic" lines that make up the 

counterpoint are all the same, and the 

rhythm of their relationship more 

dissonant. They converge, but never really 

meet. (At one point a voice says: "If you 

say it once more, I'll kill you. That's so 

perverse." I didn't stay around long enough 

to see to see if all the voices said the 

same thing but I assume they did. After 

all, this is a conceptual piece, so it's all 

in the mind.)

The figures speak somewhat assertively, 

more or less like preachers or teachers 

trying to make a point, which they hammer 

home through redundancy, dogmatizing it in 

the process, which makes it seem simplistic 

and trivial. Their belligerent style 

contradicts their message. Their cacophony 

creates the illusion of difference but 

there is none. Moving to the back room of 

Sperone Westwater one sits alone on a stool 

in the center of five video monitors with 

the same cast of compulsive characters: 

more hectoring, more platitudinizing, more 

instruction, but now one is 

claustrophically confined. Time to leave. 

But there's no escape in Leo Castelli's 

front room. There a potentially infinite 

number of hands touching or holding each 

other in a variety of ways crowd the 

space. Mounted on white minimalist 

pedestals, these bronze sculptures make, in 

sign language, what amount to gestures of 

peace: they make a good connection. I found 

them just as insidious and insistent as the 

Sperone speakers, and went to the Castelli 

back room for relief, but there was none: 

three screens projected giant images of 

hands--sometimes one caught a glimpse of a 

face--peacefully playing rather repetitive, 

monotonous Western Country Music on a 

Mullon electric zither. (Is this Nauman's 

favorite music? Of course, one doesn't have 

to live in New Mexico to hear it, but no 

doubt it sounds more authentic there.) As 

the program ran, one image after another 

would be replaced by a blank field of color 

(red, green or blue), suggesting the 

"abstractness" of the whole performance 

(and those in the other rooms). These were 

the same colors---particularly the 

"complementaries" (get the punning point?)

--that informed the image, which in due 

time returned.

The saccharine project was called "End of 

the World" (with an entropic popular 

musical whimper, not an epic high-culture bang), 

and it seemed to follow from the "World 

Peace Project" in the front room of Sperone 

and the "World Peace Received" in the back 

room. The soothing harmony advocated at 

Castelli contrasts sharply with the competing, 

even conflicting voices--they are clearly at 

odds, however much they say the same thing 

(they are also aggressively pounding us)--

at Sperone Westwater. The figures in the 

two Sperone spectacles and the hands in the 

two Castelli spectacles were clearly talking 

to us--the one with words, the other with 

gestures--just like we talk to each other, 

with the same mix of verbal and nonverbal 

language. Thus the exhibition had a nice 

circular--insular?--dimension and symmetry, 

within itself and in its relationship with 

us. It was beautifully hermetic, in the 

best conceptual tradition: there was no 

"elsewhere," even where there was a 

spectator. S/he was explicitly 

incorporated, both as voyeuristic 

subject and object addressed. S/he 

too, was nothing but language--part 

of the language game.

Nauman's exhibition seems cynically 

didactic, and seems to state the obvious, 

in a not particularly oblique way (one 

catches on so fast): world peace doesn't 

work, human relations won't allow it. 

Society being what it is, world peace is a 

kind of a bad joke (his quasi-Dadaistic 

installation seems to try hard to be one, 

thus mimicking its own meaning). Those who 

profess to work for world peace--who try to 

make it happen, whether by means or actions--

are either hypocrites or fools or self-

deceived, perhaps all three (like the 

Sperone speakers). Nauman's art has long 

ridiculed the obvious, just as Duchamp once 

used the obvious to ridicule art: ridicule 

reduces whatever it touches to rhetoric, 

finally rendering it meaningless. In the 

art world, such facile nihilism passes 

for critical profundity, indeed philosphical 

brilliance, when, in fact it is simply farce -- 

a kind of burlesque of an easy target, 

indeed, a pushover. To state the obvious may 

sometimes be salutary, but it is finally all too 

obvious: the ready-made ends up exactly 

what it seems to be. Traditional art was on 

its last legs when Duchamp knocked it off--a 

half-century of avant-gardism had softened 

up the victim--and world peace is still a 

wobbly toddler, now and then standing up to 

get a glance at the real belligerent world, 

but mostly crawling slowly along to nowhere. To 

target it is a cheap shot, hardly worth the 

ironical trouble.)

Nonetheless, there is a kind of brilliance 

to Nauman's exposé of the fraudulence of 

world peace--his reduction of it to 

mindless language, a hollow phrase--and 

Duchamp's exposé of the fraud called art: 

it's in their technique--the apparatus they 

obviously use to make their point. Without 

their machines--Nauman's high tech projectors 

and video monitors, Duchamp's (relatively) 

low tech bicycle wheel, bottlerack, urinal, 

shovel, rotary disks, camera, etc..--they 

have nothing of special interest to say. 

The machines are everything in their so-

called art, indeed, give it universal 

substance, for modernity is all about 

machines. Nauman and Duchamp trust their 

artistic identity to the machine, indeed 

identify with it--see the world as a kind 

of machine--just as Warhol did.

Nauman's original message is his unoriginal 

machines: they do the debunking as much as

the human performances they record, that 

is, they reduce whatever they deal with--

the verbal and hand language of peace--to 

boring, repetitive, mechanical terms. 

Nauman's people talk like perpetual motion

machines, and his hands are stamped out of 

the same machine mold. The musician playing 

the electric zither moves his hands like an 

inhuman machine. It is the machine-like 

character of Nauman's performers that 

disillusions us about their message of world 

peace and human relationships, not its simple-

mindedness. Its banality is evident, but 

the machine makes it self-evident. Nauman's 

weapon, then, like that of Duchamp's, is 

the boredom born of machine-like 

repetition--programmed movement, 

indifferent to what it is moving: world 

peace and art are equally redundant, boring 

and readily "moved", like any other 

product. Their art follows a machine model, 

immanently as well s physically: it is 

machine-produced, and makes the point that 

everything we do is "informed" by the 

ideology and methodology of the machine.

If ridicule creates instant disillusionment

--whether or not what is ridiculed (peace 

or art) was a silly illusion in the first 

place--then using machines to make one's 

propaganda is disillusioning because it is 

as impersonal as the machine that presents 

it. "Get along" Country Western Music--

pseudo-folk music--is disillusioning not 

only because it is played on a sophisticated

machine, but because it is churned out by the 

musical industry machine: it is ridiculous 

because it claims to be homespun but is 

completely manufactured. Is Nauman's 

exhibition ultimately a critique of the 

peaceloveing popular culture industry, 

which churns out good will and soporific 

treacle? But Nauman's installation, however 

much it seems to be at war with popular 

ideas, is a product of a culture industry. 

If not as popular as the Country Western 

music industry, the high art culture 

demands the same slick look. Indeed, 

Nauman's irony has become as slick as his 


Bruce Nauman, "World Peace," at Sperone 

Westwater, Nov. 2-Dec. 14, 1996, 142 

Greene, New York, NY 10012, and "Fifteen 

Pairs of Hands, White Bronze, and "End of 

the World" with Lloyd Maines" at Leo 

Castelli, Nov. 2-Dec. 14, 1996, 420 West 

Broadway, New York, NY 10012.

DONALD KUSPIT is a professor of art history 

and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. 

White professor at large at Cornell University.