William Kherbek heads to the retrospective at Hauser & Wirth to have his views on neon lighting challenged
I read an article on Bruce Nauman a few years ago in which a younger artist was quoted as saying that every time he came up with an interesting idea, he’d find out that Bruce Nauman had done it first. In the retrospective show, Bruce Nauman/mindfuck at Hauser and Wirth’s Savile Row space, curated by the “independent curator and writer” – nice work if you can find it – Philip Larratt-Smith, it’s Nauman’s foresight in particular that is most illuminating. In most cases, literally. The show brings together a number of works from the 1970s and 1980s, and leans heavily on Nauman’s use of neon lighting.
In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I’ve grown to hate neon as an art material. In one sense, its easy enough to understand its
appeal, to literally translate your (ostensibly) bright idea into a variation on the light bulb has an appealing conceptual parsimony, but frequently these bright ideas reduce to (borderline) witty slogans, and combining art and text always carries with it the risk of other kinds of reductionism. There’s a fair point in the defence of neon that its ubiquitous in urban life and so its very ubiquity is a legitimate subject for artistic exploration. Point taken, but ubiquity and overuse aren’t necessarily the same thing, and neon is now so loaded as a signifier and so familiar – shaped in fragrant scripts into naughty words – from every degree show you might attend that on the scale of overused things in the world, neon lighting rates about two clicks below the toilet at Yarlswood Detention Centre.
With that in mind, one of the truly great things about Larratt-Smith’s show is the simple fact that it reminds you how interesting neon pieces once were capable of being. Take Nauman’s Run from Fear, Fun from Rear, a neon sign that consists of the words of its title. Hard to keep Tracey Emin’s Is anal sex legal? Is legal sex anal? out of your head when seeing it and that works tremendously to Nauman’s credit. The tone is, perhaps, recognisably puerile, but Nauman’s piece is truer in execution to capturing neon’s role in society, conveying titillation and desperation simultaneously, and managing a rather neater reversal: Emin needs a whole sentence to convey what Nauman manages with a phoneme.
Then there’s Good Boy, Bad Boy which displays one hundred neon sentences. The hundred sentences are broken up into groups of four according to subject matter and the colour of the lights. Neon here becomes a means of classification. The wordless Sex and Death/Double ’69’may not be for the delicate of sensibility, but there’s a profundity to seeing the various neon bodies blink on and off. Somehow its like watching a brain scan of someone remembering their former lovers. Credit also to Larratt-Smith for including the so-called Helman Gallery Parallelogram in the show, a construction which you have to squeeze into and which is the only object yet shown in Hauser and Wirth’s massive gallery that has sufficiently redefined the space entirely on its own terms. Who would have thought you could feel claustrophobia in a space so big? Well, the answer, as always, is Bruce Nauman.
Bruce Nauman/mindfuck runs at Hauser and Wirth until 9 March,
23 Savile Row London, W1S 2ET